November 6, 2013
Albert Woolson loved the parades. For Memorial Day in Duluth, Minnesota, he rode in the biggest car down the widest streets of his hometown. The city etched his name in the Duluth Honor Roll, and he was celebrated at conventions and banquets across the North. Even the president wrote him letters on his birthday. Because everyone said he was the last surviving member of the Grand Army of
the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans once nearly half a million strong, they erected a life-size statue of him on the most hallowed ground of that entire horrible conflict—Gettysburg.
Though deaf and often ill, he was still spry enough that, even at 109 years of age, he could be polite and mannerly, always a gentleman. He was especially fond of children and enjoyed visiting schools and exciting the boys with stories of cannon and steel and unbelievable courage on the fields around Chattanooga. The boys called him “Grandpa Al.”
But Woolson could be fussy. His breakfast eggs had to be scrambled and his bacon crisp. He continued to smoke; he had probably lit up more than a thousand cigars just since he had hit the century mark. And no one kept him from his half-ounce of brandy before dinner.
His grandfather had served in the War of 1812, and when guns were fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, his father went off to fight for Lincoln. He lost a leg and died. So, as the story goes, young Albert, blue-eyed and blonde-haired, a mere five and a half feet tall, took his father’s place. With just a year left in the war, he enlisted as a drummer boy with the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment, rolling his snare as they marched south to Tennessee.
But that had been long ago, more than 90 years past. Now Albert Woolson’s days were fading, the muffled drum of his youth a softening memory. At St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, his health deteriorating, he would sometimes feel his old self, quoting Civil War verse or the Gettysburg Address. But then on a Saturday in late July, 1956, he slipped into a coma. Just before he drifted off, he asked a nurse’s aide for a dish of lemon sherbet. She gave him some soft candy too. As she shut the door she glanced back at her patient. “I thought he was looking very old,” she recalled. For a week he lay quietly in his hospital bed, awaiting death.
Down in Houston, old Walter Washington Williams had sent Woolson a telegram congratulating him on turning 109. “Happy birthday greetings from Colonel Walter Williams,” the wire said.
Williams was blind, nearly deaf, rail-thin, and confined to a bed in his daughter’s house. He had served as a Confederate forage master for Hood’s Brigade, they said, and now he was bound and determined to be the last on either side still alive when America’s great Civil War Centennial commemoration began in 1961. “I’m going to wait around until the others are gone,” he said, “to see what happens.”
Williams had ridden in a parade too. He was named in presidential proclamations and tributes in the press. Life magazine devoted a three-page spread to the old Rebel, including a photograph of Williams propped up on his pillows, a large Stars and Bars flag hanging on the wall. An American Legion band serenaded at his window, and he tapped his long, spindly fingers in time with “Old Soldiers Never Die.” But Williams was a Southern boy deep in his bones. He would have preferred “Cotton-Eyed Joe” on the radio:
O Lawd, O Lawd,
Come pity my case.
For I’m gettin’ old
An’ wrinkled in de face.
Like Woolson, Williams could be cantankerous. On his last birthday, when he said he was 117, they served him his favorite barbecued pork, though his daughter and a nurse had to feed him. His bed was piled high with cards and telegrams, but he could not read them. He could hardly pick them up. “I’m tired of staying here,” he complained in his son’s ear. The son smiled and told visitors how they had hunted deer together when his father was 101. “He rode a horse until he was 103,” the son said.
Williams’ last public outing was in an Armed Forces Day parade in Houston in May 1959, when he rode in an air-conditioned ambulance. As he passed the reviewing stand, he struggled to raise his arm in salute. Then they took him home and put him back to bed.
Four times he suffered bouts of pneumonia; twice they hung an oxygen tent over his bed. His doctor was doubtful, and his daughter feared the worst. “There’s too many years; too many miles,” she said.
And so the clock ticked down, not just on Albert Woolson and Walter Williams, but for a whole generation, an entire era, the closing of a searing chapter in American history: four years of brutal civil war. Like the old soldiers, memories of the North and South and how they had splintered and then remade America were slowly dying out too. Starting in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Civil War soldiers began passing away in rapid numbers, nearly three a day. The glorious reunions of proud veterans at Gettysburg and the cities of the South were coming to an end; there were too few healthy enough to attend. The Grand Army of the Republic closed its last local chapter. The Rebel yell fell silent. The campfires went dark. Echoing down the years were Gen. Robert E. Lee’s last words: “Strike the tent.”
By the start of the 1950s, about 65 of the blue and gray veterans were left; by 1955, just a half dozen. As their numbers dwindled they became artifacts of a shuttered era, curiosities of an ancient time, sepia-toned figures still inhabiting a modern world from their rocking chairs and oxygen tents. They had gone to war with rifles and sabers and in horse-mounted patrols. They had lived off hardtack and beans. Now they seemed lost in a new American century that had endured two devastating world wars fought with armored tank divisions, deadly mustard gas, and atomic bombs that fell from the sky.
