Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee was a distinguished Confederate general who bravely led his troops against Ulysses S.Grant and the Union army until his defeat at the Appomattox courthouse in April of 1865.

Lee was born into a wealthy, prominent Virginia family on January 19, 1807 at Stratford Hall Plantation. His father, Henry Lee III, was a distinguished Revolutionary War soldier who earned the nickname “Light Horse Harry” while fighting under George Washington and Nathaniel Greene and later went on to serve as a congressman and governor of Virginia.

After Henry lost all of his money on a bad land deal, ended up in debtors prison, was beaten during a political riot and chased after by his creditors, he skipped out on his bail, as well as his family, and sailed for the West Indies. He never returned.

After depleted finances and a shameful scandal involving Robert's brother brought shame upon the Lee family in 1820, Robert decided to join the military. A few years later he was appointed to West Point Academy where he excelled at his studies and was a model student. After graduating in 1829 and joining the Corps of Engineers, Lee married Martha Washington's great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, with whom he had seven children.
Robert E. Lee, circa 1860-1865
Lee served in the Corps of Engineers for 17 years before the Civil War broke out. Although a southerner, he did not believe in secession and hoped his home state would stay within the Union. Lee faced a difficult decision when Virginia seceded and Abraham Lincoln offered him command of Union troops. After much contemplation, Lee withdrew from the U.S. army, stating he could not participate in the invasion of the south, as he described in his resignation letter to General Winfield Scott:

Since my interview with you on the 18th Inst: I have felt that I ought not longer to retain any Commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has Cost me to separate myself from a Service to which I have divoted all the best years of my life, & all the ability I possessed. During the whole of that time, more than a quarter of a century, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors & the most Cordial friendships from any Comrades. To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for kindness & Consideration & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry with me, to the grave the most grateful recollections
of your kind Consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me. Save in the defense of my native state shall I ever again draw my sword. Be pleased to accept any more [illegible] wishes for the Continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me

Most truly yours
R E Lee”

Robert E. Lee
Lee accepted a position as commander of Virginia's troops and although his lacking leadership skills led to many military defeats, risky campaigns and casualties, he was also noted for his improvisational skills, hands-on role on the battlefield and bravery. Under Lee's leadership and with the help of "Stonewall Jackson", the Confederates won the Battle of Harper's Ferry, where Lee had also thwarted John Brown's raid in 1859, yet suffered a crushing blow a few days later when his troops lost the battle of Antietam and Lincoln used the moment to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, wiping out the Confederate army's chances of obtaining foreign aid.

As the war raged on, Lee's reputation as a military leader grew but he continued to suffer military setbacks, particularly at the battle of Gettysburg where his poorly-organized attacks against the Union army resulted in a tremendous Confederate loss. He admitted his failure when he told his men "It is all my fault," before they began their long retreat. Lee finally surrendered after he and his troops, weakened, outnumbered and under-supplied, found themselves cornered at the Appomattox courthouse after a battle there on April 9, 1865.

Robert E. Lee's home in Arlington, Va
Lee returned to civilian life after the Civil War ended but found life in the reconstructed south difficult. Penniless because his property in Arlington had been confiscated during the war for use as a military cemetery, Lee took a job as a teacher at Washington College. Still bitter over the military defeat, he spent much of his time writing angry private journals and advocating against civil rights for freed slaves and black citizens. Lee began to regret his military career and told a friend that joining the military was the "great mistake" of his life. He died suddenly of a stroke on October 12, 1870 and was buried in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.


National Parks Service: Robert E. Lee's Letter to General Winfield Scott Explaining His Resignation

"The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society"; Thomas Lawrence Connelly; 1977

New York Times; Robert E. Lee; Elizabeth Brown Pryor

Civil War Trust: Robert E. Lee

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Robert Ford – The Man Who Shot Jesse James

Robert Ford posing with the gun that killed Jesse James

Robert Ford was an outlaw from Missouri born on January 31, 1862. Like many young Missouri men of his time, he grew up admiring the war record and exploits of the famous bandit, Jesse James, a fellow Missouri native.

