Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part II

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


We resume where we left off in October with General Grant having decided to move ahead with Admiral Porter’s daring plan to help achieve Grant’s goal of ultimately landing troops on dry ground on the east bank of the Mississippi south of Vicksburg. Porter’s plan was to slip by fortress Vicksburg “running the batteries” under the cover of darkness. However, before we venture further, one of our members, Brian Kowell, after reading last month’s history brief submitted some additional research to me on the ironclads in Porter’s fleet that I believe readers of this history brief would enjoy.

Please recall from last month that four river ironclads of the “City Class,” also known as the “Cairo Class,” and lastly also known as “Pook’s Turtles” after the name of their designer would make up a substantial portion of the fleet, namely the Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, and Carondolet. The sister ships were identically constructed and armed but were fascinatingly differentiated by multi-colored rings painted on the smokestacks of each ship. Further, although by the time of this engagement various armaments had been modified as to type and caliber, Brian’s research shows that they each still carried 13 guns.

Ed Bearss

For readers who have visited Vicksburg, you know that the Cairo, also one of “Pook’s Turtles,” was sunk in the Yazoo River on December 12, 1862 by Confederates employing an electronically detonated mine. This is widely thought to be the first vessel in naval history to be sunk by such a device. About 100 years later the Cairo was dredged up, under the direction of Edwin C. Bearss, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service. Mr. Bearss spoke at our Roundtable numerous times and for the final time at our Roundtable on December 12, 2018 during my CCWRT presidential year. May Mr. Bearss Rest in Peace. Further, under his direction, the Cairo was refurbished and put on display in Vicksburg. Brian Kowell was able to research the precise armament found at the wreckage of the Cairo in the early 1960’s:

  1. 8-inch Navy gun with carriage, salvaged 9/14/1960, loaded with canister
  2. 30 pounder Naval Parrot rifle, salvaged 10/20/1963, loaded with explosive shell (against regulations)
  3. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 10/20/1963, not loaded, presumably had just been fired
  4. 8-inch Navy gun, salvaged 10/25/1963, loaded with double charge of canister
  5. 42 pounder rifle (originally smoothbore but had been rifled), salvaged 10/27/1963, port bow gun loaded with explosive shell filled with shrapnel
  6. 42 pounder rifle, salvaged 10/27/1963, starboard bow gun loaded with 87-pound explosive shell
  7. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 10/27/1963, no. 1 port gun double loaded with canister, its tube dismounted from torpedo explosion
  8. 42 pounder rifle, salvaged 10/31/1963, no. 1 starboard gun loaded with 87-pound explosive shell
  9. 8-inch Navy gun, salvaged 11/6/1963, no. 3 port gun loaded with grape
  10. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 11/6/1963, no. 3 port gun
  11. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 11/1963, no. 4 port gun loaded with solid shot
  12. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 11/6/1963, no. 4 starboard gun
  13. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 11/6/1963, stern starboard gun

When Mr. Bearss was here in 2018, he mentioned that his first visit to our Roundtable was during the Kennedy Administration’s Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. So at the time of his initial visit, Mr. Bearss was actively working on the Cairo dredging project. How impressed our members must have been at that time to hear all about it!

The mortal remains of the USS Cairo

Having digressed, let’s go back to 1863. Accordingly, four of Cairo’s sister ships and other vessels were assembled in Admiral Porter’s flotilla on the evening of April 16, 1863. They were floating in the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg and configured in a line bow to stern about 150 feet apart. Each captain was to steer slightly leftward to avoid the ship ahead should it become disabled once the fleet proceeded and came under fire.

Ironclad Benton was at the head of the van. She was lashed to the tug Ivy, followed by ironclad Lafayette, which was lashed to General Price. Thence came ironclads Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and Carondolet followed by three army transports and finally the ironclad Tuscumbria. To ensure surprise, the attempt to run the batteries would be made at night sans lighting except what was needed for signaling purposes. That illumination was shielded under hooded lanterns that would not be visible to Confederate cannoneers. The van would move at low speed until sighted to keep engine noise to a minimum; they would essentially depend on the mighty river’s strong current to advance.

Anchors were weighed in at about 10:30 p.m. under a clear, star-filled night. At this very moment, General Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, his officers, and townsfolk were at a dance celebrating recent events that they misinterpreted as a retreat by Grant. How better to describe what happened next during arguably the most pivotal moment of the Civil War than to turn to the eyewitness account of General Grant, himself, from his Memoirs:

“Soon after the start a battery between Vicksburg and Warrenton opened fire across the intervening peninsula, followed by the upper batteries, and then by batteries all along the line. The gunboats ran up close under the bluffs, delivering their fire in return at short distances, probably without much effect. They were under fire for more than two hours and every vessel was struck many times, but with little damage to the gunboats. The transports did not fare so well. The Henry Clay was disabled and deserted by her crew. Soon after a shell burnt in the cotton packed about the boilers, set the vessel on fire and burned her to the water’s edge. The burning mass, however, floated down to Carthage before grounding, as did also one of the barges in tow. The enemy were evidently expecting our fleet, for they were ready to light up the river by means of bonfires on the east side and by firing houses on the point of land opposite the city on the Louisiana side. The sight was magnificent, but terrible. I witnessed it from the deck of a river transport, run out into the middle of the river and as low down as it was prudent to go. My mind was much relieved when I learned that no one on the transports had been killed and but few, if any, wounded. During the running of the batteries men were stationed in the holds of the transports to partially stop with cotton shot-holes that might be made in the hulls. All damage was afterwards soon repaired under the direction Admiral Porter.”

Running the guns of Vicksburg

The Union broadsides, unleashed in response to the South’s plunging fire from positions on the east bank bluffs of the Mississippi, were blindly fired toward the Confederate batteries above to no avail. Conversely, about 530 rounds were fired by the rebel batteries, of which about 70 found targets. Porter later in a private letter indicated that he incurred heavier damage than mentioned in the official reports stating: “as it will not do to let the enemy know how often they hit us, and show how vulnerable we are. Their heavy shot walked right through us as if we were made of putty.” Nevertheless, the venture was a resounding success with all of the ironclads and two of three transports making it successfully past the fortress at the human cost of 14 wounded men. In the meantime, Grant had ordered Sherman to deceive General Pemberton with a feint along the Yazoo River to coerce him into thinking that a major Union attack would be mounted from north of Vicksburg.

Benjamin H. Grierson

Further, Grant ordered cavalry Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher, composer, and abolitionist, whose formative years were spent in Youngstown, Ohio, to depart with three regiments of cavalry to raid central Mississippi. The purpose of the raid was to destroy rebel communications, supplies, and munitions and to generally create havoc. Grierson’s rampage went on for 16 days from April 16 to May 2. His 1,700 troopers of the heretofore often maligned Union cavalry performed a raid that was among the most successful use of cavalry by either side during the entire war. As some termed it, Grierson’s cavalry rode “Roughshod through Dixie” and not only did they destroy all manner of extremely hard to replace southern goods, they also drew thousands of rebel troops away from Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, soldiers that were consequently woefully out of position to counter Grant’s soon to be launched attack on Vicksburg. Also of importance, according to Sergeant Surby, one of Grierson’s ablest and most distinguished scouts, the troopers “played smash with the railroads.” For example, the damage wrought to the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad was so thorough that it was rendered useless for the remainder of the war. In sum, the raid spectacularly augmented Grant’s campaign both materially and strategically.

On April 20, with the fleet below Vicksburg, Grant’s immediate goal was within grasp as he wrote the open-ended order for his command to “obtain a foothold on the east bank of the Mississippi River, from which Vicksburg can be approached by practicable roads.” General McLernand thusly was in motion with three corps marching southward along the west bank of the Mississippi. They were to rendezvous with Porter’s fleet in anticipation of being transported to the east bank in the vicinity of Grand Gulf about 25 miles as the crow flies south of Vicksburg.

Now Grant was orchestrating and bringing heavily to bear on the unwitting Confederate General Pemberton the full might of the combined arms resources of the Union’s infantry, cavalry, and navy in that part of the western theater of war. Truly a man of vitality and confidence, any notion of Catton’s “slouchy little man” from This Hallowed Ground leading up to April 1863 was now cast asunder. One of Grant’s officers at this juncture wrote about Grant, “None who had known him the previous years could recognize him as being the same man…From this time his genius and his energies seemed to burst forth with new life.”