Bruce Catton, long a chronicler of the Civil War, could recall his boyhood in the “pre-automobile age” of rural Michigan and how a group of old Union veterans in white whiskers and blue greatcoats had delighted his young eyes. He remembered one selling summer berries from a pail he hooked over the stub of his forearm, an arm he had lost in the Battle of the Wilderness. A church deacon had fought with the 2nd Ohio Cavalry in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, burning barns and killing livestock. Another had returned to Gettysburg for the 50th anniversary there, and when he arrived back by train and his buggy was late, the 70-year-old simply hoisted his bag and walked the five miles home. “They were grave, dignified, and thoughtful,” Catton would write of his hometown heroes. “For the most part they had never been 50 miles away from the farm or the dusty village streets; yet once, ages ago, they had been everywhere and had seen everything. . . . All that was real had taken place when they were young; everything after that had simply been a process of waiting for death.” Eventually, one by one the old men were carried up a small hilltop to the town cemetery. “As they departed,” Catton wrote, “we began to lose more than we knew we were losing.”
By the close of the 1950s, as the nation was preparing for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, much of the pubic watched transfixed, marking the passing of each of the final veterans, wondering who might be the last, wondering if any would make it to the centennial, curious how anyone could live so long. Could anyone be so old?
That question seemed never more poignant than when a Confederate veteran from Georgia disrupted a Civil War museum and jabbed his cane in sudden bayonet thrusts, threatening the portraits of Yankee soldiers hanging on the wall. “Let me at him!” he yelled at a painting of Union hero Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the scourge of Atlanta. Sadly, the old Rebel appeared a pitiful figure, a misfit, more a caricature of himself than a gallant hero from an epic time.
Because it turns out that many of the men were not so old after all.
Many who claimed to be well over 100 and survivors of that great war were really imposters, some flat-out frauds. In truth they had been mere children and too young to march off to war in the early 1860s. Or they had not even been born. Yet as they grew old, they fabricated stories about past heroic adventures and brazenly applied for Civil War pensions during the long, lean years of the Great Depression. Some backdated their birth dates. Some made up the names of comrades and commanding officers. Some lied to their friends and neighbors and to newspapers and government officials. Over the years, some accepted so many accolades as Civil War veterans that they never could muster the courage or the humility to own up to the truth, even as they lay near death. Many ended up believing their own fabrications. Driven by money, ego, or a craving to belong to something grand and glorious, these men defrauded a nation. They especially dishonored those who had served, those who had been wounded, and above all those who had died. Many of them fooled their own families. One fooled the White House.
The last veteran who said he fought for the Union was Albert Woolson; Walter Williams said he was the last Confederate. One of them indeed was a soldier, but one, according to the best evidence, was a fake. One of them had been living a great big lie.
This is an excerpt from Last of the Blue and Grey by Richard A. Serrano, published by Smithsonian Books. Order your own copy NOW.
August 28, 2013
Early in the afternoon of July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt entered the courtyard of the Old Arsenal Prison in Washington, D.C. Behind her filed three other who had plotted to kill President Abraham Lincoln. A sweltering sun beat down on four freshly dug graves and four pine coffins. Only the day before, Surratt had learned that she would be the first woman to be executed by the United States government.
Veiled and dressed in black, she swooned after a few steps. Two soldiers and two priests helped her to the gallows. The hangman bound her arms and legs. She complained that the ropes chafed. They would not hurt long, he replied.
As the 42-year-old widow listened to her jailer read her death sentence, her younger son, the Confederate spy John Surratt, was hiding at a Catholic priest’s residence in a village northeast of Montreal. The federal government had offered $25,000 for his capture.
Mary and John Surratt were America’s most famous mother-son criminal partnership until Ma Barker’s boys shot up the Midwest some 60 years later. Many denounced her as the temptress who, in President Andrew Johnson’s words, “kept the nest that hatched the egg” of assassination. Others insisted she was the innocent victim of the national hysteria that followed Lincoln’s death. And some despised John as a coward who left his mother to die for his crimes.
Both were guilty of plotting against the president.
She was born Mary Jenkins in the early 1823 and spent most of her life in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a tobacco-growing region east and south of Washington that had a long tradition of slavery. During several years in a Catholic boarding school, she converted to that faith. As a teenager, she married a Prince George’s man named John Surratt, who was ten years her senior.
After failing at farming, the Surratts built a crossroads tavern, then added carriage and blacksmith shops and accumulated a half-dozen slaves. John became the postmaster—an employee of the federal government—and gave his name to Surrattsville. Mary increasingly managed the business as he drank more and more. When he died, in 1862, she became the proprietor in name as well.
As the Civil War raged, she and her family remained proudly loyal to the South. Her older son, Isaac, joined the Confederate Army in Texas. Her younger son, John Jr., only 18, joined the Confederate secret service and succeeded his father as postmaster. Her daughter, Anna, helped with the tavern, which became a key communications link for Confederate spies after John—like other postmasters in Southern Maryland—began inserting northbound messages from Richmond spymasters into the U.S. mail.
Special messages and cash required hand delivery, and John was adept at clandestine work. “I devised various ways to carry the messages,” he recalled after the war, “sometimes in the heel of my boots, sometimes between the planks of the buggy.” He dismissed the federals he evaded as a “stupid set of detectives” with “no idea whatever how to search a man.”
John loved the game. “It was a fascinating life to me,” he said. “It seemed as if I could not do too much nor run too great a risk.” Federal forces detained him in November 1863, for undocumented reasons, but only for a few days. John’s adventures were no secret to his mother, whose tavern served Confederate agents and couriers every day.
In the fall of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, handsome scion of America’s leading theater family, began connecting with Confederate agents in Southern Maryland. Soon he met with John Surratt and confided a daring plan to kidnap Lincoln and exchange the president for Confederate prisoners of war. Perhaps, he implied, Lincoln might even be bartered for an honorable peace between North and South.