Robert, who went by the nickname Bob, and his older brother Charles finally got the chance to meet Jesse when they befriended him in 1880 while he was recruiting new members for his gang.

The James-Younger gang had disbanded in 1876 after a botched robbery and James was in need of new recruits. Although he allowed Charles and Robert to join, neither brother played a large role in the gang. Charles did help Jesse rob a train in Glendale in September of 1881 but there are no records of Robert participating in any robberies.

Dick Liddel
Two of the gang members, Wood Hite, a cousin of Jesse James, and a friend of Ford's named Dick Liddel, were on the run from the law and taking refuge at the house of Robert Ford's sister when an argument between Hite and Liddel got out of hand. The men took shots at each before Ford stepped in and shot Hite in the head, killing him instantly. Fearing James would kill him and Liddel for murdering his cousin, Ford buried him in a shallow grave in the woods.

The authorities detained Ford to question him about Hite's death. When they discovered he was a member of James' gang, they struck a deal. Governor Crittenden offered Ford a pardon for the murder and a $10,000 reward for the capture of either Jesse James or his brother Frank, dead or alive. Greedy and desperate to avoid prison, Ford agreed.

After Liddel turned himself in to authorities in January of 1882, due to fears that Jesse James would kill him if he discovered he had killed Hite, Ford kept the arrest secret from James to prevent arousing suspicion.

Knowing what a quick draw James was, the Ford brothers knew they had to wait for a moment when James took his gun belt off in order to shoot him. This moment came when James sat down to read the paper the morning of April 3, 1882 at his home in St. Joseph's and he noticed an article about Liddel's arrest for Hite's murder. Although he didn't say so, the Ford brothers worried that James was suspicious of them for not reporting the murder or arrest to him and decided it was time to act. As James got up to straighten a picture on the wall, he laid his gun belt on the table and stood up on a chair to reach the picture. Robert Ford then cocked his gun and shot James in the back of the head before fleeing the house.

Charles Ford
James was buried in the front yard of his parent's farm in Kearney, where his mother could protect his grave from being desecrated, with a tombstone that read “Jesse W. James, Died April 3, 1882, Aged 34 years, 6 months, 28 days, Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.” James' body was later moved and buried with his wife in nearby Mount Olivet Cemetery.

The Ford brothers plead guilty to the murder of Jesse James and were sentenced to be hanged but Governor Crittenden came through on his word and pardoned them. The brothers tried to continue on with their lives but their reputation as murderers combined with life on the run from Jesse's brother Frank, who was trying to kill them, made life unbearable. Charles Ford committed suicide in 1884. Robert attempted to earn a living off of his notoriety by posing for photos with the gun he used to kill James and starring in a play titled the “Outlaws of Missouri” where he recounted the day of the murder.

In 1889 a man attempted to kill Robert Ford at a casino in Kansas City. Ford described the event to the New York Times:

One man made himself particularly obnoxious to me. He referred in an insulting manner to the Jesse James affair, but I took no notice of him, preferring to escape a row if I could. He continued to abuse me all the evening and I continued to take no notice of him. Early this morning. After I had been sitting at the table all night, I felt cramped and uncomfortable and leaned back in my chair. As I did so I threw my head back, and at that instant my abuser drew a knife from his pocket, held my head back by my hair, and was about to draw the knife across my throat when my friend warded off the blow. The knife cut through the collar my collar and grazed my neck, inflicting a slight wound. I was unarmed, or I would have shot him on the spot. As it was he took to his heels and escaped.”

Robert Ford's tent saloon in Creede
A few years later, Ford opened a tent saloon in Creede, Colorado in June of 1892. One June 8th, a man by the name of Edward O'Kelley, a possible member of a gang Ford had quarreled with, walked into the saloon with a sawed off shotgun, said “Hello Bob” and shot Ford in the chest, killing him instantly.

Ford was buried in Colorado but his body was later moved to Richmond City Cemetery in Missouri. His headstone, which accidentally lists his birthday as 1841, reads: “Bob Ford, Dec. 8 1841 – June 8, 1892, The Man Who Shot Jesse James.”