While probably not quite yet the Civil War’s “indispensable man,” we will track Grant’s next steps toward earning that sobriquet in December’s history brief. We will see Union troops endeavor a military crossing of the Mississippi River in enemy territory and watch Grant begin to explore for those “practicable roads”!


Related links:
Grant’s Winter of 1862-3: Three Attempts at Vicksburg (September 2020 history brief)
Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part I (October 2020 history brief)
Grierson’s Raid

Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part I

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


Please recall last month’s history brief where we left off with the end of Grant’s creative winter efforts of 1862-3 to bypass Vicksburg, which sputtered out in a haze of impracticability. From the engineering attempts for a proposed trench to reroute the Mississippi River along the neck of a peninsular bend near the fortress city, itself, and the push for a channel through marshy terrain to ultimately join with the Red River and its tributaries and thence to the Mississippi and finally a military effort to land troops just north of Vicksburg through the Yazoo River environs, all of these endeavors came to naught. But not for lack of effort; Grant recorded in his “Memoirs” that he was proud of the hard work his troops had undertaken, which had at least kept them productive outside the campaigning season. Now Grant huddled with Admiral Porter to devise a daring combined arms effort to achieve his goal of landing his troops on dry ground on the east side of the river below Vicksburg.

Having been born on the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, Ohio and growing up in nearby Georgetown a mere ten miles from the river, Grant had a unique appreciation for the country’s water highways, which were useful for moving all manner of goods and materials in mid-1800s America. As such, U.S. Grant acquired in his youth an intuitive ability to make use later in life of the waterborne and naval assets that the largesse of the northern economy made available for commanders that realized the potential. Accordingly, at his very first substantial battle at Belmont, Grant used river steamers to land and evacuate his troops – and here he famously followed his men as the last person boarding the escape vessels while slip sliding his horse down a muddy bank and scurrying his mount over a narrow wooden plank to complete an improbable last minute escape of his person.

Ulysses Grant’s boyhood home in Georgetown, Ohio

Next, Grant subdued Forts Henry and Donelson and aggressively used the substantial firepower of the powerful river ironclads built at various shipbuilding facilities along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. At Shiloh, the Tennessee River was used as a supply line by Grant, and he exploited the river to military advantage in the adroit shelling of the Confederates by the Union gunboats Tyler and Lexington at a critical stage of the battle late on the first day, blunting what had thus far been a Confederate success and demoralizing the rebel troops’ spirit.

Now Admiral Porter told Grant that he believed that with proper preparation, he could “run the guns” of the Vicksburg fortress at night, minimizing the effect of the Confederate batteries under partial cover of darkness, and take his river fleet with its ironclads and sufficient supplies on the Mississippi past Vicksburg to ultimately meet Union troops that Grant would march down the west bank. At that point, Porter’s vessels could transport the Union troops across the Mississippi River to the coveted dry location below Vicksburg, where Grant could launch an offensive to capture the city over dry approaches. Of course, “running the guns” came with a huge risk, as the fleet could become heavily damaged and lose critical firepower, transport capability, and manpower. Further, once south of Vicksburg, in the event that they needed to do so, the ships would not likely be able to steam back up past Vicksburg, as the strong southerly river current would slow the vessels to such a degree that the Confederate batteries would be expected to obliterate the fleet.

Most often, the fighting vessels employed by Grant and Porter at Vicksburg are only briefly mentioned with little detail. So let’s examine them more closely, as they would be crucial to Grant’s effort – noted below as they were armed at the time of the Vicksburg run and presented corresponding to their positions in the line.

Benton – catamaran “snagboat” converted to an ironclad at James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis Missouri; commissioned February 24, 1862; speed 5 ½ knots; armament: eight nine-inch smoothbores; three 42-pound rifles; three 32-pound rifles; two 100-pound rifles. Benton was lashed to the tug Ivy at the head of the van; Benton was the most powerfully armed ironclad in the line.

USS Benton

Lafayette – former river steamer converted to ironclad ram at James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned February 27, 1863; speed 4 knots; armament: two 24-pound howitzers; two 12-pound howitzers; two 11-inch smoothbores; two nine-inch smoothbores; two 100-pounder rifles. Lashed to the General Price.

USS Lafayette

Louisville – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 16, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: one 8-inch smoothbore; three 9-inch smoothbores; two 42-pound rifles; two 32-pound rifles.

Mound City – built as a River casemate ironclad at Mound City Yard, Mound City, Illinois; commissioned January 16, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: three 8-inch smoothbores; two 42-pound rifles; six 32-pound rifles; one 12-pound rifle; one 30-pound rifle; one 50-pound rifle.

USS Mound City

Pittsburgh – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 25, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: two 8-inch smoothbores; two 9-inch smoothbores; two 32-pound rifles; two 30-pound rifles; one 100-pound rifle.

Carondelet – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 15, 1862; speed 7 knots; armament: four 8-inch smoothbores; three 9-inch smoothbores; one 42-pound rifle; one 32-pound rifle; one 30-pound rifle; one 50-pound rifle.

USS Carondelet

Carondelet was followed by three army transports.

Tuscumbia – built as a River casemate ironclad at Joseph Brown Yard, New Albany, Indiana; commissioned March 12, 1863; speed 10 knots; armament: three 11-inch smoothbores; two 9-inch smoothbores. Tuscumbia was the final ship in the van.

USS Tuscumbia

Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and Carondelet were sister ships of the “City Class,” alternately called the “Cairo Class.” They were a novel design of shallow-draft ships and the vision of Samuel Pook; they became known as “Pook’s Turtles” and by now were veterans of most of the North’s and Grant’s river-related campaigns in the Western Theater. To make all of the vessels in the line less susceptible to the plunging fire of the Confederate batteries on the cliffs above, timber, cotton and additional iron were lashed to their upward decks and surfaces. Sailors would have wet cotton available to stuff holes made by rebel projectiles.

Confident in Admiral Porter’s ability and buoyed by his past combined arms successes, Grant’s patience with other potential endeavors to reduce Vicksburg had left him. So on March 29, 1863 he ordered General McClernand to send his four-division corps on the march along the west side of the mighty river and committed the Union to this daring plan.

In his “Memoirs,” General Sherman indicated his disagreement with running the guns for a variety of reasons and thought it better to go back to Memphis and then proceed down the rail line again in central Tennessee. Bruce Catton in his famous book This Hallowed Ground characterized it in a way that many of Grant’s detractors of the time would have phrased it in a somewhat condescending sentence: “It was perhaps the crucial federal military decision of the war; and it was made by a slouchy little man who never managed to look like a great captain, who had a casual unbuttoned air about him and seemed to be nothing much more than a middle-aged person who used to be a clerk in a small town harness shop – a man who unexpectedly combined dogged determination with a gambler’s daring.”

We will learn how Grant’s daring plan unfolds and whether the “slouchy little man” transforms into the “indispensable man” in next month’s history brief!


Related link:
Grant’s Winter of 1862-3: Three Attempts at Vicksburg (September 2020 history brief)
Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part II (November 2020 history brief)

Grant’s Winter of 1862-3: Three Attempts at Vicksburg

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


Please recall Grant’s campaign in the West to capture Vicksburg where we left off at the CCWRT December 2019 meeting with the “Battle of Chickasaw Bayou.” This was a defeat for General Grant, who commanded a two-pronged attack to vanquish the fortress. The first prong was his own movement through central Mississippi that would hopefully draw Confederate troops from Vicksburg to allow a direct thrust at the fortress. The second prong along the Mississippi River was under his friend and colleague, General Sherman. Grant’s drive was short-lived as his supply lines were disrupted by “that devil” General Nathan Bedford Forrest amongst others. Accordingly, Confederate General Pemberton maintained the majority of his troops in the Vicksburg defenses and decisively repulsed Sherman’s attack through the Chickasaw Bayou.

Soon after, a small Union tactical victory occurred at Arkansas Post which gave no strategic advantage to the North, so Grant pondered how to use the winter months to his advantage. Always an innovator and unafraid to try unconventional means to defeat the South, he contemplated unique methods to bypass Vicksburg altogether. Grant mentions in his “Memoirs” that his goal was to find a way to get his 40,000 or so troops on dry land on the east side of the Mississippi below Vicksburg. Further, he wanted to improve the morale of his men that winter by involving them in gainful pursuits. Therefore, he would endeavor to employ his troops with spades to attempt to reroute the Mississippi River. President Lincoln, being familiar with the mighty Mississippi, supported Grant’s efforts.

