Five Hundred Dead and a Hoax that Lives On

By Peter Holman
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015, All Rights Reserved

One hundred and forty years ago, a man hailed as a modern Robinson Crusoe made a brief appearance in newspapers across the world and continues today to impact genealogists, historical societies and miscellaneous bloggers throughout the world-wide web. And he was, with all moral certainty, long dead.

Ten a.m. on March 31, 2015 marked the 150th Anniversary of the sudden conflagration that consumed the U.S. army transport steamer General Lyon in the storm-wracked Atlantic Ocean, sixty miles offshore from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Over 500 men, women and children either burned to death or were drowned as the ship drifted, engulfed in flames, toward the shore in near hurricane conditions with little hope of rescue. The USAT steamer General Sedgwick approached and managed to pick up 29 survivors, all men, losing its own first engineer (B. F. Skinner of Connecticut) to the sea in the rescue effort.

Amongst those lost in this voyage to safety from Wilmington NC to Fort Monroe VA and on to Washington DC and New York were:

  • Federal troops released on parole from rebel prison camps, most of them still debilitated by months and years of captivity – homeward bound at last to Ohio and Pennsylvania, to New York and Michigan, to Massachusetts, Vermont and other states.

  • Civilians from North and South Carolina – men and women with their children; men alone; women alone and with children, many set on board by their relatives to escape to “safety.” Huddled amongst the crowd, a handful of captured rebel soldiers and one hopeful deserter. The crew of the ship were civilians too.

  • Soldiers whose time of duty had expired and were released to go home. Two hundred and seven members of the 56th Illinois were on board – all but five died.

Rescue efforts ceased on April 1, 1865 as the ship burned down to the waterline and was left to drift ashore, if it did not sink first. And that introduces the subject of a cruel hoax – one that is kept alive today through the medium of the Internet, along with so much other misinformation. It involved one of the 56th Illinois dead – a man named Henson G Rains.

Rains was a corporal in Company K of the 56th Illinois and not much remains to us of his life whereas in death he lives on in popular mythology. Even his name is a small mystery for, although he’s carried as “Henson” on the Illinois military records, he’s “Henry” in the 1860 Federal Census and in the actual muster rolls in the National Archives. Then again, when his father applied for a dependent pension in 1883, he used the name “Henson” and so it appears in the National Archives veteran pension records. By either name, he would have been largely forgotten by the world beyond his own family if not for a very strange occurrence, ten years after the General Lyon was destroyed.

On May 14, 1875 the Chicago newspaper Inter Ocean published a letter from G. B. Raum of Harrisburg, Illinois. Raum revealed the astounding news that Henson G Rains, far from being dead these past ten years, had miraculously survived and had written to his father in Galena, Illinois from London, England pleading for assistance.

“Application has been made to the Secretary of War,” Raum reassured the readers, “to have our minister at London requested by cable to have Rains cared for and funds furnished him for his return home . . . to be restored to his friends.”

The letter went on to say that Rains, escaping the burning deck of the General Lyon and hurling himself into the sea, had clung to a wave-tossed cabin door along with a companion, Lieutenant Butler, but they were not rescued. Instead they drifted for four days until picked up by a schooner which deposited them on a desert island. Butler died but Rains lived on the island for ten years until March 1875 when he was taken aboard the Vengeance, a “British man-of-war,” and transported to a safe berth in Guy’s Hospital, London.

“The stories of Robinson Crusoe and the hero of ‘Foul Play’ are probably excelled in interest by the adventures of this gallant soldier . . . (who) . . . with an endurance scarcely to be credited, resisted death from cold, hunger, and thirst,” thundered Raum.

From that day until June 10, 1875, the story spread through newspapers in Illinois, New York, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. Like Rains, it crossed the Atlantic and showed up in Edinburgh, Scotland and Durham, England. Yet it appears not to have been published in New York and London.

The timing seemed curious. Rains’ “letter to his father” must have reached Galena almost exactly ten years after his family learned of his terrible fate. If only G. B. Raum, not a foolish or cruel man, had told us details of the letter and the envelope that contained it – did it have a British stamp and was the letter perhaps dated April 1st, 1875?

