Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lincoln Takes A Leap

Honest Abe

       I have been reading the book Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk and discovered a story that I hadn't heard before. While serving as a Illinois state legislature in 1840, Lincoln jumped from a window to deny a quorum. It seems the democrats proposed an early adjournment to put an end to the state bank. The whigs were outnumbered and decided the best way to avoid the vote was to leave the building, preventing a vote because there weren't enough members available to form a quorum. 
       Lincoln remained behind with fellow whig Joseph Gillespie to manage things. One newspaper noted how Lincoln seemed to be rather enjoying himself at the embarrassment of the house because the vote had been hijacked. Unexpectedly, the sergeant at arms, who had police powers, went out and rounded up just enough of the absent members to form a quorum and locked the doors. That was when the smirk left Lincoln's face and he made his move. 
       With a grave expression on his face, Lincoln became greatly excited and finding the door locked, raised a second story window and leapt to the ground. One newspaper mockingly stated that Lincoln was not harmed because his legs were so long it didn't require much of a drop. He understood that he had made a fool of himself and felt that his political career was probably over. It would be another six years before he would hold public office again. He remained embarrassed over this incident for the rest of his life. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Short, But Desperate

Brigadier General Otho French Strahl

       Otho French Strahl was born in 1831 near Elliotts Cross Roads, Ohio. If you look at the photograph above, you'll notice that this Ohioan is wearing a Confederate Brigadier General's uniform. Both of his grandmothers had been raised in the South and he came to appreciate their Southern heritage. After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University, he read law and moved to Dyersburg, Tennessee where he opened his law practice. 
       When the Civil War began, Strahl became a captain in the 4th Tennessee Infantry. He had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel by the time the regiment fought at Shiloh. Following that battle, the unit was consilidated with and became known as the 5th Tennessee Infantry. Strahl then became the regiment's colonel. Strahl would serve throughout the war and eventually be commissioned brigadier general of a Tennessee brigade. 
Lieutenant John H. Marsh

       Standing on Winstead Hill before the Battle of Franklin, Strahl was with one of his staff officers named John H. Marsh. Marsh was a lieutenant. The men of Strahl's brigade could overhear Brigadier General Mark Perrin Lowrey to their right giving his brigade a speech. Yet, Brigadier General Strahl remained quiet with a look of sadness on his face. Chaplain Quintard, who had been presented with Strahl's horse the day before noticed Strahl had already decided this would be his last battle. Finally, Strahl said, "This fight will be short, but desperate."
       When the order was given for the line to advance, Lieuteant Marsh rode forward ahead of the brigade while mounted on his white horse. When the horse was killed, Marsh charged forward on foot to within three hundred yards of the Federal main line when a bullet penetrated his brain and killed him instantly. 
        General Strahl continued with his brigade to the main line where they broke through and pushed the Federals back to their retrenched line. Strahl and his men remained in the ditch outside the main line and exchanged fire with the Federals in the retrenched line. The ditch outside the main line of works quickly filled with the dead and dying. Because of the breastworks being extended around the Carter Cotton Gin, enfilade fire was horrendous for Strahl's Brigade. 

Strahl's Brigade suffered enfilade from troops near cotton gin

       Sergeant Sumner Cunningham was in the ditch near Strahl. Strahl was standing in the ditch loading rifles and passing them up to the volunteers who mounted the embankment to fire toward the retrenched line at the Carter House. Cunningham loaded his Enfield and passed it to a man on the embankment. The man cocked the weapon and took deliberate aim when he was shot dead, tumbling into the ditch below. 
       Strahl then turned to Sergeant Cunningham and ordered him to mount the embankment. Cunningham didn't hesitate, but walked over the dead and wounded, standing with one foot on dead men and the other planted in the side of the embankment. Strahl then handed loaded rifles up to Cunningham. There was a man on Cunningham's right firing, but between them and the Columbia Pike about 50 feet to their right was not a living soul. All those had been shot down by the enfilade fire. 