The first attempt was made where the river bends near Vicksburg and forms what could be characterized as a peninsula. The idea was to dig a ‘trench’ to reroute the Mississippi River away from the Vicksburg bluffs. Work began on the trench, which was to be dug northwest to southeast across the peninsula with a dam to hold back the water on the most northwestern point. Once the trench was completed, the idea was to open the dam and hopefully the force of flow through the trench would carve out a deeper channel than the Mississippi River itself. Grant’s river transports could then navigate through the newly trenched channel and bypass the fortress. Unfortunately for Grant, on March 8, 1863 the river rose so high from heavy rains that it naturally overwhelmed the dam on the northwest end of the trench, spreading inundation and destroying the soldiers’ camps and equipment. As such, the first attempt thereby failed chaotically.

Map showing the route of the proposed canal to by pass Vicksburg

A second creative engineering attempt was made at roughly the same time, using the sizable Lake Providence about 50 miles northwest of Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi River. The lake was separated by a levee from the river. Grant thought that if the levee was breeched, river water would flow through the opening, forcing a navigable channel through the many swamps, streams, and small tributaries that dominated the terrain. From that vicinity and then to a point about 150 miles below Vicksburg, the flow would join the Red River and its tributaries and on to the Mississippi. It might not be very deep, but substantial enough for shallow-bottom boats to transport men, munitions, and supplies. To make it feasible, another different contingent of Grant’s troops would need to hack, cut, yank, and pull numerous trees and tree stumps from the deeper potential channels and marshes. Over time, much effort and toil were spent, but frustration mounted at the slow pace of progress and led Grant to conclude this second project impractical. However, as noted in Grant’s “Memoirs,” it was at least a fine way to keep the troops from idleness.

David Dixon Porter

A third creative effort, perhaps more warlike in nature than those just noted, was made on the east side of the river about 200 miles north of Vicksburg at Yazoo Pass. This was a swampy area of marsh and streams through which an amphibious assault could perhaps be launched to land troops down in the vicinity of Chickasaw Bluffs where Sherman was recently defeated. In late February of 1863, a mine was set off in an embankment at Yazoo Pass, allowing swollen waters of the Mississippi River into this swampy area. Grant ordered two gunboats and transports with about half a division of soldiers through the breach to head downstream. Shortly thereafter, Confederate troops caught wind of this and began chopping down trees in the path of the Union vessels. The fallen trees needed to be individually removed, wasting time and exhausting the laborers. Further, in this densely wooded area low-hanging branches snapped the vessels’ smokestacks, and submerged tree stumps were a threat to rupture their hulls. Often, the currents were so strong that the ships lurched out of control, and other times shallow sluggish waters loaded with driftwood slowed them to a crawl. Mosquitoes and insects bit mercilessly. Upon reaching the Yazoo River, itself, the Union force found its way blocked by rebel guns positioned on a rare piece of dry ground now named “Fort Pemberton.” This was at a narrow stretch of flow where the superior firepower of the gunboats could not be maneuvered into position. Admiral Porter ordered a retreat.

The Admiral suggested another route through Steele’s Bayou to avoid Fort Pemberton. This was a narrow, winding, wooded, and circuitous route, but hopes were still high for success. Porter used the gunboat bows to ram through trees. This venue featured all manner of wildlife dropping out of low-hanging trees, which then had to be swept from the decks. Thence emerged rebel sharpshooters picking off those exposed sailors. Eventually the Union leadership became aware that this narrow route was being blocked from behind by Confederates felling trees. As this activity was recognized as having the potential to trap and surround the entire fleet, Sherman was ordered to send some of his regiments to subdue these rebels. Sherman’s men then helped haul the vessels backwards until the Yazoo was wide enough once again for the vessels to turn around and head back out under their own propulsion. So much for the last of Grant’s unique winter projects!

Grant had at least kept his troops busy, but there were now rumblings amongst the troops and some of the nastier Northern press as these efforts bore no fruit in getting the Union closer to solving the Vicksburg dilemma. Accusations reemerged that Grant had been drinking again and should be replaced. Some wanted the troops withdrawn to Memphis for a fresh start, but this would be seen as a demoralizing retreat. However, back in Washington Lincoln and General Halleck stood firmly by Grant. In his “Memoirs” Grant wrote, “With all the pressure brought to bear on them, both President Lincoln and General Halleck stood by me to the end of the campaign. I had never met Mr. Lincoln, but his support was constant.”

Next month we will learn more of Grant’s continued persistence in overcoming Vicksburg as the spring campaign season resumes for the Northern and Southern armies!


Related links:
Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part I (October 2020 history brief)
Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part II (November 2020 history brief)

The Underground Railroad in Ohio

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2019-2020, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


Our speaker this evening will be focusing on Colored Troops during the Civil War. As many of you know, he also portrays a personage involved with the Underground Railroad. So, it seemed a natural for this evening’s history brief to focus on the Underground Railroad and especially in Ohio.

The Underground Railroad can trace its beginnings to 1804. A system for runaway slaves to escape the South was begun by General Thomas Boude, who served in the Revolutionary War and purchased a slave named Stephen Smith and brought him to Columbia, Pennsylvania. Stephen was soon followed by his mother, who had escaped to find her son. A few weeks later the slaveowner appeared and demanded the return of her slaves. The Boudes refused, and when the other townsfolk gave their support, it was decided going forward as a town to champion the cause of fugitive slaves.

By 1815, this sentiment had spread to Ohio, and soon methods were being explored to help slaves escape. The term “Underground Railroad” came into usage about 1831. There were many secret “roads” along the Ohio River to rescue slaves. At this time, a slave named Tice Davids eluded his pursuers along the Ohio River near Ripley, Ohio southeast of Cincinnati. Davids dove into the water with his slaveowner following close behind in a rowboat, but Davids disappeared from view. The owner became frustrated and gave up his search, stating that Davids “must have gone off on an underground road.”

The Rankin house in Ripley, Ohio
Owned by ardent abolitionist, John Rankin, the Rankin house was one of the most famous stations on the Underground Railroad and is now a National historic Landmark.

This term caught on. In about 1835, antislavery workers began using this metaphor and started to use railroad terminology for their activities: tracks, trains, agents, stationmasters, conductors and stations. Paths of escape were labeled “tracks.” Helpers were known as “conductors” or “stationmasters.” Groups of runaways were “trains,” and homes for hiding them were “stations” or “depots.”

The Underground Railroad was begun by what we call today a “grass roots” movement. But, when professional slave catchers were sent to recover runaway slaves, the system became an elaborate network of secret contacts between free blacks and white sympathizers to move runaways safely and efficiently to the North and then to Canada. However, it could not become an organized business because of the fact that its activities were technically “illegal.”

Branches of escape existed in every state, but extensive networks blossomed in Ohio due to its central location on the Mason-Dixon Line and its border with two important slave states of Virginia and Kentucky. In part because of this geography, Ohio became one of the most successful Underground Railroad states. The Ohio River was extremely important to runaways, and over half of them used it. There were 23 railroad access locations along the Ohio, five departure points on Lake Erie and about 3,000 miles of track in between. Ohioans were credited with operating one of the most effective systems for aiding runaways and was especially critical to those in and coming through Kentucky.

Map showing routes on the Underground Railroad
The extensive network of Underground Railroad tracks in Ohio can be seen.
Map compiled from The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert.

Ohio’s importance was also borne out by statistics. The total known voluntary railroad workers in the North numbered about 3,200, and roughly 1,500 of those were in Ohio – nearly 50%! Major stations were in Marion, Mansfield and Salem with numerous smaller stations throughout the state.

A monument to the Underground Railroad in Oberlin, Ohio
Oberlin played a prominent role in abolitionism and in the Underground Railroad.
No runaway slave in Oberlin was ever returned to bondage.

At first, most runaways were men, but later many women also escaped. Travel was usually by foot, but when women and children started appearing in greater numbers, escorts and vehicles were provided. Conductors carried the runaways in covered wagons, closed carriages and farm wagons specially equipped with hidden compartments. Some were even put in boxes and shipped as freight by rail or boat. Movement usually took place at night for security. When traveling by foot, fugitives were guided by the North Star or the many northward tributaries of the Ohio River. Stations had to be relatively close to make the journey during a night’s long march.

The Cozad-Bates House in Cleveland, Ohio
The Cozad-Bates House reputedly was a station on the Underground Railroad.