Green Berry Raum

Brigadier General Green Berry Raum had once been the major of the 56th Illinois and was wounded when leading that regiment and the 10th Missouri in the charge up Missionary Ridge in the Battle of Chattanooga. After noble and meritorious military service in the war, he opened a successful law practice in Chicago and went on to build the Cairo and Vincennes Railroad Company in Illinois, becoming its first president. He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1867. Between 1876 and 1883 he was U.S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue and was Commissioner of Pensions from 1889 to 1893. One must surely deny that a man who was a brave soldier, a politician, taxman, bureaucrat and lawyer would knowingly be a willing participant in a falsehood.

For it was all a hoax, as reported in the National Republican newspaper of Washington D.C. on July 7, 1875. Having received “letters from persons in Illinois” (note the plurals), the Secretary of War had pursued the matter through the U.S. representative in London, General Schenck. On July 6, the Secretary in Washington received Schenck’s official report that “no such man as Henson Raines (sic) has been in Gray’s Hospital during the past ten years and it is believed the whole story is a hoax.” Furthermore, wrote the United States Minister in the U.K., “. . . there is no such British vessel as the Vengeance.”

One hopes that the Minister had in fact pursued his enquiries at Guy’s Hospital and the newspaper had misreported his reply; there was and is no such hospital as Gray’s in London.

In 1875 there actually did exist a British second-rate “line-of-battle” ship named HMS Vengeance. However, in 1861 it had been deemed unfit for sea-going service and became a “receiving ship,” moored safely in harbor and used to house new “recruits” to the Navy, often impressed men who found it more difficult to escape from a ship than from any land-based housing. This vessel did not sail and could by no means have sailed anywhere near a desert island in the Atlantic and survived the attempt.

Those other “letters from persons in Illinois” must have been the source for an additional detail in the National Republican. Rains’ island was inhabited by cannibals! Somehow, Minister Schenck refrained from pointing out the distinct lack of “desert islands” in the Atlantic, let alone one terrorized by flesh-eating natives.

But his determination of false report seems to have made no world-wide news impact whatsoever. There appears no letter from Green B. Raum commenting upon the horrible disappointment that must have been experienced by Rains’ family and friends.

In the end, we are left to contemplate a bereaved father in Galena, IL who may have received a letter that claimed to be from his long-dead son and that:

  • Likely was dated April 1, 1875 or received on that day,

  • Referred to a non-existent Lieutenant Butler (no such name is in the 56th Illinois or on any passenger list),

  • Spoke of rescue by a schooner, the captain of which callously abandoned two men instead of delivering them to safety,

  • Described a cannibal-inhabited desert island located between Wilmington NC and Europe,

  • Claimed a voyage on a non-existent ship,

  • Spoke of treatment in a hospital that had no record of such a sensational patient,

  • And was not sent directly, nor yet presented in person, to the U.S. minister in London.

It will never be known who perpetrated this hoax and against whom it was employed. Perhaps Henson’s father was the victim and approached Raum, a successful lawyer and formerly a commander of Henson’s regiment, for assistance in dealing with a complicated international transaction. Raum had power and influence in Washington, after all. Perhaps someone wished to damage Green B. Raum.

Whoever did it and for whatever reason it was done, the story appears today again and again across the Internet. Breathless enthusiasts add it, usually without critical thought, to their websites in tones of wonder and amazement. It even appears on the pages of more sober organizations, including the Washington Times in 2012 where it is described as “apocryphal” and “unverified” – when “verifiably false” would the accurate phrase.

The story of the General Lyon and the men, women and children who died so horribly on March 31 and April 1, 1865 is tragic. One hundred and fifty years ago, their voyage from imprisonment, destitution and danger in the South to the safe havens of the North came to a fiery and terrifying end. Henson G. Rains is one who lost his life that day and, as Green B. Raum ended his letter so long ago, “surely truth is stranger than fiction” and infinitely preferable.