PBS.Org: The Death of Jesse James

New York Times; Bob Ford's Narrow Escape; December 1889

New York Times; The Ford Brother's Indicted, Plead Guilty, Sentenced to Be Hanged, And Pardoned All In One Day; April 1882

"Frank and Jesse James"; Ted P. Yeatman

The State Historical Society of Missouri; Famous Missourians; Robert Ford (1860-1892)

"Jesse James Was His Name"; William A. Settle;

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jesse James: The Confederate Guerilla

Portrait of Jesse James
Jesse James, one of the most violent outlaws of the wild west, got his first taste for violence as a Confederate guerrilla during the Civil War.

Although he came to be known as one of the most dangerous bandits of the west, James started out his life as a religious, peaceful farm boy who seemed destined for a career as a minister, like his father Robert, who died in California while preaching to gold miners. Those plans changed when the Civil War broke out in 1861 and brought chaos to his sleepy hometown of Kearney, Missouri.

As slave owners with six slaves working on the family hemp farm, the James family sympathized with the Confederate cause. Born in 1847, Jesse was too young to join the army and begrudgingly stayed behind as he watched his older brother Frank leave home and join a group of Confederate guerillas.

The war soon came home to Jesse when his brother's activities in the gang led the Union army to the James farm. Looking for information on Frank's whereabouts, the soldiers beat Jesse and tortured his stepfather. Historians believe this violent experience is what pushed Jesse to join his brother and the gang, at just 16 years old, in the spring of 1864.

Led by “Bloody Bill” Anderson, the gang was made up mostly of wealthy, slave owning families seeking to protect Missouri from the anti-slavery Union ideals. They terrorized anyone who sympathized with or supported the Union army in Missouri.

The James farm in Kearney
During a raid in the summer of 1864, Jesse was shot in the chest but recovered in time to take part in one of the bloodiest atrocities of the Civil War: The Centralia Massacre.

Described by witnesses as a “carnival of blood”, the Centralia Massacre was a raid on the small Missouri town of Centralia. While the gang was looting the town and murdering anyone who protested, a train pulled into the center of town with 21 unarmed Union soldiers on leave from the army. Anderson and his men quickly stripped the soldiers of their clothing, so they could use them as disguises, and shot them dead.

"Bloody Bill" Anderson
Nearby Union troops caught wind of the violence and headed toward the town to put an end to it. The gang set up an ambush, captured and then killed all 150 soldiers. Jesse himself was credited with killing Union major A.V. E. Johnson in the massacre. Many of the soldiers were beheaded, disemboweled and slowly tortured. After the violence was over, the gang then proceeded to mutilate and scalp the bodies.

Anderson died a few weeks later after he was killed by members of the Missouri State Militia and most of the gang returned to quiet civilian life after the Civil War ended, except for Jesse and his brother. Still angry over the defeat of the Confederate cause, the brothers vowed to continue fighting. The James brothers began robbing banks, including a bank owned by the man they believed killed Anderson, and murdered him on the spot. When the press mentioned Jesse by name it gave him a thrill and spurred him to continue. Jesse acquired his own gang and together they robbed banks, trains and stagecoaches while declaring themselves heroic Southern fighters: "We are not thieves," he wrote in a letter to a newspaper, "we are bold robbers. I am proud of the name, for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte."

James and his men eventually ran into trouble after a robbery in Minnesota in the summer of 1876 went wrong and two members of the gang were killed. The James brothers went into hiding but Jesse eventually became restless and started another gang. Jesse met his end when the group was infiltrated by two men, Robert and Charley Ford, seeking the reward Governor Crittendan had placed on Jesse's head. Robert Ford shot and killed Jesse James on April 3, 1882. The Ford brothers stood trial for murder but were pardoned by the governor.

Robert Ford
Jesse James
Jesse and Frank James in 1872
Post-Mortem photo of Jesse James
Jesse Jame's mother, Zerelda, at his grave on the James farm in Kearney

"Jesse James Was His Name"; William A Settle

Deseret News; Visitors Drawn to Jesse James' Hometown; Amy Shafer; July 2000

PBS: Interview: Guerilla Tactics

PBS: Biography: Jesse James

The State Historical Society of Missouri: Jesse James (1847-1882)

US News; How the Civil War Shaped Jesse James; James M. McPherson

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mark Twain's Civil War Experience

Mark Twain in 1850, age 15

Mark Twain is an iconic American writer best known for his classic novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Although a writer by trade, Twain also served a brief stint as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War.