For instance, about 16 abolitionists from Salem, Ohio established their homes as stations. Many used secret rooms, hidden staircases, root cellars, false walls and basements to conceal fugitives. Church members were heavily involved, although because of the illegal nature of the endeavor, the churches themselves were not formally involved. For instance in Salem, the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, Wesleyan Methodists and Presbyterian churches had important members in what was known in Salem as the “Western Anti-Slavery Society” headquartered in Salem. Members provided shelter, clothing, food, medical care and transport for black fugitives.

An antislavery newspaper began in nearby Lisbon in June of 1845 and was soon transferred to Salem in September. It was called the “Anti-Slavery Bugle” with its motto “No Union With Slaveholders.” The final issue came out on May 4, 1861, fittingly 22 days after the start of shelling on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War itself.


Related link:
The Southbound Underground Railroad

The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou: Grant’s First Attempt to Vanquish Vicksburg

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2019-2020, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


The “war was won in the West” – or so they say – and has been our monthly focus of these history briefs paralleling the same months in 1862. And so we come to December of 1862, which is widely known as the start of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.

However, we pick up where we left off in November 1862 in the wake of the “Second Battle of Corinth” which secured that major and important rail junction for the North and for Grant’s thrust toward central Mississippi, his ultimate target being the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg on a 200-foot bluff overlooking a fish hook-like bend in the Mississippi River. To capture it would fulfill the Western Theater’s role in the North’s strategic “Anaconda Plan” essentially cutting the South in two- and coupled with the seaboard blockade – strangling the heart of the Confederacy.

As mentioned last month, Vicksburg was the largest city in Mississippi by the time of the Civil War and a major port for cotton and other goods flowing north and south on the mighty river.

Grant’s initial strategy was somewhat obvious (see top map) and the most direct geographically. He would send his trusted friend General Tecumseh Sherman with several divisions south from Memphis in transports along the Mississippi River, disembark them on the marshy terrain, but very close to Vicksburg in the vicinity of the Yazoo River tributary and pressure Confederate commander Pemberton in Vicksburg, effectively pinning him in position. Meanwhile, Grant himself would lead two divisions south from the vicinity of Corinth (see map) along the Central Mississippi railroad and put Pemberston’s smaller force on the horns of a dilemma. That is: should Pemberton emerge from Vicksburg in the direction of Grant to stop him while leaving only a small garrison to hopefully keep Sherman out – or stay put and defend the fortress which would then submit Pemberton to a siege? This would put the North’s numerical and naval superiority to its optimal employment in December of 1862.

In mid December, Grant indeed headed south with two divisions along the railroad as planned using it as a line of supply; and at about the same time Sherman boarded vessels with his troops, using the Mississippi River and Union naval dominance as his line of supply.

However, on December 20th, while Grant penetrated to Oxford and beyond, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn with a mere 3,500 cavalry circled behind Grant’s advance and raided his second largest supply depot at Holly Springs (see map) destroying much of the food, horse forage and ammunition that Grant relied on to sustain his force. Not to be outdone, that Devil Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry had been ranging widely in north Mississippi and further destroyed rail and telegraph communications in that vicinity. His supply lines disrupted, Grant now begrudgingly withdrew. However, the cut telegraph lines proved critical since when Grant decided to fall back from Oxford, Sherman failed to timely learn of Grant’s retreat.

Thus, Pemberton was now off of the horns of the dilemma and could turn his full attention to Sherman’s impending assault. On December 26th, Sherman’s troops landed at “Johnson’s Plantation” (see lower map) on the banks of the Yazoo River only about a half dozen miles north of Vicksburg. With Grant in retreat, Pemberton adroitly repositioned troops he had previously sent toward Grenada to bolster the Vicksburg garrison. They rapidly occupied prepared positions along the top slopes of a long line of cliffs and ridges known as Chickasaw Bluffs, which dominated the ground that Sherman’s four divisions would have to cross.

Sherman would have to push through a tangle of lakes, swamps and bayous inundated from recent rains and move uphill before he would reach the Confederate lines. The attack began on the morning of the 29th, with Sherman’s numbers only slightly greater than Pemberton’s and violating the three to one maxim for an attacking force to carry a prepared position. The result was a Union slaughter with a loss of about 2,000 killed, wounded or missing. In stark contrast, Confederate losses in killed, wounded or missing were only about 210. Sherman accepted the defeat in his memoirs, but despite the daunting odds, pointed to the cowardice of one of his divisional commanders, George W. Morgan, for the tactical failure, asserting that Morgan did not accompany his troops to the point of advance which he told Sherman he would do. Morgan hotly disputed this, saying that Sherman rashly attacked the strongest position of the Confederate line.

Grant said of the battle in his memoirs: “The waters were high so that the bottoms were generally overflowed, leaving only narrow causeways of dry land between points of debarkation and the high bluffs. These were fortified and defended at all points. The rebel position was impregnable against any force that could be brought against its front.” And he shortly later wrote “the real work of the campaign and siege of Vicksburg now began.”

From the South’s perspective, President Davis’ controversial decision to put Confederate General Pemberton, a northern native from Philadelphia, in charge of Vicksburg now looked smartly done. Further, the North’s cavalry had shown it was still inferior to their Southern counterparts led by the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

That said, U.S. Grant indicated that he learned important lessons from the defeat – such as to seek dry ground from which to stage further assaults on the fortress Vicksburg.


Related links:
This history brief is the third in a series of three.
The first in this series is: “The Civil War Was Won in the West” – or so they say.
The second in this series is: The Second Battle of Corinth and the Start of the Vicksburg Campaign.

Europe’s Artistic Ambassador to the Post-Civil War United States

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011-2012, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


The last painting from life that was made of Robert E. Lee was done in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee lived the final years of his life. But an interesting bit of Civil War trivia is the current location of this painting. The painting is in Washington, D.C., and it hangs in the residence of the Swiss ambassador to the U.S., where it has been since 2005. Prior to then, the painting was in a museum in Bern, Switzerland. This may seem surprising until the identity of the artist is revealed. The person who did this painting is Swiss painter Frank Buchser, and his life history, as well as the history of this painting, is quite interesting.

The portrait of Robert E. Lee that was painted by Frank Buchser
Frank Buchser

Buchser was born on August 15, 1828 in the Solothurn region of Switzerland and died on November 22, 1890 in the same region. In the 62 years that he spent on this earth, Buchser managed to fashion a most energetic life. He has been described as a womanizer and aggressive, but also charming, as evidenced by his ability to ingratiate himself with wealthy and important people everywhere he went. Buchser came to his career almost by accident. At 18 he was apprenticed to a piano builder. However, that career path ended abruptly when Buchser’s master found him in bed with his daughter and attacked Buchser with a wooden mallet. Buchser managed to overpower the enraged father and escaped to Paris where he studied art. He continued his studies in Rome and financed them by working as a member of the papal Swiss Guard. After completing his studies, Buchser traveled through Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and established himself as one of Switzerland’s most renowned artists. He also cemented his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer, as reflected in one of his diary entries in which he ranked “the pleasures of love” for women of different ethnicities.

Shortly after his return to Switzerland in 1866, Buchser was commissioned to do a grandiose painting of the American Civil War to commemorate, in the words of one of the proponents of the project “the victories of the Union.” In 1847 Switzerland endured its own civil war, the Sonderbundskrieg, after a group of seven predominantly Catholic cantons formed an alliance called the Sonderbund (the “separate alliance”), which opposed centralization of the Swiss government. In response, the predominantly Protestant cantons, as well as two Catholic cantons who aligned with them, organized an army to subdue the separatists, by force if necessary. In typical Swiss fashion, two cantons remained neutral (which Kentucky tried unsuccessfully to emulate in the American Civil War). The nearly bloodless Sonderbundskrieg lasted less than four weeks in November 1847 and resulted in the defeat of the separatist alliance. Hence, the Swiss Civil War was similar to the American Civil War in that the separatists were defeated. But the civil wars in these two countries differed greatly in their length (26 days vs. four years) and number of casualties (fewer than 600 vs. more than 600,000). The Swiss government, mindful that Switzerland had recently come through its own civil war, wanted a Swiss artist to go to the U.S. and do a painting of the American Civil War to hang in the Swiss Parliament. Buchser was able to use his growing reputation as a painter, and his charm, to influence the patrons of the project to select him. This was fortuitous for Buchser, because not long after his return to Switzerland in 1866, he was facing jail for his part in a barroom brawl. Armed with a letter of recommendation from the Swiss government, Buchser traveled to the U.S. to complete his task.