At the same time, Mary leased her tavern to a neighbor and opened a boarding house in Washington. She may have had economic reasons for the move, but her new home was well located to aid secret activities. Like her tavern, her boarding house became a way station for Confederate agents.
John Surratt and Booth enlisted six men to help them. Most notable was David Herold, who could help with escape routes; George Atzerodt, who could manage the inevitable crossing of the Potomac River, and Lewis Powell, who went by the name Lewis Paine, was a Confederate Army veteran with a taste for violence. He was taken on to subdue the towering and still-strong president.
Through the first three months of 1865, Mary came to know the conspirators as guests in her home. Her favorite was Booth, who came by most frequently, sometimes just to see her. They made an odd pair—the dashing young actor and the middle-aged landlady, often described as stout, who attended daily Mass—but they shared a fiery commitment to the Southern cause in the face of repeated battlefield defeats.
On March 17, Booth, John Surratt and their men armed themselves and set out to kidnap Lincoln as he traveled to a performance for wounded soldiers at a hospital on the outskirts of Washington. When Lincoln’s schedule changed and put him elsewhere, they retreated to Mary’s house, boiling with frustration.
They gathered for a second try in early April—except this time, Booth dropped any pretense of kidnapping. The goal was to murder the president and at least three other Northern leaders: Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward and General Ulysses Grant.
Booth enacted his part in the plot on the night of April 14, when he shot Lincoln during a performance at Ford’s Theater. He and Herold fled to Southern Maryland, with Booth aching with a broken leg he suffered when he leapt from the president’s box to the Ford’s stage. At Seward’s house in Washington, Paine attacked the secretary of state, his two sons and an army nurse, leaving all four grievously injured before he made his escape. Atzerodt, assigned to kill Johnson, lost his nerve while drinking at the vice president’s hotel and slunk into the night. Grant’s unexpected departure from Washington that afternoon foiled any attempt on his life.
Some two weeks before the assassination, John Surratt had left Washington on a mission to Richmond. From there, he carried Confederate messages to Montreal, moving on to Elmira, New York, where he investigated the prospects for an uprising at a large prison camp. He would always claim that on the evening of April 14, he was far away from Washington.
Within five hours of the attacks on Lincoln and Seward, federal investigators followed a tip to Mary Surratt’s boarding house. Under questioning, she revealed nothing. When agents returned two days later, her vague responses confounded them again—until a bedraggled Lewis Paine stumbled to her door. Both he and she were arrested. They would never know freedom again. Atzerodt was captured on April 20 in northwest Maryland; Herold surrendered on April 26, when Union troops surrounded the barn in Virginia where he and Booth had sought refuge. Booth took a bullet in the neck and died of the wound.
By then the federal authorities had four others behind bars: Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, accused of being part of the kidnapping scheme; a Ford’s stagehand named Edman Spangler, accused of aiding Booth’s flight, and Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated Booth’s broken leg as the assassin made his way through Southern Maryland to Virginia. Barely three weeks after the first arrests, all eight of the conspirators went on trial. Four of them—the more fortunate four—would go to prison.
With a Confederate army still under arms in Texas, the government insisted that a state of war justified trial before a commission of nine Union Army officers. Public attention focused on the four who were accused of taking part in the assassination—most intensely on Mary Surratt, the lone woman among them.
Prosecutors highlighted her close ties to Booth and her actions on April 14. On that day, she met Booth at her boarding house and then rode to Surrattsville, where she told the tavern manager to expect visitors that night and to give them whiskey and rifles that had been hidden for the kidnapping attempt a few weeks before. When she returned home, she met with Booth again a scant hour before the assassination. That night, Booth and Herold rode to Surrattsville and collected the guns and whiskey. By aiding their getaway, the prosecution contended, Mary Surratt showed foreknowledge of the crime.
The nine commissioners found her guilty of abetting, concealing and assisting the conspirators, but differed over her sentence. They recommended to President Johnson that she be executed, but five of the nine urged him to grant clemency because of her sex and age.
With a black veil concealing her face throughout the trial, Mary became a blank screen on which the public could project its attitudes. Was she an innocent woman of piety suffering for her son’s crimes, or was she a scheming, vengeful harpy? Johnson entertained no doubts. He ignored last-minute appeals to spare her life, and sent her to the gallows with Herold, Paine and Atzerodt.
John Surratt stayed in Canada while his mother stood trial. That September he assumed the name of John McCarty, dyed his hair and put on some face makeup (tricks he might have learned from Booth) and boarded a mail ship for Britain. In Liverpool, he hid at another Catholic church, then moved through France to Italy. In early December, he enlisted as John Watson in the Papal Zouaves in Rome. The zouaves’ mission was to resist Giuseppe Garibaldi’s crusade to create an Italian republic.
But in Rome, John Surratt’s luck ran dry. In April 1866, a fellow zouave from Baltimore, who may well have followed him in pursuit of the reward money, told American officials of Surratt’s real identity. American and papal bureaucracies took seven months to work out the diplomacy niceties, but he was finally arrested in early November—when he managed a last escape, this time to Naples, whence he made his way to Egypt under the name Walters.
