The Telegram No One Wants
The iconic image of Western Telegraph telegraph showing up at the door of a loved one in the military is one that is both poignant and unforgettable. Telegrams were used by the War Department and the branches to break the news to the distraught family member. If you don’t know the feeling there are no words. This clip from We Were Soldiers actually captures it well. In time the telegram gave way to the phone call and the visit from a representative.
In the Civil War, there was no such mechanism in place to let family members know their loved one had been killed in battle. If you knew the unit of the army they served in you could watch your local paper. They would publish casualty lists after battles. Some newspapers discontinued this towards the end of the war.
The best you could hope for was that soon after a letter from your loved one would arrive telling you they survived. Sometimes when they did not survive a friend or fellow soldier would write the family to break the news. Eventually the unit commander may follow-up with a note and their condolences, but most often there was nothing.
The absolute worse part was that at the time of the Civil War dog tags were not a standard. Most men carried no form of identification. Some before a battle may have written their name and next of kin on a piece of paper and pinned it to themselves. Just in case, but many more died fighting and were never identified. In 1865 Clara Barton started the Office of Missing Soldiers that searched to put names to the unknown. Over the next four years, she was responsible for identifying almost 20,000 unknowns.
Uncle Billy Sherman
The picture above is of a photo of General William Tecumseh Sherman that was taken later in life and is on display the Museum of the Grand Army of the Republic. Few Civil War figures on either side bring out the sheer emotion of General Sherman. Emotions that for the most part vary depending on what part of the country you are from.
In the South, too many he is a villain who wrecked the South and will never be forgotten. In the North, he did what he had to do to bring the war to an end.
To the soldiers that served under him, he was quite affectionately known as Uncle Billy. He was a General that honestly cared for his soldiers, but never let that stand in the way of doing his job. Often after the war men that served under him would show up at his door hungry, broke and abandoned. He never turned them away. He always provided what food or money he could to help them make it one more day. That was Uncle Billy.
Quotes From the Man
- “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it is over.”
- “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”
- “In our country…one class of men makes war and leaves another to fight it out.”
- “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”
- “War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.”
- “I would make this war as severe as possible, and show no symptoms of tiring till the South begs for Mercy.”
President McKinley, Remember Him?
Odds are no, you don’t. Over a hundred years later he remains famous for two things. The Spanish-American War and being assassinated. In his time though he was known for much more. So well-known that he was elected President twice. However, his second term was cut short six months in by an assassin. The medals above were given out as a part of his second inaugural celebrations.
Besides being the last Civil War veteran to be President he also stood firm on a number of hot button topics at the time. Some of these are not far off from what the current politicians deal with. Which is interesting and a little sad that so little has changed.
McKinley was a strong proponent of the gold standard, having the value of the US dollar backed by the actual amount of gold in the US treasury. A novel concept that would eventually have to be abandoned with gusto by his successors.
He helped to pass tariffs that were designed to protect American business and workers. This made it more expensive for foreign companies to do business in the US.
He worked with Spain to get them out of a rebellious Cuba and grant them independence. When that didn’t work he stepped in and helped free them with our own military. (While securing Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines for ourselves.)
And perhaps most important to many, this former Governor of Ohio and President brought to the forefront Theodore Roosevelt. Who served as Vice-President during his second term. McKinley’s death catapulted Roosevelt into the Presidency and the history books.
Oh, and the high school on Glee was named after him, perhaps his most important contribution. (Not.)
We all know the story. April 14th, 1865 the Civil War was all but over and President Lincoln decides (OK, Mary decides) that they need so enjoy a night at the theater. Originally General Grant and his wife we supposed to accompany them, but using many skills I assume he learned on the battle field, Grant was able to get out of going. Instead it would be Henry Rathbone and his fiance that would accompany the Lincolns to the Ford Theater and “Our American Cousin.”
Joining that night would also be John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and Southern sympathizer that wanted Lincoln dead. His story goes well beyond the scope of this brief article, but the important thing is that during the play he found himself with unfettered access to the President’s box and the man himself. A small pistol in one hand and a dagger in the other he looked to “avenge” the Confederacy.
Sneaking into the box he moved behind Lincoln and fired his pistol, jumped onto the ledge of the box and by most accounts yelled, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” and leaps from the box to the stage. It would have been perfect if he had not caught his spur on one of the bunting flags that hung on the outside of the box. That snag of his boot caused him to land awkwardly and severely injury his leg. From that point on the story is well-known.
In the photo above is the flag from the box that Booth snagged his spur on. If not for that flag and the injury that Booth sustained, it is very possible that he may have avoided capture. That makes that relic pretty darn cool.
The above shell is from a Whitworth Breechloading Rifle a nice piece of lang range artillery. The gun (and consequently the shell) are classified as a 12 pounder, was made of steel and manufactured in England. They saw most of their Civil War service with the Confederate army and approximately 50 were known to be in service.
These guns had exceptional range, up to 10,000 yards and due the fact the barrel was rifled it was incredibly accurate. A 1864 magazine stated that in a test one of these guns fired 10 shots with a deviation of only 5 inches. This kind of accuracy made them incredibly effective in counter-battery fire (against the opponents artillery) and in this regards they were employed almost the same way that a sniper rifle would be deployed by the infantry.
Most of the units in service were imported via Britain through the US Naval blockade of the South, though in 1861 a single battery of the guns was fielded by the US. As effective as these guns were they did come with a number of draw backs.
The ammunition, such as that above, was difficult to manufacture and the cost of importing through the blockade made the gun very expensive to operate. It could not fire the standard ordinance of the day so it would never reach the heights of popularity. The projectile was actually a long bolt that was twisted to conform with the barrel’s rifling, so it was less of a shell and more of dart.
The second draw back had to do with mechanical issues. Originally the gun was designed as a breech-loader meaning that it was loaded from the rear. This method was faster and actually safer for the crews. However many of the guns in service developed issues with the breech as the mechanism jammed. This caused the gun to revert almost back to the muzzle-loading of a standard cannon. This combined with the cost of ammunition meant the Whitworth was doomed to be a footnote in the war’s history.