The portrait of William T. Sherman that was painted by Frank Buchser

Once there, Buchser did portraits of President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and William Tecumseh Sherman. The Sherman portrait also hangs in the residence of the Swiss ambassador. In this painting Sherman is shown in a heroic pose. In the background is an officer sitting at a table doing some paperwork. The officer has an almost perplexed look on his face as if he wants to say to Sherman, “You look dashing, General, but don’t you have more important things to do than play the conquering hero?” Buchser also did numerous paintings of blacks and their daily lives. In spite of all these paintings, Buchser had not, during his almost three and a half years in America, fulfilled his commission for a painting that commemorated “the victories of the Union.” To do so, Buchser felt he needed a painting of Ulysses Grant. However, Grant rebuffed repeated requests from Buchser as steadfastly as he had rebuffed the Army of Northern Virginia in its attempts to break out of Petersburg. Buchser decided that if he could paint a portrait of Robert E. Lee, this would convince Grant to sit for him.

The portraits of Sherman and Lee in the Swiss ambassador’s residence

In September 1869 Buchser journeyed to the Lee family’s residence in Lexington, Virginia with the goal of painting a portrait of Lee. The self-assured artist, who appeared unannounced on Lee’s doorstep to ask Lee to sit for a portrait, had a very distinctive facial feature which proclaimed to everyone that he was a flamboyant person: a waxed moustache curled at the ends which hung in midair and with a wingspan of six inches. It is hard to imagine the staid Lee acquiescing to the flashy Buchser. But not only did Lee agree to sit for Buchser, he took a liking to his Swiss visitor, who lived as a guest in the Lee residence during the three weeks that the portrait was being painted. Had Lee known of Buchser’s many exploits with women, he might not have invited the artist to live in his house, because two of Lee’s three surviving adult daughters, both of whom were unmarried, lived in the Lee residence. However, Buchser suffused that residence with his effervescent charm, kissing the hands of the Lee ladies and entertaining everyone in the evenings by playing the piano and the guitar and singing songs in all six of the languages that he knew.

Lee rejected Buchser’s initial idea for the portrait. Buchser envisioned painting Lee in his uniform, but Lee refused, telling Buchser, “I am a soldier no longer.” Lee did consent to placing his military accouterments on a table behind him, and Lee approved the final product, if only because the portrait made Lee look younger, thinner, and more robust than he actually was at that time. Buchser did this portrait about a year before Lee’s death, and Lee’s health was in decline. During the weeks that Buchser and Lee interacted, Buchser came to admire the aging man who was no longer a soldier. In his diary Buchser wrote, “What a gentle noble soul, how kind and charming the old white-haired warrior is.” Another diary entry reads, “One cannot see and know the great soldier without loving him.” But Buchser’s most telling diary entry complimented all the military leaders of the American Civil War. “The conviction is growing in me that if the American statesmen of the last fifteen years had been half as intelligent and only half as honest and capable as the soldiers, that is the Generals Grant, Lee, Sherman, etc., then the war would never have been started.”

After Buchser finished his portrait of Lee, he wrote to his Swiss patrons that the portrait of Lee, not one of Grant, should be the painting to fulfill his commission. To buttress his assertion, Buchser wrote to his patrons about Lee that “all agree he is the greater character.” Buchser also wrote that Lee “is furthermore the ideal of American democracy. Therefore, of all my American portraits, the one of Lee is the perfect picture to hang in the democratic Swiss parliament.” Somehow Buchser’s Swiss patrons could not see how a portrait of a defeated Confederate general satisfied Buchser’s commission to honor “the victories of the Union,” and they refused to pay him. But Buchser did obtain much during his stay in America. He was able to travel and paint for five years in the U.S., a country with which he became enthralled. Buchser grew so fond of the U.S. that he Americanized his given name from Franz to Frank and kept it that way even after his return to Switzerland. He never fulfilled his commission, and none of his paintings ever hung in the Swiss Parliament. But Buchser can rightly be called Europe’s artistic ambassador to the post-Civil War United States.

Note: Below are images of some of Frank Buchser’s paintings.

Frank Buchser
Old Virginia
The Song of Mary Blane
Four Black Marble Players
Los Tres Amigos

Rosie the Riveter and the Bloodiest Day in American Military History

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013-2014, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


During World War II many American women worked in factories to produce materiel for the war effort. These women were personified in the image of a female factory worker that came to be known as Rosie the Riveter. Similarly, numerous women worked in munitions factories during the Civil War, in both the North and the South, and represent Civil War era Rosie the Riveters. Some of the North’s Rosie the Riveters suffered a ghastly tragedy in the explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, which was a village at that time, but is now part of the city of Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Arsenal explosion occurred on September 17, 1862, the same day as the battle of Antietam.

A drawing from the July 20, 1861 Harper’s Weekly showing women working in a munitions factory
John Symington

Construction of the Allegheny Arsenal began in 1814. The site, which is on the banks of the Allegheny River northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, was selected by William Barclay Foster, the father of composer Stephen Foster. The location of the arsenal was chosen to make it accessible to easy shipping of its products westward into the expanding U.S., and also because the land on which the arsenal was built was owned by William Barclay Foster, which means that he made a tidy profit from the sale of the land to the U.S. government. Prior to the Civil War, the arsenal had been visited by a number of dignitaries, including President James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette, Charles Dickens, and former President John Quincy Adams. The commander of the arsenal at the outbreak of the Civil War was Colonel John Symington, which was a matter of controversy. For various reasons Symington’s sympathies were not clear. One of his sons fought for the Confederacy, one of his daughters appeared in church one Sunday wearing a Confederate rosette, and, worst of all, shortly after South Carolina seceded, Secretary of War John Floyd, whose Southern sympathies were well known, ordered Symington to ship cannon and small arms to New Orleans, and Symington attempted to comply with this order. However, intense pressure from Union-loyal residents of the area caused the War Department to cancel the shipments. In spite of all this, Symington continued to serve as commander of the arsenal.

A drawing of the Allegheny Arsenal

The Allegheny Arsenal operated extremely well and without incident for the first 17 months of the war. The facility included several buildings, one of which was used to store barrels of gunpowder that were transported by horse-drawn wagon to other buildings as needed. At around 1:00 p.m. on the day of the explosion (or about the time that Ambrose Burnside’s men finally took the bridge over Antietam Creek), Joseph Frick was delivering ten barrels of gunpowder to the ammunition building, in which small arms cartridges and other munitions were made. The roadway that Frick used was a newly constructed one made of stone. After Frick delivered the gunpowder onto one of the building’s porches, Robert Smith, who was assisting Frick, asked him to carry away some empty wooden boxes. According to witnesses, while Frick was maneuvering the wagon toward the porch, there was a spark from either a horseshoe of the wagon’s horse or the iron rim of a wagon wheel. The spark was caused by the extreme dryness of that summer combined with the use of stone for the roadway. The results were catastrophic.

The spark ignited loose gunpowder that was lying on the roadway, and three separate explosions over the course of several minutes destroyed the ammunition building. Frick was thrown 200 yards from his wagon, Smith was blown to bits, and the remains of the building became an inferno. After the first explosion, Alexander McBride, the civilian foreman of the ammunition building, jumped out his office window and watched as the roof of the building collapsed onto rooms that included the one in which his 13-year-old daughter, Kate, was working. Mary Jane Black, who worked in the ammunition building, was on her way there after receiving her pay when she heard screaming. She turned toward the screams and saw “two girls behind me. They were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them. I pulled the clothes off one of them. While I was doing this, the other ran up and begged me to cover her. I did not succeed in saving either one.” Joseph Bollman, one of the men who worked at the facility, ran out of the building with a young girl in his arms. After laying her safely outside, he rushed back into the building to find his daughter, Mary, but he never returned and both of them perished.

After the fire was extinguished, bodies, many unrecognizable, were pulled from the debris and laid on wooden planks on the ground. According to a gruesome account in one newspaper, “In some places bodies lay in heaps, and burnt as rapidly as pine wood. In other places nothing could be seen but the whitened and consuming bones, the intensity of the heat having consumed every particle of flesh. The steel bands remaining from the hoop skirts of the unfortunate girls marked the place where many of them had perished.” In all 78 people died, 70 of them women and girls. Many of the unidentified dead were buried in a mass grave in Allegheny Cemetery. About a thousand local residents sent a request to Congress that funds be appropriated for the victims and their families. The request was denied.

