Sunday, November 28, 2010

Old Stars: From Astronomer to General

       Ormsby McKnight Mitchel was born in Kentucky in 1810, but grew up in Lebanon, Ohio. He graduated ranked 15th in the class of 1829 at West Point. Despite his not finishing at the top of the class, Mitchel was considered to be a genius. He became a professor of mathmatics and astronomy at West Point after graduation, although he was only twenty years old. In 1845 he became the director of observatory at Cincinnati College. He also published the first monthly magazine in the United States that was only devoted to astronomy. 
       During his time there, he discovered highlands on Mars that are still called ‘The Mountains of Mitchel’. An impact crater on Mars is also named for him. 
       Like most highly intelligent people, Mitchel was a bit eccentric. The man was overbearing ,ambitious and quite arrogant. He stood five feet, six inches tall and possessed a fiery temper. When the war began, Mitchel was offered a colonel’s commission by the governor of Ohio, but refused to accept the position. Instead, he wrote to President Lincoln, explaining that he deserved higher rank. Lincoln promptly made him a brigadier general.
       Sometime in his life he had earned the nickname ‘Old Stars’. Most thought it was because of his astronomy work, but a rumor soon passed through camp that he was so arrogant, he wore his general’s insignia to bed. 
       He was also extremely punctual about everything. Mitchel became angry because he couldn’t get all his bugler’s to blow reveille at the exact same second. Each morning he would drop a handkerchief at precisely six. A cannon would be fired when he did this and all bugler’s would blow. He claimed he had time figured to within a tenth of a second. 
       During the Battle of Shiloh, Mitchel advanced southward from Tennessee and captured the town of Huntsville, Alabama. The report he made of this action caused him to sound like a great military leader, although the town had no defenders present. 
       His senior commander, General Don Carlos Buell stated that Mitchel’s reports are exaggerated and false, very inconsistent and only seeking to promote himself. Mitchel always sent a report to President Lincoln in order to be remembered when promotions were given. Lincoln would promote Mitchel to major general for taking Huntsville. 
       At this point, Mitchel’s career began to spiral downward. He was accused of military incompetence and corruption. He asked the war department to assign him to another area of operations and was sent to Hilton Head, South Carolina. There he was defeated by Confederate General Pierre Beauregard. Four months later he would die there of yellow fever. He rests today in Green-wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

1 comment:

  1. You would think that he would know better than to lie in his reports if he was a genius.