Sergeant Sumner Cunningham

       Sergeant Cunningham realized the situation was hopeless. He turned to General Strahl to inquire whether they should surrender or attempt to race to the rear. He asked, "General, what shall we do?" Strahl replied, "Keep firing." 
       At that moment, Strahl was shot down in the ditch, Cunningham believed his commander had been killed. The man to his right was struck and fell against Cunningham's right shoulder, groaning in agony. Cunningham asked the man where he was wounded. General Strahl, thinking Cunningham was talking to him, raised himself up and announced he was shot in the neck and needed to turn command over to Colonel Stafford. Strahl then began to crawl over the dead and wounded in the ditch about twenty feet to where Colonel Stafford was standing. 
       Arriving at the position of his subordinate, Strahl found Colonel Stafford had been killed, yet his body was wedged in the ditch between the dead and wounded in such a way that he was still standing. Sumner Cunningham noted the next morning that he appeared standing as if ready to give commands to the dead. 
       Several men attempted to carry General Strahl to the rear, but he received another gunshot wound and finally a third that blew out the back of his head, killing him instantly. Sergeant Cunningham then raced for the rear to inform Major General John C. Brown of the state of affairs at the front. He encountered one of Brown's staff officers who informed him that Brown had been wounded and that Strahl was in command of the division now. For the first time, Cunningham realized that those in command had no idea how bad things had become. He then went in search of Major General Benjamin Cheatham to inform him. 

Grave of General Strahl

        Brigadier General Otho French Strahl rests today in Dyersburg, Tennessee beneath the cannon shown above. Lieutenant John Marsh was carried with his commander's body to St. John's Episcopal Church just south of Columbia, Tennessee and buried by his side. Following the war, Strahl would be reinterred in Dyersburg, but Marsh still rests at St. John's. 

John Henry Marsh

Grave of Lieutenant John Henry Marsh

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Terror Of Ugly Husbands

Earl "Buck" Van Dorn

       There are about as many conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn as there are surrounding the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. I believe this is what draws me to the murder of Van Dorn. Although, there are many theories, afterall, there were no actual witnesses to the murder, we can be at least ninety percent certain of what happened in Spring Hill, Tennessee on that May morning in 1863. 
       Earl Van Dorn was born on September 17, 1820 in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Earl, nicknamed "Buck" had two older sisters. His mother died while Buck was ten. Although, Earl Van Dorn had a brother two years younger than he was, his older sisters doted on him. The reason is not clear. Regardless, it seems that Earl "Buck" Van Dorn was a spoiled young man. 
       Van Dorn longed to be a soldier and because his mother had been the niece of Andrew Jackson's wife, he won an appointment to West Point. He would graduate there 52nd out of 56 cadets in the class of 1842. A year later he would marry an Alabama lady named Caroline Godbold. Together they would have two children. 
       In 1856, while stationed in Texas, Van Dorn would meet Martha Goodbread a laundress at his fort and together they would have three children. All this occurred while he was still married to Caroline Godbold. Remember, things like this didn't occur didn't this time period. 
       Van Dorn was known to be impulsive and highly emotional. He was about five feet, seven inches in height, well dressed, and handsome.
       During he Civil War, Van Dorn attained the rank of major general, yet he wasn't a very successfull commander until placed in command of cavalry in 1862. Making his headquarters in Spring Hill, Tennessee, he used an upstairs room in the home of Doctor Aaron White house named "White Hall." 

White Hall

       In April of 1863, Jessie McKissack Peters arrived at White Hall and asked Mrs. White if she could visit with General Van Dorn in private. Mrs. White replied that she would see. As she started for the staircase, Jessie brushed past her and announced that she would just introduce herself. She entered the bedroom upstairs that Van Dorn was using as his office and remained for over an hour. This greatly disturbed Mrs. White and when it occurred again three days later, Mrs. White had her husband ask the general to move his headquarters to another location. 