Marker indicating the location of the Allegheny Arsenal

A civilian coroner’s inquiry into the explosion laid blame primarily on foreman Alexander McBride and arsenal commander John Symington for failure to enforce proper safety procedures. Symington disputed the ruling and felt that it was biased because of rumors that he was a Confederate sympathizer. He requested a military court of inquiry, which concluded that the cause of the explosion could not be ascertained. The military court of inquiry also ruled that Colonel Symington had followed all precautions correctly, but he was relieved of command less than a month later. During his testimony before both of the inquiries, Alexander McBride, who had been trained as a cooper, testified that the company which supplied the gunpowder, namely the E.I. DuPont Company, insisted on reusing the barrels and that this practice caused the lids to fit too loosely after prolonged use of the barrels. This resulted in leaks of gunpowder during transport of the barrels, and witnesses testified that the stone roadway was covered with gunpowder. McBride also stated that he had made this concern known to the company. He further asserted that he was so worried about sparks like the one that reportedly triggered the explosion that he had the stone roadway covered with wood chips and sawdust to prevent sparks, but that Symington ordered that the wood chips and sawdust be removed. Symington claimed that there was gunpowder on the roadway because workers routinely swept spilled gunpowder out of the building rather than removing it properly. The Dupont Company was never investigated, and some have surmised that this is because DuPont was the primary supplier of gunpowder to the U.S. War Department. It will never be known with certainty whether leaky barrel lids or poor adherence to safety procedures was the reason for the gunpowder on the stone roadway.

Monument to the victims of the Allegheny Arsenal explosion
The monument is in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Whatever the reason for the explosion, 78 people lost their lives, including 70 of the Union’s Rosie the Riveters. Their spirit was captured in a comment made by a visitor to a munitions factory in Indianapolis, who observed, “It is a beautiful and patriotic sight to see the young and tender happy in the bloody work. They laugh and chat gaily as they roll up the balls and fix the fatal charge intended to let daylight through some man’s heart.” Those who perished in the Allegheny Arsenal explosion are more names that were added to the bloodiest day in American military history alongside those who died in the battle of Antietam. On the monument at the mass grave in Allegheny Cemetery is an inscription that reads in part, “Tread softly, this is consecrated dust, forty-five pure patriotic victims lie here. A sacrifice to freedom and civil liberty, a horrid memento of a most wicked rebellion.”


Note: The Confederacy also suffered a tragic explosion at a munitions factory in which many women lost their lives. This was the explosion at the Brown’s Island Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia, which occurred on March 13, 1863, almost six months after the Allegheny Arsenal explosion. The Brown’s Island Laboratory explosion is the topic of the history brief of March 2014, which is titled The Day Rosie the Riveter Died.

The Decisive Battle of the Civil War: An Unlikely Nomination

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


One of the topics that Civil War enthusiasts enjoy debating is the question of which Civil War battle was the decisive one. As a way of delving again into the thorny subject of the Civil War’s decisive battle, a nomination for this distinction is made herein. It is likely that no one will agree with this choice for the Civil War’s decisive battle, but if nothing else, the selection of this battle as the decisive one can be taken as an example of how a seemingly distant and unrelated occurrence can have a profound effect on subsequent events. The two Civil War battles that are most often mentioned as the war’s decisive battle are Gettysburg and Vicksburg. However, to give consideration to the nomination proposed herein, then it is necessary to accept that the decisive battle of the Civil War did not occur in 1863 in Pennsylvania or Mississippi or, for that matter, anywhere else during 1863. The decisive battle of the Civil War also did not take place in 1864 or 1865. Nor did it occur in 1861 or 1862, and it did not happen in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, or Tennessee. The decisive battle of the Civil War happened in 1847, and it took place in Mexico. The decisive battle of the Civil War was the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican-American War.

The battle of Buena Vista took place in February 1847. A U.S. army under the command of future president Zachary Taylor was advancing south in Mexico. Taylor received word from a scout that a much larger Mexican army under Antonio López de Santa Anna was moving to oppose him. Taylor positioned his army in a mountain pass to give his smaller force the benefit of terrain. Part of Taylor’s army was positioned on high ground on the left. Santa Anna’s battle plan was to try to move against and around this left flank, and he sent elements of his army to do so. In spite of the advantage of the high ground, the Mexicans were driving the Americans back, and the left flank of Taylor’s army was on the brink of collapse. At this point Taylor sent forward a Mississippi regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, which was under the command of Taylor’s son-in-law, Colonel Jefferson Davis. Davis’ regiment managed to hold off the Mexicans, but the battle was far from over. A renewed and fierce Mexican attack led to the American lines once more being on the verge of crumbling. To drive off the enemy force Taylor sent in an artillery unit under the command of Captain Braxton Bragg with explicit orders from Taylor to “maintain the position at every hazard.” What is remarkable about Bragg’s artillery unit rushing forward is that it was done with no infantry support. Only 50 yards from the enemy, Bragg’s unit unlimbered and drove canister into the advancing Mexicans, which brought the attack to an end.

Zachary Taylor

Several anecdotes from the battle of Buena Vista are noteworthy. For example, Zachary Taylor was reputed to be astride his horse near the front when someone shouted to him that a cannonball was heading toward him. Supposedly Taylor timed the flight of the cannonball and lifted himself off his saddle to allow the projectile to pass under him and above his horse. While it is true that Taylor remained near the front in harm’s way, it is almost certain that that incident is apocryphal. Also apocryphal is the purported admonition that Taylor made to Bragg to give the Mexicans “a little more grape, Captain Bragg.” Since Bragg’s guns were firing canister, not grapeshot, this exhortation is almost certainly inaccurate, but it was used in various forms as a slogan during Taylor’s successful 1848 campaign for the U.S. presidency. One anecdote from the battle of Buena Vista that is true, and is also relevant to the Civil War, is that Jefferson Davis witnessed Braxton Bragg’s bold and unsupported movement against the Mexican attack, and this incident colored Davis’ opinion of Bragg to the eventual detriment of the Confederate cause.

A painting depicting Zachary Taylor exhorting Braxton Bragg to use “a little more grape”

During the Civil War, when it became clear that Braxton Bragg was wholly incompetent as an army commander, Confederate President Jefferson Davis continued to leave Bragg in command of the Army of Tennessee while that army lost more and more southern territory in the western theater. It was not until the disaster at Missionary Ridge demonstrated convincingly that the men in the Army of Tennessee had lost all respect for Bragg and all willingness to follow his orders that Davis finally made the decision to remove Bragg from command. But by then Bragg’s incompetence had solidified the outcome in the western theater. A number of Civil War historians, such as Richard McMurry, have argued compellingly that the Civil War was decided not in the East, but in the West, and Jefferson Davis’ reluctance to remove Bragg was instrumental in allowing Bragg to sow disaster for the Confederacy in the western theater, which ultimately led to overall Confederate defeat. Davis’ sustaining of Bragg in the face of evidence that such support was not warranted had its genesis in 1847 at the battle of Buena Vista.

There is a short story titled “A Sound of Thunder” by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. The premise of the story is that a futuristic and beneficent society has developed the capacity for time travel, and this is used for tourism. One type of trip is to go back in time on a safari for the thrill of killing a dinosaur. The company that operates the service is careful to select only those dinosaurs that were about to die from some other cause in order not to disrupt the future by altering the past. A participant on one safari panics at the sight of the Tyrannosaurus rex that is the target of the group, and this person jumps off of the time travel platform on which everyone is supposed to remain in order to prevent potentially disastrous contact between the people from the future and the world of the past. After this person jumps off of the platform, he steps on and kills a butterfly. When the safari group returns to its own time, the beneficent, enlightened society from which they departed has been replaced by one that is despotic and oppressive. The lesson of this short story is that a seemingly miniscule occurrence can have substantial consequences when the effects of that occurrence become amplified through the course of time.

And so it was with the battle of Buena Vista. Jefferson Davis was so struck by the bravery and daring of Braxton Bragg that Davis continued to have faith in Bragg during the Civil War, even after all the evidence indicated that Bragg was woefully ineffective as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Davis’ misplaced faith in Bragg thus played a major role in determining the outcome in the western theater and thereby in the Civil War itself. This misplaced faith grew out of Davis’ observations of Bragg at the battle of Buena Vista, and the effects of those observations and of the opinion that arose from them rippled through time and played a decisive role in the Confederacy’s defeat.

