Civil War Humor
by Joel Craig
Every once in a while you have to stop and wonder exactly how certain events transpired. The Civil War provides us with literally thousands of incidents, each one shaping and altering American history in it's own unique way. These incidents have been described by various individuals who were present or participated in the events as they unfolded. Determining the accuracy of these accounts has traditionally been the realm of historians and scholars. However, even before the guns had fallen silent, the common folk had begun the time-honored American tradition of converting these events into myth, folklore and fantasy. This page serves as a salute to good 'ol American exageration, boastfulness and whimsy.
Missouri Gold: The Struggle for Lexington, Mo.
In September of 1861, Confederate Gen. Sterling Price led a ragtag army into northern Missouri in hopes of reclaiming the state for the Confederacy. On September 12 he met Union forces near Lexington, Mo. under the command of Col. James A. Mulligan and prepared to lay siege to the city. Mulligan and his 2700 men held out for a week until lack of water and ammunition forced them to surrender on Sept. 20. During the siege Price's men employed 'mobile breastworks' made of hemp bales soaked in water to advance against the entrenched Yankees.
By the fall of 1861 the Union blockade was beginning to strangle the Confederacy. Unable to find adequate markets for cotton overseas, the Confederacy turned to desperate measures in order to provide goods that would be easily exchanged for arms. It was during this time that the Confederate government arranged to trade gold bullion for a large shipment of Mexican hemp. The hemp was to be transported to the coast where it would run the blockade to France where a deal for arms had been arranged with the French ambassador DeLorean.
The shipment of hemp was entrusted to Confederate Gen. Sterling Price and his army to insure safe transport to the coast. This mission would have a dramatic effect on the war in Missouri and would give rise to the legend of the missing Confederate Gold.
At this time, acute supply problems plagued the Trans-Mississippi forces and Price's army was no exception. Finding themselves woefully short of food and other commissary items the Confederates began to use substitutes for the basic staples of coffee and tobacco. The Confederates substituted acorns for coffee, and at some point during the march across Missouri, began substituting their precious supply of hemp for tobacco. The effect was quite subtle at first, increased gayity around the campfire, more colorful adornments on the uniforms; initially it was thought to have a very positive effect on the morale of the men. Serious morale problems soon surfaced, however, when munchie-crazed soldiers threatened to mutiny unless they received proper rations. It was at this point that Price determined to make a detour from his assigned route in order to find rations for his unruly army. This move would save his army but would lose the Confederacy's gold.
Price determined to capture the small town of Lexington, Mo. and began his march towards that place. Lexington, aside from a large store of commissary supplies, contained the warehouses of two prominent Union suttlers, Henry Cheetohs and Thomas Hershey. At the first sign of Confederate advance on the town, they petitioned President Lincoln and Congress for immediate protection of their precious merchandise. Lincoln ordered Col. Mulligan with a large detachment of troops to defend the town at all cost.
Price's army reached the town on Sept. 12 and immediately began a rather disorganized assault which was easily beaten back by the Union defenders. Over the next several days, repeated attacks failed to carry the heavily fortified town. On Sept. 20, Price decided on a new tactic, ordering the bales of hemp to be moved to the front lines in order to provide mobile barricades with which his men could advance.
The bales were initially dampened to prevent their destruction by the enemy's fire. The wet bales proved too heavy for the weary Confederates to push, however, so many of the troops sat down to have a smoke and wait for the bales to dry. At this time Price sent a demand for surrender to the Union commander Mulligan. Upon receiving Price's demand Mulligan instructed his aide to 'Just Say No' to the Confederate ultimatum.
As morning gave way to afternoon, the hemp bales were lightened by the drying of the suns rays and the continued smoking of Confederate soldiers. By mid-afternoon the Confederates were ready for their final assault. Col. Clinton, commanding the 12th Arkansas (Sinsimella Battalion), instructed his men not to inhale as it would seriously affect their chances of holding public office in the Confederacy. Following the battle Col. Clinton left the army and fled to Europe for the duration of the war. Returning after the war, Clinton became governor of Arkansas and invested heavily in Ozark real estate.
As the bales rolled ever closer, Mulligan's troops poured a heavy fire into the impenetrable hemp. At one point several of the hemp bales caught fire and the unfortunate Union defenders who were downwind suffered from terrible cotton mouth.
As the tide of advancing bales rolled up to the very edge of the fortifications the fighting became hand-to-hand, with giggling opponents applying every manner of nuggies and wedgies imaginable. In the end the overwhelming numbers of Confederates determined the result: complete surrender of the Union forces followed by total consumption of the contents of the Cheetohs and Hershey warehouses.
After binging on the contents of Lexington's sutler warehouses the jovial Confederates paroled their Union prisoners upon receipt of 'pinky promises' that they would never set foot on Southern soil again. From that day on Price's army would carry a fearsome reputation although it would also suffer from severe lack of discipline. As for the Confederate Gold, what hadn't been destroyed in the battle was quickly carried off by Union and Confederate soldiers alike. The price the Confederacy paid for the capture of Lexington, Mo. would be very high indeed. To this day, elderly residents of Lexington say that if you wander about the woods long enough you just might find a stash of Confederate Gold.