On November 23, 1866, John stepped off the steamship Tripoli in Alexandria and into the harbor’s quarantine hall. Four days later, American officials arrested him. A U.S. warship carried him to Washington in chains. He arrived on February 18, 1867, still wearing his zouave uniform.
His trial, in the summer of 1867, was as sensational as his mother’s and involved much of the same evidence. But one crucial factor had changed: With the war over, he faced a civil jury, not a military commission. Some jurors hailed from the South or were Southern sympathizers.
The defense could not deny John’s deep involvement with Booth but insisted that he was not in Washington on the day of the assassination. Several tailors from Elmira testified that they saw the defendant in Elmira on April 14, wearing a distinctive jacket. Thirteen prosecution witnesses countered that they saw him in Washington that day, and prosecutors brandished railroad timetables showing John could have traveled from Elmira to Washington to join the plot, then fled to Canada.
Two months of trial produced a hung jury: eight votes for acquittal and four for conviction. When prosecution blunders prevented a retrial, John walked free.
Surefooted in wartime, John struggled in the postwar world. He made a six-month journey to South America. He taught school. He tried public lecturing, boasting of wartime exploits but denying a role in the Lincoln assassination, but gave that up, too. In the 1870s, he joined the Baltimore Steam Packet Company, a Chesapeake Bay shipping line. More than forty years later, he retired as its general freight agent and auditor.
When John Surratt died, at age 72, in April 1916, a new war engulfed the world because an assassin had murdered Austrian Archduke Ferdinand two years before. Fifty-one years after Lincoln’s murder, few noted the passing of the last surviving member of America’s family of conspirators.
Editor’s Note, August 29, 2013: Thank you to commenter Jenn for clarifying that John Surratt was found not guilty of plotting to assassinate Lincoln. We’ve changed the headline to reflect that.
David O. Stewart has written many historical books and articles. His first novel, The Lincoln Deception, about unraveling the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy, was released today and is now available for purchase.
Andrew C.A. Jampoler, The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight from the Gallows, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2008; Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, New York, 2005; Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Lincoln Basic Books, New York, 2008; Edward Steers, Jr., Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln;University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2001; William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall and David Winfred Gaddy, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1988.
August 8, 2013
The USS Indianapolis had delivered the crucial components of first operational atomic bomb to a naval base on the Pacific island of Tinian. On August 6, 1945, the weapon would level Hiroshima. But now, on July 28, the Indianapolis sailed from Guam, without an escort, to meet the battleship USS Idaho in the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines and prepare for an invasion of Japan.
The next day was quiet, with the Indianapolis making about 17 knots through swells of five or six feet in the seemingly endless Pacific. As the sun set over the ship, the sailors played cards and read books; some spoke with the ship’s priest, Father Thomas Conway.
But shortly after midnight, a Japanese torpedo hit the Indianapolis in the starboard bow, blowing almost 65 feet of the ship’s bow out of the water and igniting a tank containing 3,500 gallons of aviation fuel into a pillar of fire shooting several hundred feet into the sky. Then another torpedo from the same submarine hit closer to midship, hitting fuel tanks and powder magazines and setting off a chain reaction of explosions that effectively ripped the Indianapolis in two. Still traveling at 17 knots, the Indianapolis began taking on massive amounts of water; the ship sank in just 12 minutes. Of the 1,196 men aboard, 900 made it into the water alive. Their ordeal—what is considered the worst shark attack in history—was just beginning.
As the sun rose on July 30, the survivors bobbed in the water. Life rafts were scarce. The living searched for the dead floating in the water and appropriated their lifejackets for survivors who had none. Hoping to keep some semblance of order, survivors began forming groups—some small, some over 300—in the open water. Soon enough they would be staving off exposure, thirst—and sharks.
The animals were drawn by the sound of the explosions, the sinking of the ship and the thrashing and blood in the water. Though many species of shark live in the open water, none is considered as aggressive as the oceanic whitetip. Reports from the Indianapolis survivors indicate that the sharks tended to attack live victims close to the surface, leading historians to believe that most of the shark-related causalities came from oceanic whitetips.
The first night, the sharks focused on the floating dead. But the survivors’ struggles in the water only attracted more and more sharks, which could feel their motions through a biological feature known as a lateral line: receptors along their bodies that pick up changes in pressure and movement from hundreds of yards away. As the sharks turned their attentions toward the living, especially the injured and the bleeding, sailors tried to quarantine themselves away from anyone with an open wound, and when someone died, they would push the body away, hoping to sacrifice the corpse in return for a reprieve from a shark’s jaw. Many survivors were paralyzed with fear, unable even to eat or drink from the meager rations they had salvaged from their ship. One group of survivors made the mistake of opening a can of Spam—but before they could taste it, the scent of the meat drew a swarm of sharks around them. They got rid of their meat rations rather than risk a second swarming.
The sharks fed for days, with no sign of rescue for the men. Navy intelligence had intercepted a message from the Japanese submarine that had torpedoed the Indianapolis describing how it had sunk an American battleship along the Indianapolis’ route, but the message was disregarded as a trick to lure American rescue boats into an ambush. In the meantime, the Indianapolis survivors learned that they had the best odds in a group, and ideally in the center of the group. The men on the margins or, worse, alone, were the most susceptible to the sharks.