Repositioning History’s Demarcations

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


In the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, a projectile from a cannon that may or may not have been fired by Edmund Ruffin flew toward Fort Sumter and became the first shot of the Civil War. The Fort Sumter garrison, which consisted of fewer than 100 men, was commanded by Major Robert Anderson and included among its officers Abner Doubleday, the mythical inventor of baseball. After the garrison endured a bombardment of over 30 hours, Anderson agreed to surrender the fort. On April 14 the Fort Sumter garrison evacuated the fort, but not until after the troops fired a salute. During this salute, a cannon misfired and killed Daniel Hough, which gave him the unfortunate distinction of being the first person to die in the Civil War.

For the most part, this very brief account of the battle of Fort Sumter is factual. There is some dispute about whether or not Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot of the Civil War, but there is no dispute that the first shot occurred on April 12, 1861, and there is no dispute that the first person to die in the Civil War was Daniel Hough. Or is there? There are some who claim that the first shot of the Civil War was fired more than three months before shots were fired on Fort Sumter, that this first shot was fired by George Edward Haynsworth, and that the first person to die in the war was Robert L. Holmes.

The alternative account regarding the first shot and the first death of the Civil War begins in late December of 1860 when plans were being made by the U.S. to reinforce and resupply the Fort Sumter garrison. The original plan was for the warship USS Brooklyn to sail to Charleston with troops and supplies. (On a side note, at the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, it was the Brooklyn that slowed down and caused David Farragut to utter his famous “Damn the torpedoes” quote.) President James Buchanan and his advisors decided that sending a military ship would be provocative, and the War Department instead chartered the side-wheel merchant steamer Star of the West to transport about 200 troops and also small arms, ammunition, and provisions. It was thought that a merchant ship would arouse less suspicion, and the troops on board were to remain below deck once the vessel entered Charleston harbor. Moreover, the Star of the West regularly transported passengers and mail from New York City to points south, including New Orleans and Havana, and it was thought that this would further aid in concealing the true intent of the voyage.

The Star of the West
George Haynsworth

On January 5, 1861, the Star of the West left New York City on its presumed covert mission. However, word of the mission had been conveyed to South Carolina officials by members of Congress who were from southern states, such as fire-eater Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas. By the time the Star of the West reached Charleston on January 9, South Carolina forces were on alert. These forces included cadets from The Citadel military college, who manned guns on Morris Island and in Fort Moultrie. Early on the morning of January 9, Citadel cadet William Simkins, who was on duty as a sentinel on Morris Island, saw the Star of the West enter Charleston harbor. He alerted his comrades, who quickly went to their guns. As the Federal vessel continued to steam toward Fort Sumter, the commander of the cadets, Citadel superintendent Major P.F. Stevens, ordered a shot to be fired across the bow of the oncoming ship. This shot was fired by Citadel cadet George Edward Haynsworth.

The Star of the West continued toward Fort Sumter. More shots were fired from Morris Island, and still more from Fort Moultrie. These shots flew close by the Star of the West, and a few even struck the ship. Although the damage to the merchant ship was slight, she was unarmed and, hence, unable to defend herself. When Captain John McGowan of the Star of the West saw ships approaching from Charleston, he gave the order for his ship to reverse course, and the vessel steamed out of Charleston harbor as the batteries on shore continued to fire until the ship moved out of range. The cannon fire that drove off the Star of the West began with the shot fired by George Haynsworth, which was the first hostile shot fired between a seceded state and the United States, and which preceded the shots on Fort Sumter by more than three months. Haynsworth went on to graduate from The Citadel and serve throughout the entire Civil War. After the war he became a lawyer and then a magistrate. While Haynsworth was serving as a magistrate, two feuding groups of men were brought before him by a sheriff who neglected to disarm the men. At one point these men began shooting at each other in Haynsworth’s office, and Haynsworth was mortally wounded, which brought to a premature end the life of the man who fired the first hostile shot in the armed conflict between secessionists and Unionists.

A drawing from the January 26, 1861 Harper’s Weekly depicting Citadel cadets firing on the Star of the West

The action in Charleston harbor was not to be the last that the Star of the West experienced. For the next few months she was chartered by the War Department as a troop transport. On April 18, 1861, the Star of the West was anchored off the coast of Texas to evacuate Federal troops from that state, but the ship was captured by Texas troops commanded by Earl Van Dorn. The vessel was taken to New Orleans for use as a hospital ship, and after David Farragut captured New Orleans, the Star of the West was moved to Vicksburg. When Union ironclads attempted to come at Vicksburg from the rear via the Tallahatchie River, the Star of the West was sunk broadside in the river to block transit. (As an aside, the Tallahatchie is the river that is mentioned in the song “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry.) After the war, the owners of the Star of the West were paid $175,000 by the U.S. government for their loss. Although the ship was sunk, the Star of the West still exists today. Each year The Citadel presents an award to the winner of its competition for best drilled cadet, and that award is named the Star of the West Medal. The medal was made by Confederate veteran Benjamin Teague and contains a piece of wood from the ship.

There were no casualties as a result of the firing on the Star of the West on January 9, 1861, but there was a casualty that resulted from the Star of the West’s voyage to Charleston. Prior to the ship’s arrival, tensions were very high among the troops who were awaiting the ship that they had been told was on the way to resupply Fort Sumter. On the night of January 7, 1861, two days before the arrival of the Star of the West, a nervous sentinel in Castle Pinckney, a military fortification in Charleston harbor, heard an unidentified man approaching. He raised his musket and called out to the man, but the musket fired accidentally, according to one account because the sentinel dropped the musket. The approaching man was shot in the chest and died in less than half an hour. He was identified as Robert L. Holmes of the Carolina Light Infantry. Holmes had five brothers, and four of them followed him in death during the Civil War. No one disputes that these four brothers died in the Civil War, and there are some who say that the same is true for Robert Holmes, whose death from a shooting accident preceded Daniel Hough’s death from a shooting accident by more than three months.

Sometimes demarcations in history that seem beyond dispute are more murky than they appear. Depending on where these historical demarcations are drawn, something is or is not included in a particular historical event. Maybe the first shot of the Civil War occurred on April 12, 1861, or maybe it happened on January 9, 1861. Maybe this first shot was fired by Edmund Ruffin, or maybe George Haynsworth fired the first shot of the war. Maybe the first person to die in the Civil War was Daniel Hough, or maybe it was Robert Holmes. Where demarcations are drawn in history does not change the historical facts. What changes is how the facts are categorized.

Marching Home to the Beat of a Purloined Melody

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2018-2019, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


On August 31, 1976 a district court in New York City ruled that former Beatle George Harrison was guilty of copyright infringement. Harrison was ordered by the court to pay nearly $1.6 million to the publisher of the song that Harrison had plagiarized, although that amount was subsequently amended to $587,000. The lawsuit involved Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” which rose to number one in the U.S. and in so doing made Harrison the first of the former Beatles to have a number one song as a solo artist. The song that Harrison plagiarized is “He’s So Fine,” which was released by the singing group The Chiffons in December 1962 and became a number one song in 1963. Although the presiding judge in the trial, Richard Owen, acknowledged that he believed that Harrison had not deliberately plagiarized “He’s So Fine,” the judge nevertheless asserted that what Harrison did was “under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.” U.S. copyright laws were certainly different at the time of George Harrison’s trial compared to the mid-19th century, but a judicial fate like that of George Harrison’s could have befallen the person who composed one of the most popular and uplifting songs of the Civil War.

Patrick Gilmore

The person in question is Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, and at his peak Gilmore was as renowned and accomplished as George Harrison. Patrick Gilmore was born in County Galway, Ireland on Christmas day of 1829. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1849 and settled in Boston. Prior to his arrival in the U.S., Gilmore learned to play the cornet under the tutelage of a retired bandleader named Patrick Keating. At the time that Gilmore took up residence in his new country, he was already a very talented cornetist, and in 1852 he rose to become the leader of the Charlestown, Massachusetts Town Band. Within a year he became, first, the director of the Suffolk Brass Band and then the Boston Brigade Band. Soon thereafter Gilmore left the Boston Brigade Band to become director of the Salem Brigade Band, and it was under Gilmore’s leadership that this band played for the inauguration of James Buchanan. However, the members of the Boston Brigade Band had developed strong feelings of animosity toward Gilmore and his new band after Gilmore deserted his previous band to take his new position. As a result, the members of the Boston Brigade Band concocted a plan for an attack on the Salem Brigade Band at the train station when it returned from Buchanan’s inauguration. The planned attack involved destroying the instruments of the Salem band members and also injuring their lips to prevent them from playing. But the Salem band, which had no knowledge of the planned attack, took an earlier train to Boston than they had been scheduled to take and thereby avoided the harm that the Boston Brigade Band had prepared to inflict on them.

