By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017-2018, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2017 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
I remember when I was much younger, maybe age 12, my father took my brother and me to see the movie Taras Bulba. The movie stars Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis as, respectively, a father and son, and I suppose that this pairing strains credulity for genetic inheritance of physical appearance. The father and son in the movie are members of a Cossack community, and this community is in conflict with a Polish principality. During the movie, the son falls in love with a Polish woman and makes the decision to fight with the Poles in their conflict against the Cossacks. Near the end of the movie, the enraged father kills his son for supporting the cause that he opposes. As it happens, the Civil War had something of a Taras Bulba episode, and it occurred at the battle of Galveston.
On New Year’s Day 1863, when the second day of the battle of Murfreesboro took place, a much less known but nonetheless fierce battle occurred at Galveston, Texas. In this battle on the Gulf Coast, a Confederate force recaptured Galveston from a Union force that was occupying the city. Galveston had been taken by the Union in October 1862, and its recapture by the Confederates returned to them an important shipping port. As significant as this was to the Confederacy as a whole, an occurrence of much less significance to the overall war effort of either side had much greater significance for one person who participated in the Galveston battle that New Year’s Day and brought home to that person, as no other event could, just how costly his cause could be. For this person, the new year of 1863 began with an indescribable personal loss. The person in question was Albert M. Lea, who was an officer in the Confederate army (and whose surname rhymes with that of Robert E. Lee, although they are not related). Ironically, despite Albert Lea’s allegiance to the Confederacy, he has two naming legacies, both of which are in Union territory. A small city in southern Minnesota is named after the Confederate officer, as is the small lake next to which this city is located. In addition, Albert Lea is credited with giving the state of Iowa its name.
Albert Lea was born on July 23, 1808 in a small town several miles northeast of Knoxville, Tennessee. At the age of 19, he entered the U.S. Military Academy, and he graduated fifth in the class of 1831, which consisted of 33 cadets. Among Lea’s classmates was Samuel Curtis, who commanded the Union army that was victorious at the battle of Pea Ridge. Prior to the Civil War, Albert Lea, who was both an artillerist and a topographical engineer, did much service for the army in the West. One of his most noteworthy missions occurred in 1835 and involved exploration in what became the state of Iowa. The unit that was assigned to this expedition was directed to explore northward from Fort Des Moines and was commanded by Colonel Stephen Kearny, the uncle of Philip Kearny, a Union general. Stephen Kearny’s unit consisted of three companies, one commanded by Albert Lea, one commanded by Nathan Boone, the youngest son of Daniel Boone, and one commanded by Edwin Sumner, a corps commander in the Union’s Army of the Potomac. After this expedition was finished, Lea resigned from the army and published a short book about the mission, in which he described the territory that had been explored. In that book, Lea referred to the territory as Iowa, presumably after the Iowa Indian tribe. When Iowa became a state, the name that Lea had used was adopted as the state’s name. During the expedition, one of the places at which Lea’s unit set up camp was a short distance across the border between Iowa and Minnesota. Years later, when a town was established on this site, the town and the lake next to the town were named Albert Lea. Albert Lea, Minnesota is now a small city with a population of approximately 20,000.
On May 5, 1836 Albert Lea married Ellen Shoemaker. The following year on January 31, while they were living in Baltimore, Albert and Ellen welcomed a son, whom they named Edward. In 1841 Ellen died, and for the next 16 years Albert Lea moved around the country while he held various positions. During this time Albert remarried to a woman named Catherine Heath. In 1857 Albert moved to Texas, where several members of his family had previously moved. His son, Edward, who was now 20 years old, had stayed in Maryland when his father moved away and later attended the U.S. Naval Academy. After Edward graduated, he served on the steam frigate Harriet Lane, a ship that was named after James Buchanan’s niece, who filled the role of first lady during the presidency of the bachelor Buchanan. (Although Harriet Lane was not the wife of a president, she is the first person to be called first lady while she lived in the White House.) While serving on the Harriet Lane prior to the Civil War, Edward went on voyages to France and China.