As the days passed, many survivors succumbed to heat and thirst, or suffered hallucinations that compelled them to drink the seawater around them—a sentence of death by salt poisoning. Those who so slaked their thirst would slip into madness, foaming at the mouth as their tongues and lips swelled. They often became as great a threat to the survivors as the sharks circling below—many dragged their comrades underwater with them as they died.
After 11:00 a.m. on their fourth day in the water, a Navy plane flying overhead spotted the Indianapolis survivors and radioed for help. Within hours, another seaplane, manned by Lieutenant Adrian Marks, returned to the scene and dropped rafts and survival supplies. When Marks saw men being attacked by sharks, he disobeyed orders and landed in the infested waters, and then began taxiing his plane to help the wounded and stragglers, who were at the greatest risk. A little after midnight, the USS Doyle arrived on the scene and helped to pull the last survivors from the water. Of the Indianapolis’ original 1,196-man crew, only 317 remained. Estimates of the number who died from shark attacks range from a few dozen to almost 150. It’s impossible to be sure. But either way, the ordeal of the Indianapolis survivors remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. naval history.
Sources: Richard Bedser. Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever [Documentary]. Discovery Channel: United States, 2007; Cathleen Bester. “Oceanic Whitetip Shark,” On the Florida Museum of Natural History. Accessed August 7, 2013; Nick Collins. “Oceanic whitetip shark: ten facts,” On Telegraph UK, December 6, 2010. Accessed August 6, 2013; Tom Harris. “How Sharks Work,” On How Stuff Works, March 30, 2001. Accessed August 6, 2013; Alex Last. “USS Indianapolis sinking: ‘You could see sharks circling’” on BBC News Magazine, July 28, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2013; Raymond B. Leach. The Tragic Fate of the USS Indianapolis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000; Marc Nobleman. The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Publishers, 2006; “Oral History -The Sinking of USS Indianapolis,” On Naval Historical Center, September 1, 1999. Accessed August 7, 2013; “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis, 1945.” On Eyewitness to History, 2006. Accessed August 6, 2013; Doug Stanton. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. New York, NY: Macmillan, 2003; “The Story.” On the USS Indianapolis CA-35, March 1998. Accessed August 6, 2013; Jennifer Viegas. “Worst Shark Attack,” On Discovery Channel. Accessed August 6, 2013.
July 16, 2013
Chapultepec Castle is not, by Mexican standards, particularly old. Though the 12th-century Toltecs named the 200-foot-high outcrop on which the castle stands the “hill of the grasshopper”—chapoltepec in Nahuatl, probably for the huge numbers of the insects found there—the castle itself wasn’t built until 1775, as a residence for Spain’s viceroy. It was converted to a military academy in 1833, which was the extent of its martial history until September 13, 1847, when two armies faced off there in the climactic battle of the Mexican-American War.
After more than a year and a dozen engagements on land and sea, the U.S. had yet to suffer a defeat. General Zachary Taylor had crossed the Rio Grande with an expeditionary force of a little more than 2,000 men and defeated much larger Mexican armies at Monterrey and Buena Vista. Winfield Scott, America’s most senior general and the hero of the War of 1812, had taken Veracruz with a brilliant amphibious assault and siege, and defeated Mexico’s caudillo and president Antonio López de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo. Then he had taken Puebla, Mexico’s second-largest city, without firing a shot.
There are any number of reasons why the Americans dominated the fighting. They had better artillery in front of them (rockets, siege weapons and highly mobile horse-drawn howitzers that could fire canister—20 or more lead balls packed in sawdust and cased in tin, which turned the American six-pounder cannons into giant shotguns). They also had a stronger government behind them (in 1846 alone, the Mexican presidency changed hands four times). However, the decisive American advantage was not in technology or political stability, but in military professionalism. The United States had West Point.
Though neither Scott nor Taylor nor their division commanders learned the military art at the U.S. Military Academy, virtually every junior officer in the Mexican campaign—more than five hundred of them—had. Under Sylvanus Thayer, who became superintendent in 1817, and his protégé Dennis Hart Mahan, the academy became more than just a fine engineering school. In accord with legislation Congress passed in 1812, the course of studies at West Point required cadets to master all the skills not only of an officer, but of a private and a noncommissioned officer as well.
It made for a revolution in military education. Mahan, an advocate for turning the military into a profession equal to that of physicians or attorneys, had completed a fundamental study of the art of war, which he would publish in 1847. The first American professional military journals—the Army and Navy Chronicle, the Military and Naval Magazine and the Military Magazine—all started publication between 1835 and 1839.
This environment produced the staff and line officers who accompanied Taylor across the Rio Grande and Scott from Veracruz to Chapultepec. One of them, Ulysses S. Grant (USMA Class of 1843), wrote, “A better army, man for man, probably never faced an enemy than the one commanded by General Taylor in the earliest two engagements of the Mexican War.” Scott shared his “fixed opinion that but for our graduated cadets the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably would, have lasted some four or five years with, in its first half, more defeats than victories falling to our share, whereas in two campaigns we conquered a great country and a peace without the loss of a single battle or skirmish.”