Twain was born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens in a small Missouri town called Florida on November 30, 1835. His birth coincided with the return of Halley's Comet from its 75-year orbit through the solar system, a fact Twain delighted in. At the age of 18, Twain left home for the New York City and Philadelphia where he worked at various newspapers. He eventually returned home in 1857 and became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi. This new career came to a halt when the Civil War began and river traffic was disrupted.

Twain decided to join a Confederate militia, the Marion Rangers, but only lasted two weeks before he quit and went West. It is not known exactly why Twain quit the militia. He defended his actions throughout the years by describing his confusion while enrolling and explained he was ignorant of the politics behind the war. In his fictionalized account of his war experiences titled “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” Twain describes the moment he decided to quit:

The last camp which we fell back upon was in a hollow near the village of Florida, where I was born - in Monroe County. Here we were warned that a Union colonel was sweeping down on us with a whole regiment at his heels. This looked decidedly serious. Our boys went apart and consulted; then we went back and told the other companies present that the war was a disappointment for us and we were going to disband.”

Mark Twain in 1863
On the road home Twain and his friends ran into General Harris who ordered them to get back to their posts.

Harris ordered us back; but we told him there was a Union colonel coming with a whole regiment in his wake, and it looked as if there was going to be a disturbance; so we had concluded to go home. He raged a little, but it was of no use; our minds were made up. We had done our share; had killed a man, exterminated one army, such as it was; let him [Harris] go and kill the rest, and that would end the war.”

Twain learned later on that the Union general who had frightened him so much was none other than Ulysses S. Grant. At the time, Grant was a little-known military figure, but he quickly rose to fame shortly after he led a series of military victories that forced the Confederate army to surrender and brought an end to the war.

Mark Twain in 1871
Years after his military service, Twain continued to face criticism on all sides for his involvement in the war and his alleged deserter status. He explained his military experience in a letter to an unknown recipient:

"I was a soldier two weeks once in the beginning of the war, and was hunted like a rat the whole time. Familiar? My splendid Kipling himself hasn't a more burn't in, hard-baked and unforgettable familiarity with that death-on-the pale-horse-with-hell-following-after which a raw soldier's first fortnight in the field--and which, without any doubt, is the most tremendous fortnight and the vividest he is ever going to see."

Twain also described the Civil War in general as:  “A blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls.”

Whatever the reason, Twain left the military and never looked back. After a failed stint at silver prospecting, Twain went on to work for many newspapers such as the Sacramento Union and the Alta California. It was during this time, in 1863, that he took the pen name Mark Twain. He married, had three children and continued to write and give speeches. During the years 1874 to 1891, Twain wrote many novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court while living in Hartford, CT. He gained fame and fortune, although his finances took a hit after several bad investments.

Twain continued to write in his later years but developed a dark, cynical attitude that threatened to ruin his reputation. In the early 1900s, he suffered a deep depression made worse by the deaths of two of his children and his wife. With failing health, Twain commented in his biography in 1909 about the return of Halley's comet the coming year:

I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: "Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together."

Mark Twain died in his sleep on April 21, 1910, two days after the comet's perihelion. Twain is buried with his family in Elmira, N.Y.
Mark Twain in 1907

Mark Twain writing at his desk
Mark Twain in 1890
Mark Twain in 1909
Mark Twain's grave in Elmira, NY

The Complete Letters of MarkTwain”; Mark Twain

The Mark Twain House & Museum: Mark Twain: Frequently Asked Questions

Mark Twain House & Museum: The Man 

"Mark Twain's Civil War”; Mark Twain, David Rachels; 2007

University of Houston: Halley's Comet

The Lake Gazette; Mark Twain Failed to Meet Ulysses S. Grant at Florida in July 1861; Nancy Stone

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant is a Civil War icon who gained fame and popularity after he led the Union army to victory and served as the 18th President of the United States.

Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. Ulysses' father, Jesse Grant, was a tanner who sent his son to West Point Academy against his will. Ulysses graduated middle of his class from the military academy in 1843 before being shipped off to fight in the Mexican-American war under General Zachary Taylor.

Grant was working in his father's leather store in Illinois when the Civil War began in 1861. He quickly joined the Union army and was appointed commander of an unruly volunteer regiment. Grant trained the men well and was appointed brigadier general of volunteers.

Several military successes followed and Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant once again to the rank of major general of volunteers. After a bloody defeated at Shiloh, Lincoln defended Grant from criticism by stating “I can't spare this man – he fights.”

Shortly after, Grant captured the key city of Vicksburg in Mississippi. This was a major victory for the Union because it physically divided the Confederate army in two and allowed Grant to then break the Confederate hold on Chattanooga.

Grant in Cold Harbor, Va in 1864
Lincoln promoted Grant again to General-in-Chief in March of 1864. Grant then lead his men in a brutal campaign against General Robert E. Lee in northern Virginia that forced Lee to finally surrender after the battle of Appomattox.

After surviving many years battle, Grant escaped death once again when he and his wife declined an invitation by Abraham Lincoln to accompany him to a play at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865. After Lincoln's assassination that evening, Grant was the only remaining hero of the Civil War.

This heroic status made Grant a natural fit for the presidency. Grant won the Republican nomination for President of the United States in 1868 and served two full terms.

Although Grant was a hero on the battlefield, his presidency was marked by scandal and shame. Although never directly implicated himself, Grant was connected to a number of officials, friends and family members charged with fraud and bribery. A newly coined term “Grantism” quickly became synonymous with corruption and greed.

Profile photo of Ulysses S. Grant
After the stock market in Vienna crashed in 1873 and spread from Europe to the United States, creating the Panic of 1873, a world-wide depression followed, many U.S. companies went under and unemployment rose to 14 percent. Grant was criticized for responding too slowly to the economic downturn and not doing enough to prevent the panic.

Grant's administration did have some successes. He felt very strongly about civil rights and fought for the ratification of the 15th amendment, which banned disenfranchisement based on race and color, and he brought an end to the violent reign of the Ku Klux Clan in the south by supporting legislation that allowed him to use federal force against them. Grant also lobbied to preserve tribal lands for Native Americans and tried to end battles fought against the Native Americans.

Ulysses S. Grant, circa 1870-1880
Grant left office after his second term and embarked on a world tour where he was warmly received by many notable people such as Queen Victoria in Windsor Castle, Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican and Emperor Meiji in Japan.

With a depleted saving accounts after his long world-wide tour, Grant ran unsuccessfully for a third term as president. The previous scandals took an unfortunate toll on his reputation and his popularity had faded. Grant made an investment in a banking partnership in 1881 which swindled him out of all of his remaining money and forced him into bankruptcy.

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1884, and destitute after forfeiting his Civil War pension when he became president, Grant began writing to earn money for his family before he died. After writing a number of well-received articles about his Civil War experiences, Mark Twain offered him a contract to write his memoirs. Shortly after, Congress restored his pension. In 1883, he was also elected president of the National Rifle Association.

Grant finished his memoirs just a few days before he died. The book sold over 300,00 copies and earned his family $450,000. Grant died on July 23, 1885 at his home in Saratoga, New York. After lying in state, Grant's body was placed on a funeral train bound for New York City. Grant was buried in what is known as Grant's tomb, a mausoleum in Riverside Park.
Ulysses S. Grant writing his memoir during his battle with cancer
Ulysses S. Grant and his family
Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War
Ulysses S. Grant as Brigadier General in 1861
Ulysses S. Grant with other military personnel during the Civil War
Grave of Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia

The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant”; Ulysses S. Grant

New York Times; Who's Buried in the History Books?; Sean Wilentz; March 2010

American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery: Famous People Who Have Suffered from Oral, Head and Neck Cancer

PBS: Ulysses S. Grant

The White House: Ulysses S. Grant