When the Civil War began, Albert sought and received a commission with the Confederate army. Early in 1862 Albert was sent to Cumberland Gap to design fortifications and to supervise construction of the fortifications. These fortifications deterred a Union commander from attacking Cumberland Gap and led to this strategic pass remaining in Confederate hands. Albert’s son, Edward, remained loyal to the U.S. and continued to serve on the Harriet Lane. The Harriet Lane was part of the expedition that was sent to resupply Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861, and while the ship was in the vicinity of Fort Sumter, the Harriet Lane reputedly fired the first naval shot of the Civil War. After service along the Florida coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the Mississippi River, the Harriet Lane was part of a combined army-navy Union force that captured Galveston on October 4, 1862. After that battle the Harriet Lane remained as part of the occupation force. At this time the captain of the Harriet Lane was Jonathan Wainwright, and the first officer was Edward Lea.
On January 1, 1863 a Confederate combined army-navy force launched an attack in an attempt to retake Galveston. The Confederate force was under the command of John Magruder, who had distinguished himself at Yorktown, Virginia during the early stages of George McClellan’s Peninsula campaign. After Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and reorganized that army, Magruder was sent west. Shortly after Magruder’s transfer, Albert Lea was also sent west and was assigned to the force that was assembled to attack Galveston, where Lea’s artillery and engineering expertise was of great use to Magruder. As the battle unfolded, Confederate army units entered Galveston, and Albert Lea was directed to occupy a tall church steeple, from which he could observe the naval battle in the bay and provide information to the army about the naval battle. During that naval battle, two Confederate gunboats, the Neptune and the Bayou City, attacked the Union fleet in Galveston harbor, which numbered six vessels. The Neptune was sunk, but the Bayou City managed to ram the Harriet Lane, and a Confederate boarding party took control of the stricken ship. When the boarding party stormed onto the Harriet Lane, Jonathan Wainwright, the Harriet Lane’s captain, was killed, and Edward Lea was severely wounded in the abdomen. The ramming of the Harriet Lane initiated a series of events that caused a complete collapse of both the Union army and navy forces, and this led to a Confederate victory.
On the following day Edward Lea and his commanding officer, Jonathan Wainwright, were buried together in the same grave. Edward’s father, Albert, read an invocation at the ceremony, and in this invocation he referred to himself when he asked of those who attended the ceremony, “Allow one so sorely tried in this, his willing sacrifice, to beseech you to believe that while we defend our rights with our strong arms and honest hearts, those we meet in battle may also have hearts as brave and honest as our own.” Edward was not quite 27 years old when he died. The marker for Edward Lea that was placed on the grave is inscribed with his name, birth date, date of death, and the words he spoke while he lay dying on the deck of the Harriet Lane, “My father is here.” Wainwright was later reinterred at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis. When someone suggested to Albert Lea that his son’s remains be reinterred next to Edward’s mother in Baltimore, Albert replied that Edward would have preferred that his final resting place be near where he had fallen in battle. Edward Lea’s grave remains where he was originally buried, marked with the headstone inscribed with the touching words spoken by Edward shortly before he died. Albert Lea continued to serve the Confederacy at various assignments in Texas until the end of the Civil War. After the war, he lived in Texas and worked in various professions, none of which was particularly successful. Albert Lea died on January 16, 1891, six months after his 82nd birthday. Ironically, the day within the month of January on which Albert died is equidistant in days between the days of the month on which Edward was born and on which Edward died.
In the movie Taras Bulba, just before the father killed his son for choosing to fight with the enemy, the father shouted to his son, “I gave you life. It is on me to take it away from you.” In contrast to the father in Taras Bulba, who actually shot and killed his son, Albert Lea did not pull the trigger of the gun that mortally wounded his son, Edward. Nevertheless, because Albert and Edward were fighting on opposing sides in the battle that led to Edward’s death, it can be said that in the extended sense of battlefield comradeship, Albert, who gave Edward life, took that life away. However, unlike the father in Taras Bulba, Albert did not harbor virulent hostility toward his son for choosing to fight for the Union. Consequently, the father’s quote from Taras Bulba is not really the most appropriate quote to describe the tragic incident involving Albert and Edward Lea. Rather, the most appropriate quote comes from the ancient Greek text The Histories, which was written by Herodotus. I used this quote once before in a history brief, and it definitely applies to the story of Albert and Edward Lea. The quote reads, “In times of peace sons bury their fathers; in times of war fathers bury their sons.” This quote is even more poignant with regard to the story of Albert and Edward Lea, because not only did Albert Lea bury his son because of a war, Albert Lea was part of the military force that made this burial necessary.