The academy graduates proved extraordinary in Mexico (and even more so in their subsequent careers in a far more bloody conflict). When Scott landed at Veracruz, his junior officers included not only Grant, but also Robert E. Lee (USMA 1829; commanding general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862). Captain Lee led his division through the “impassible ravines” to the north of the Mexican position at Cerro Gordo and turned the enemy’s left flank. The path to Mexico City, over the 10,000-foot pass of Río Frío, was mapped by First Lieutenant P.G.T. Beauregard (USMA 1838; general, Army of the Mississippi, 1861) and First Lieutenant George Gordon Meade (USMA 1835; commanding general, Army of the Potomac, 1863). Captain (soon enough Major) Lee found the best route to the relatively undefended southwestern corner of Mexico City, through a huge lava field known as the pedregal that was thought to be impassible; American engineers—accompanied by First Lieutenant George McClellan (USMA 1846; commanding general, U.S. Army, 1861)—improved it into a military road in two days, under regular artillery fire. The Molino del Rey, a mill that Scott mistakenly thought was being converted into a cannon foundry during a cease-fire, was occupied, after some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, by Lieutenant Grant and First Lieutenant Robert Anderson (USMA 1825).
So it’s scarcely surprising that when the final attack on Chapultepec Castle began on that September morning in 1847, one of the columns was led by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Johnston (USMA 1829; commanding general, Army of Tennessee, 1863). Or that, when the Americans were pinned down after they’d fought to the top of the hill, Second Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson (USMA 1846; lieutenant general and corps commander, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862), commanding two six-pounder cannon at the far left of the American line, rushed forward in support. As he did so, a storming party of 250 men reached the base of the castle wall and threw scaling ladders against the 12-foot-high fortification. There, Captain Lewis A. Armistead (USMA, 1838, though he never graduated; brigadier general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863) was wounded; so was the officer carrying the regimental colors of the 8th Infantry, First Lieutenant James Longstreet (USMA 1842; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862), which were then taken by Second Lieutenant George E. Pickett (USMA 1846; major general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862). In an hour, the castle was taken.
And, in less than a day, so was Mexico’s capital. Jackson, who had been under fire for more than 12 hours, chased more than 1,500 Mexicans down the causeway that led into the capital “for about a mile…. It was splendid!” Grant, commanding a platoon-sized detachment, dragged a six-pound howitzer to the top of a church belfry, three hundred yards from the main gate to the city at San Cosmé, and put a withering fire on the Mexican defenses until he ran out of ammunition. A day later, Scott rode into the Grand Plaza of Mexico City at the head of his army. Though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo would not be signed until February of 1848, the battles of the Mexican-American War were over.
Not, however, the battle over the war’s narrative: its rationale, conduct and consequences. Los Niños Heroes—six cadets who from the Chapultepec military academy who refused to retreat from the castle, five of them dying at their posts and the sixth throwing himself from the castle wrapped in the Mexican flag—synthesize the Mexican memory of the war: brave Mexicans sacrificed by poor leadership in a war of aggression by a neighbor who, in one analysis, “offered to us the hand of treachery, to have soon the audacity to say that our obstinacy and arrogance were the real causes of the war.”
The enlargement of the United States of America by some 500,000 square miles, plus Texas, was certainly a valuable objective, but it’s uncertain that achieving it required a war, any more than the 800,000 square miles of the Louisiana Purchase did. Grant himself opined that the Mexican war was “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Even more uncertain is the argument, voiced by Grant, among others, the American Civil War “was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War.” The sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery might have been different without Monterrey, Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec, but no less pointed, and the Civil War no less likely—or less bloody.
However, it would have been conducted very differently, since the men who fought it were so clearly marked by Mexico. It was there they learned the tactics that would dominate from 1861 to 1865. And it was there they learned to think of themselves as masters of the art of war. That, of course, was a bit of a delusion: The Mexican army was no match for them. They would prove, tragically, a match for one another.
What the Mexican War created, more than territory or myth, was men. More than a dozen future Civil War generals stood in front of Chapultepec Castle in 1847—not just the ones already named, but First Lieutenant Simon Bolivar Bruckner (USMA 1844; brigadier general, Army of Central Kentucky, 1862), who fought alongside Grant at Molino del Rey and would surrender Fort Donelson to him in 1862; Second Lieutenant Richard H. Anderson (USMA 1842; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia 1863); Major John Sedgwick (USMA 1837; major general, Army of the Potomac 1863), the highest-ranking Union Army officer killed during the Civil War; Major George B. Crittenden (USMA 1832; major general, Army of Central Kentucky, 1862); Second Lieutenant A.P. Hill (USMA 1846; lieutenant general, Army of Northern Virginia, 1863); and Major John C. Pemberton, (USMA 1837; lieutenant general, Army of Mississippi, 1862), who joined Grant in the steeple of the church at San Cosmé and defended Vicksburg against him 16 years later.
The Duke of Wellington spent his life denying he had ever said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Much more apt to say that the Battle of Chapultepec was won on the parade grounds of West Point, and that the Battles of Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg were won—and lost—in the same place.
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July 8, 2013
Major General William Rosecrans, leader of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, had a problem.
“Old Rosy,” as he’d been nicknamed at West Point, was a handsome Ohio-born history buff and hobbyist inventor with a reputation for getting nearer to combat than any other man of his rank. He had led his troops to a series of victories in the Western theater, and by 1863 he was, after Ulysses S. Grant, the most powerful man in the region. Rosecrans’ men were spending a great deal of time in Nashville, a city that had fallen to the Union in February 1862.
The major general thought Nashville was a good place for his troops to gather strength and sharpen their tactical abilities for the next round of fighting, but he underestimated the lure of the city’s nightlife.