Although the Boston band’s vindictive attack never took place, the Salem Brigade Band somehow learned of the planned attack by their Boston rivals. Because of this, the Salem band was fearful of a repeat attempt by the Boston band. On the Salem band’s next trip, Gilmore arranged to have a sizable number of Salem ruffians accompany the band for protection. When the Salem band exited the train, ruffians who had been enlisted by the Boston band set upon them at the train station. But the Salem goons did what they had been brought along to do, and the Boston ruffians were on the receiving end of the iniquity that they had intended to deliver to the members of the Salem band.

During the year after the performance at Buchanan’s inauguration, Patrick Gilmore married Ellen O’Neill. The following year, 1859, Gilmore was lured back to be the leader of the Boston Brigade Band. In spite of the animosity that the band had previously felt toward Gilmore, the band recognized that Gilmore was an exceptional director who could elevate both the band’s prowess and its reputation. In addition to monetary inducement, Gilmore was lured back by a change in the band’s name to Patrick Gilmore’s Band. At this time in his life, Gilmore was highly regarded as a director of concert bands, and over the next 30 years Gilmore rose to even greater prominence.

At the start of the Civil War, volunteer regiments were permitted to have bands attached to them. In the fall of 1861 Gilmore had his entire band enlisted. The band was attached to the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and the band accompanied this regiment on its military campaigns. The band went to North Carolina with the expedition that was sent there under the command of Ambrose Burnside. In mid-1862, when it became clear that the war would not be the short conflict that many had forecast, the U.S. government decided to eliminate regimental bands as a cost-cutting measure. In August 1862 Gilmore’s band mustered out, but Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, the man who was instrumental in the creation of the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, approached Gilmore to organize bands for Massachusetts regiments. Gilmore did so, and in 1863 he accompanied one of those bands as its director when the band returned to duty. Gilmore’s band was present at the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Gilmore’s band was stationed in New Orleans when the first Union governor of Louisiana was inaugurated on March 4, 1864. Gilmore was tasked with organizing the musical performance for the inauguration celebration, and he assembled a band consisting of 500 instrumentalists and a chorus of 5,000. This experience with a very large band and chorus inspired Gilmore to organize two prodigious musical events after the Civil War.

The World’s Peace Jubilee
John Philip Sousa

The two gigantic musical extravaganzas that Gilmore organized after the war made him the most prominent bandleader of his time. The first was the National Peace Jubilee in Boston in June 1869 to celebrate the return of the country to peace after the horrible conflict that had claimed so many lives and torn the country apart. The National Peace Jubilee was a five-day musical event that was held in a specially constructed hall with seating for 30,000. Gilmore assembled over 1,000 instrumentalists and over 10,000 vocalists as performers. One of the highlights of the concert was a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus,” which included church bells, cannon fired in synchronization with the music, a bass drum eight feet in diameter, and 100 Boston firemen striking anvils. As if this spectacular event were not enough, Gilmore organized another enormous concert, the World’s Peace Jubilee, which was held in Boston in June 1872. This was an even larger and longer event, 18 days in duration with 2,000 instrumentalists and 20,000 vocalists as well as famous bands and performers from Europe, including Johann Strauss, who made his only appearance in the U.S. Also performing were some famous American bands, including the United States Marine Band, which around that time had as one of its members a young man 17 years of age named John Philip Sousa. However, the World’s Peace Jubilee took place during the six-month period between Sousa’s first and second enlistments with the band, so Sousa likely did not perform at the World’s Peace Jubilee. Nevertheless, Sousa was greatly influenced by Gilmore, and in fact, when Sousa left the Marines for good, it was to become the director of a civilian concert band, which is the same kind of position that Gilmore had held for many years.

Patrick Gilmore and his New York band

The year after the World’s Peace Jubilee, Gilmore left Boston to become the leader of a concert band in New York City. He made this move in part because New York City had become the principal location of top concert bands. The band that Gilmore directed was the 22nd New York Regiment Band, and shortly after his move to New York City, Gilmore leased a venue for his band’s concerts. That venue was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, but it had been leased to P.T. Barnum, under whom the venue was called the Great Roman Hippodrome or, more grandly, Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome. After Gilmore leased the venue, he renamed it Gilmore’s Garden. A few years later, the Vanderbilt family took control of the facility and gave it a new name, although they retained part of the name that Gilmore had given to the structure. The Vanderbilt family renamed the facility Madison Square Garden, and this was the first iteration of that famous New York City venue, of which there have now been four different structures to bear that name, each one built to replace the previous one.

A sketch of P.T. Barnum’s Great Roman Hippodrome

Patrick Gilmore remained the leader of the 22nd New York Regiment Band for the next 19 years until his death. Under Gilmore’s leadership, the band became the best and most celebrated concert band in the U.S. Gilmore’s band toured throughout the U.S. and also in Europe, and the band was renowned not only for the extremely high quality of its performances, but also the very high number of performances that it gave. In the fall of 1892 the band was in St. Louis as part of a tour. On September 23 Gilmore conducted the band, and on the following night, while the band was being conducted by the assistant conductor, a message was delivered during the program that Patrick Gilmore had died. Gilmore’s body was transported to New York City, where he was buried. Two days after Gilmore’s death, John Philip Sousa conducted the first concert of the civilian band for which he had left the Marines in order to become director. One of Patrick Gilmore’s most important legacies is his innovation of instrumentation for concert bands that consists of a blending of brass and woodwinds rather than the predominately or exclusively brass instrumentation of the earlier 19th century. Gilmore’s blended brass and woodwind instrumentation is still the prevailing format for concert bands today.

Sheet music for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”

Patrick Gilmore’s novel instrumentation for concert bands is one of his greatest legacies, but it is not his best-known legacy. Gilmore’s best-known legacy is the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” But while Gilmore composed the lyrics (under the pseudonym Louis Lambert), the jaunty melody is another matter. Even though sheet music that was published in 1863 by Gilmore’s publisher credits Gilmore’s pseudonym, Louis Lambert, for both the words and the music, there is reason to believe that the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” was, to put it kindly, borrowed from a soldiers’ drinking song named “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.” Various lyrics exist for “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl,” but one set of lyrics for the first stanza is as follows. “A soldier I’m just from the war, hurrah, hurrah / A soldier I’m just from the war, hurrah, hurrah / A soldier I’m just from the war, where thundering guns and cannons roar / And we’ll all drink stone blind / Johnny, fill up the bowl.” This song’s melody is essentially the same as that of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and there is compelling evidence that Patrick Gilmore did not compose the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” but appropriated the melody from “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.” For example, a copy of Gilmore’s lyrics that was published by Gilmore’s publisher contains the instruction that the song should be sung to the tune of “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.” In addition, Gilmore admitted in an 1883 article that the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” “was a musical waif which I happened to hear somebody humming in the early days of the rebellion, and taking a fancy to it, wrote it down, dressed it up, gave it a name, and rhymed it into usefulness for a special purpose suited to the times.” This comment from Gilmore, himself, is strong evidence that he did not compose the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Instead, that melody appears to have come from “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl.” In other words, Patrick Gilmore seems to have done just what George Harrison did with “My Sweet Lord” and “He’s So Fine.” (Some sources assert that the melody for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” was taken from the Irish anti-war song “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye.” But there is evidence that this is not so, in particular the fact that the latter song was not published until after the Civil War.)

Patrick Gilmore has an illustrious musical legacy, but very few people know about that legacy. This is in contrast to John Philip Sousa, who gained his fame in a similar musical genre and whose legacy is well known. The reason for this difference is that Sousa composed many pieces, while Gilmore’s body of work does not contain many compositions of his own making. However, Gilmore does have one musical composition that is very well known, particularly to Civil War enthusiasts. The song that Gilmore composed, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” was one of the most popular songs during the Civil War because of its rousing melody and uplifting lyrics about loved ones returning from the war. But Gilmore almost certainly pirated the melody for this song, although he was not unique in this Civil War musical transgression. Two of the most iconic songs of the Civil War, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” likewise came into existence when someone set new lyrics to the melodies of pre-existing songs. This makes Patrick Gilmore no worse than the composers of those songs, Julia Ward Howe and Harry McCarthy, or, for that matter, no worse than a former member of the most influential and most innovative rock-and-roll band in history.