Ferguson Hall

       The general was only too happy to move his headquarters. The house he chose was called Ferguson Hall and it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that from Van Dorn's room, he could see Jessie' home across the field. One reporter had actually written that General Van Dorn was the terror of ugly husbands.
       In the meantime, Jessie's husband, Doctor George Peters, who had been attending his plantation in Arkansas for a year returned home and was greeted by ugly rumors in regard to his wife and General Van Dorn. This hadn't been the first time that Doctor Peters beautiful young wife had been involved in an extramarital affair. Doctor Peters was Jessie's first cousin and when they'd married, he was 44 years old and she was 20. They seem to have been married in an effort to keep the money in the family. 
       Not long after Doctor Peters returned home, General Van Dorn sent a message to Jessie by one of his couriers. Doctor Peters informed the courier to inform his "whiskey-headed master, General Van Dorn, I will blow his brains out..." One would think that this would end the affair, but not Earl Van Dorn. 

A drawing of Jessie Peters later in life

       Doctor Peters soon went to Nashville and upon returning learned that Van Dorn had spent every night of his absence at his home with Jessie. George Peters then planned a trip to Shelbyville, but returned to his home at 2:30 a.m. and caught General Van Dorn there in bed with his wife. Van Dorn was intoxicated and raced from the house and hid beneath the porch. Doctor Peters grabbed him by the hair of his head and dragged him from beneath the house. Holding a pistol to the general's head, Van Dorn began to plead for his life. Doctor Peters then told Van Dorn he would allow him to live if he would write out an admission of his guilt and also write a letter to his wife in Alabama admitting what he'd done. Van Dorn agreed to do this. 
       Two days later, Doctor Peters arrived at Ferguson Hall to see if Van Dorn had done what he'd agreed to the night before. He found Van Dorn had not written what he'd promised. He told Doctor Peters that he didn't love his wife and to write an admission to what had occurred would only harm the Confederate cause. Doctor Peters told Van Dorn he would give him thirty minutes to do as he'd promised the night before. George Peters then left Ferguson Hall, attended to some business and soon returned. 
       He found that Van Dorn was still refusing to write an admission of his guilt stating that it would harm his reputation. Doctor Peters replied, "You did not think so thirty hours ago when your life was in my hands. You were then ready to promise anything. Now you think I am in your power, and will do nothing; but, sir, if you don't comply with my demands, I will instantly blow your brains out."
       Van Dorn probably believed Doctor Peters would be too afraid to shoot him with his staff officers surrounding the house. If so, he was wrong. Van Dorn replied, "You damned cowardly dog, take that door, or I will kick you out of it."

Room where Van Dorn was killed

       Doctor Peters drew his pistol and shot Van Dorn in the back of the head, the bullet coming to rest behind his right eye. Doctor Peters then quickly left the residence and mounting his horse rode hard across the field to his home. There he gathered a few belongings and informed Jessie that he had killed General Van Dorn. He would eventually make his way to Federal lines. 
       A servant recalled Jessie standing in the doorway, hands on her hips as she watched her husband ride away, said, "Ain't that the devil, a sweetheart killed and a husband runs away in the same day."
       Van Dorn would never regain consciousness, dying about four hours later. He would eventually be buried beside his wife in Alabama. It is believed he had a letter in his possession from his wife that announced her intention to divorce him because of his adulterous ways. A few years later, his sister would have the general exhumed and buried beside their father in Port Gibson, Mississippi and many believe it is because of the contents of that letter. 
       Doctor George Peters would die in Memphis, Tennessee in 1889. As Jessie was dressing for the funeral, she said, "Well, I never cared much for George, but I guess I owe him this much." Jessie would survive until 1921. They both rest in unmarked graves in Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis Tennessee. Because of all their noteriety, their family chose not to mark their graves. 
       The story doesn't quite end here. Eight and half months after the death of Earl Van Dorn, Jessie would give birth to a baby girl which she named Medora Wharton Peters.
Was there in doubt as to who Medora's father is? Following the war, when Doctor Peters asked Jessie to return to his home, he instructed her not to bring that child. Ironically, it would be Medora who would care for Doctor Peters just before he died. 
       Historians still discuss the possibility that Jessie may have had an affair with Confederate Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham in 1864. We will probably never know for sure.