According to the 1860 U.S. Census, Nashville was home to 198 white prostitutes and nine referred to as “mulatto.” The city’s red-light district was a two-block area known as “Smoky Row,” where women engaged in the sex trade entertained farmers and merchants in town on business.
By 1862, though, the number of “public women” in Nashville had increased to nearly 1,500, and they were always busy. Union troops a long way from home handed their meager paychecks over to brothel keepers and street walkers with abandon, and by the spring of 1863, Rosecrans and his staff were in a frenzy over the potential impact of all that cavorting. But Rosencrans, a Catholic, wasn’t worried about mortal sin. He was worried about disease.
Syphilis and gonorrhea, infections spread through sexual contact, were almost as dangerous to Civil War soldiers as combat. At least 8.2 percent of Union troops would be infected with one or the other before war’s end—nearly half the battle-injury rate of 17.5 percent, even without accounting for those who contracted a disease and didn’t know it or didn’t mention it—and the treatments (most involved mercury), when they worked, could sideline a man for weeks.
Union officials in Nashville, certain the city’s ladies of the night were responsible for the sexual plague, hit upon what seemed like the simplest solution: If they couldn’t stop soldiers from visiting local prostitutes, local prostitutes could simply be made non-local.
In the first days of July 1863, Rosecrans issued an order to George Spalding, provost marshal of Nashville, to “without loss of time seize and transport to Louisville all prostitutes found in the city or known to be here.”
The dutiful Spalding, a Scottish immigrant who’d spent the prewar years teaching school in a Michigan town on the shore of Lake Erie, began carrying out the order, and on July 9, the Nashville Daily Press reported, the roundup of the “sinful fair” began, though not without some protest and maneuvering on the part of targeted women:
A variety of ruses were adopted to avoid being exiled; among them, the marriage of one of the most notorious of the cyprians to some scamp. The artful daughter of sin was still compelled to take a berth with her suffering companions, and she is on her way to banishment.
Finding Nashville prostitutes was easy, but how was Spalding to expel them? He hit upon the answer by the second week in July, when he met John Newcomb, owner of a brand-new steamboat recently christened the Idahoe. To Newcomb’s horror, Spalding (backed by Rosecrans and other officials) ordered Newcomb to take the Idahoe on a maiden voyage northward (ideally to Louisville, but Spalding wasn’t particular) with 111 of Nashville’s most infamous sex workers as passengers. Newcomb and his crew of three were given rations enough to last the passengers to Louisville, but otherwise they were on their own. The local press delighted in the story, encouraging readers to “bid goodbye to those frail sisters once and for all.”
For many Civil War-era women, prostitution was an inevitability, especially in the South, where basic necessities became unaffordable on the salaries or pensions of enlisted husbands and fathers. Urban centers had long played host to prostitutes catering to every social class (an estimated 5,000 prostitutes worked in the District of Columbia in 1864, and an estimated three to five percent of New York City women sold sex at one time or another), and an enterprising prostitute working in a major city could earn almost $5 a week, more than three times what she might be able to bring in doing sewing or other household labor. While some prostitutes adopted the sex trade as a lifelong occupation, for many it was interstitial, undertaken when money was tight and observation by friends or family might be evaded.
Little is known about the prostitutes banished from Nashville, though it’s likely they were already known to officials of the law or had been accused of spreading venereal diseases. All 111 women aboard the Idahoe had one thing in common: their race. The women heading for points north were all white. And almost immediately upon their departure, their black counterparts took their places in the city’s brothels and its alleys, much to the chagrin of the Nashville Daily Union:
The sudden expatriation of hundreds of vicious white women will only make room for an equal number of negro strumpets. Unless the aggravated curse of lechery as it exists among the negresses of the town is destroyed by rigid military or civil mandates, or the indiscriminate expulsion of the guilty sex, the ejectment of the white class will turn out to have been productive of the sin it was intended to eradicate…. We dare say no city in the country has been more shamefully abused by the conduct of its unchaste females, white and Negro, than has Nashville for the past fifteen or eighteen months.
It took a week for the Idahoe to reach Louisville, but word of the unusual manifest list had reached that city’s law enforcement. Newcomb was forbidden from docking there and ordered on to Cincinnati instead. Ohio, too, was uneager to accept Nashville’s prostitutes, and the ship was forced to dock across the river in Kentucky—with all inmates required to stay on board, reported the Cincinnati Gazette:
There does not seem to be much desire on the part of our authorities to welcome such a large addition to the already overflowing numbers engaged in their peculiar profession, and the remonstrances were so urgent against their being permitted to land that that boat has taken over to the Kentucky shore; but the authorities of Newport and Covington have no greater desire for their company, and the consequence is that the poor girls are still kept on board the boat. It is said (on what authority we are unable to discover) that the military order issued in Nashville has been revoked in Washington, and that they will all be returned to Nashville again.
A few, according to the Cleveland Morning Leader, which rapturously chronicled the excitement happening across the state, tried to swim ashore, while others were accused of trying to make contact with Confederate forces who might help them escape. The women, according to reports, were in bad shape:
The majority are a homely, forlorn set of degraded creatures. Having been hurried on the boats by a military guard, many are without a change of wardrobe. They managed to smuggle a little liquor on board, which gave out on the second day. Several became intoxicated and indulged in a free fight, which resulted without material damage to any of the party, although knives were freely used.
Desperate to get the remaining 98 women and six children off his ship, Newcomb returned the Idahoe to Louisville, where it was once again turned away, and by early August the Cincinnati Gazette was proven correct—the ship returned to Nashville, leaving Spalding exactly where he’d started, plus with a hefty bill from Newcomb. Demanding compensation for damages to his ship, Newcomb insisted someone from the Army perform an inspection. On August 8, 1863, a staffer reporting to Rosecrans found that the ship’s stateroom had been “badly damaged, the mattresses badly soiled,” and recommended Newcomb be paid $1,000 in damages, plus $4,300 to cover the food and “medicine peculiar to the diseased of women in this class” the Idahoe’s owner had been forced to pay for during the 28-day excursion.
George Spalding was unconcerned with Newcomb’s hardships. His plan to rid the city of cyprians had failed. Resigning himself to the fact that prostitutes would ply their trade and soldiers would engage them, he reasoned that the women might as well sell sex safely, and so out of sheer desperation, Spalding and the Union Army created in Nashville’s the country’s first system of legalized prostitution.
Spalding’s proposal was simple: Each prostitute would register herself, obtaining for $5 a license entitling her to work as she pleased. A doctor approved by the Army would be charged with examining prostitutes each week, a service for which each woman would pay a 50 cent fee. Women found to have venereal diseases would be sent to a hospital established (in the home of the former Catholic bishop) for the treatment of such ailments, paid for in part by the weekly fees. Engaging in prostitution without a license, or failing to appear for scheduled examinations, would result in arrest and a jail term of 30 days.
The prospect of participating in the sex trade without fear of arrest or prosecution was instantly attractive to most of Nashville’s prostitutes, and by early 1864 some 352 women were on record as being licensed, and another hundred had been successfully treated for syphilis and other conditions hazardous to their industry. In the summer of 1864, one doctor at the hospital remarked on a “marked improvement” in the licensed prostitutes’ physical and mental health, noting that at the beginning of the initiative the women had been characterized by use of crude language and little care for personal hygiene, but were soon virtual models of “cleanliness and propriety.”
A New York Times reporter visiting Nashville was equally impressed, noting that the expenses of the program from September 1863 to June totaled just over $6,000, with income from the taxes on “lewd women” reached $5,900. Writing several years after war’s end, the Pacific Medical Journal argued that legalized prostitution not only helped rid Rosecrans’ army of venereal disease, it also had a positive impact on other armies (a similar system of prostitution licensing was enacted in Memphis in 1864):
The result claimed for the experiment was that in Gen. Sherman’s army of 100,000 men or more, but one or two cases were known to exist, while in Rosecrans’ army of 50,000 men, there had been nearly 1500 cases.
Once fearful of the law (particularly the military law, given the treatment they’d received), Nashville prostitutes took to the system with almost as much enthusiasm as those operating it. One doctor wrote that they felt grateful to no longer have to turn to “quacks and charlatans” for expensive and ineffective treatments, and eagerly showed potential customers their licenses to prove that they were disease-free.
Regulated sex commerce in Nashville was short-lived. After the war ended, in 1865, and the city was no longer under the control of the Union army, licenses and hospitals quickly faded from public consciousness. Today, the handful of U.S. counties that allow prostitution, such as Nevada’s Lyon County, rely on a regulatory system remarkably similar to the one implemented in 1863 Nashville.
Rosecrans, after making a tactical error that cost the Union army thousands of lives at the Battle of Chickamauga, was relieved of his command by Grant; he finished the war as commander of the Department of Missouri. After the war he took up politics, eventually representing a California district in Congress in the 1880s. (In the ’90s, Spalding would follow the congressional path, representing a Michigan district.)
One man who had a bit more difficulty moving on from the summer of 1863 was John Newcomb. Nearly two years after the Idahoe made its infamous voyage, he still hadn’t been reimbursed by the government. Out of frustration, he submited his claim directly to Edward Stanton, Secretary of War, after which he was furnished with the money he was owed and certification that the removal of the Nashville prostitutes had been “necessary and for the good of the service.”
Even after collecting nearly $6,000, Newcomb knew the Idahoe would never again cruise the rivers of the Southeastern United States. “I told them it would forever ruin her reputation as a passenger boat”, he told officials during one of his attempts to be compensated. “It was done, so she is now & since known as the floating whore house.”
Books: Butler, Anne, Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery, University of Illinois Press, 1987; Lowry, Thomas, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, Stackpole Press, 1994; Clinton, Catherine, “Public Women and Sexual Politics During the American Civil War, in Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War, Oxford University Press, 2006; Denney, Robert, Civil War Medicine, Sterling, 1995; Massey, Mary, Women in the Civil War, University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
Articles: “A Strange Cargo,” Cleveland Morning Leader, July 21, 1863; “George Spalding,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress; “William Rosecrans,” Civil War Trust; “The Cyprians Again,” Nashville Daily Press, July 7, 1863; “Round Up of Prostitutes,” Nashville Daily Press, July 9, 1863; “News from Cincinnati,” Nashville Daily Union, July 19, 1863; “Black Prostitutes Replace White Prostitutes in Occupied Nashville,” Nashville Daily Press, July 10, 1863; “Some Thoughts about the Army,” New York Times, September 13, 1863; Goldin, Claudia D. and Frank D. Lewis, “The Economic Cost of the American Civil War: Estimates and Implications,” Journal of Economic History, 1975.