Soiled Doves of Gettysburg
There exists some evidence that during the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, Lee's army was engaged in rounding up escaped slaves and returning them to the South. There has been much speculation as to the fate of those captured blacks and as to who authorized the round-up. The following account explores a much darker, and heretofore unknown, conspiracy.
John Pimpernell's forthcoming book _Soiled Doves of Gettysburg_ dispells many of the myths surrounding Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania. Pimpernell's opening chapter deals with the myth surrounding the allegations of Confederate cavalry rounding up 'ex-slaves'. Pimpernell provides evidence that the gray-clad riders were actually intent on rounding up 'sex slaves'.
The scouring of bordellos for available women was all part of a secret plan concocted by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee to raise an army of loyal rebels deep behind Yankee lines. The plan called for Lee's 75,000 soldiers to find willing partners to whom they could pass along their Southern genes, following which Lee would fall back to Virginia and assume a defensive position for the next 14 years, at which time the products of this brief liason would presumably be old enough to serve in the Confederate army. This army of southern youthdom would then sweep down on the rear of the unsuspecting Army of the Potomac, most of whose soldiers would now be in their forties, and drive them from the sacred soil of Virginia.
The plan began to unravel when a detachment of Gen. A.P. Hill's corps, sent to Gettysburg to get some 'booties', ran into the advance guard of the Union army near a house of ill-repute known locally as 'The Seminary'. Hill himself was absent for much of the battle since he was trying his best to carry out his commander's orders regarding the spreading of sacred Confederate seed. The evidence presented by Pimpernell also suggests that Law's and Pickett's divisions were delayed due to missing their wake-up call.
Following Lee's defeat at Gettysburg the Confederate army limped back to Virginia having only partially accomplished their intended goal. Lee's inability to hold out for the required 14 years (certainly possible if Gen. Meade had been left in charge) left the product of the Gettysburg campaign unable to acheive it's intended purpose. Thus thousands of young would-be Confederates settled near Lancaster, Pa., where they were adopted by accomodating Amish families who raised them as their own. This worked out very well due to their predisposed love of horses and tendancy to wear beards and broad-brimmed hats. The entire plan was deftly covered up by former Confederate Gen. Jubal Early who drew attention away from the true objectives of the campaign with a series of diversionary attacks against former comrade-in-arms James Longstreet.
Grants Cypher Wheel
Among the possessions of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was purportedly found a cypher wheel or decoding device used to send and receive secret messages. Conspiracy theorists point to Gen. Grant's alledged possession of such a device to prove a link between the War Department and the President's murder. How these men, one a Presidential assassin, and the other a future president, came into possession of such devices is the subject of the following essay.
Battle Creek Press has recently published a book by Ray Post entitled _Cereal In The Civil War_. This book takes a detailed look at this important dietary supplement and it's profound effect on the war. The book details the efforts of Chief Commissary Officer General Mills to have Wheaties issued as the mainstay rations of the Union army. A complete account of the Union Oatmeal vs. Confederate Grits controversy is ably recreated and the Appendix contains a complete list of breakfast cereals issued during the war. Chapter 6, titled _Good Morning, General!_ contains the following interesting anecdote:
"Col. Kellogg of Grant's staff recalls that during the final days of the Petersburg seige, Gen. Grant became obsessed with collecting the prizes found in many of the breakfast cereal containers. At this time he embarked on episodes of binge eating, often emptying a 20 oz. box of cereal in one sitting.
Grant was at first obsessed with finding a Secret Decoder Ring which were said to be found in boxes of Lucky Charms. Alas, the ring was not to be had since members of the Irish Brigade had consummed all available stores of Lucky Charms between City Point and the Petersburg front lines. Grant, determined to claim his prize, then switched to Cap'n Crunch (named after the commander of the USS Granola) which offered a genuine Decoder Cypher Wheel as a prize. On the morning of the Confederate attack on Ft. Stedman, Grant was finally rewarded with the prize of one shiny, fully functional, Cypher Wheel which he discovered only after inhaling a large spoonful of Cap'n Crunch.
Upon deciphering his first message, which was printed on the back of the box and is said to have been "You will be healthy, wealthy and wise"; Grant acted on this obvious omen and ordered the final, full-scale attack on the Petersburg defenses. The Cypher Wheel served him well, and it is said that he carried it with him until his dying day. In fact, in later years he used it to decipher a message which is still inscribed on his tomb to this day, the now famous "Let Us Have Peace".
Grant however, was not the only famous Civil War personage to own a Cypher Wheel. Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth stopped in the wee hours of the night at the farmhouse of Dr. Samual Mudd in order to have his shattered leg treated.
While Dr. Mudd was tending to Booth's broken leg, he offered Booth and his companion some breakfast. Upon searching the cupboard a chagrined Mudd returned with only a half-eaten box of Cap'n Crunch and a pitcher of fresh milk. Booth poured the cereal into a bowl only to discover a genuine Cypher Wheel protruding from the golden cereal. Booth quickly claimed his prize and soon after rode away, studiously turning the Cypher Wheel back and forth as if he had no other cares in the world.
While resting in a nearby barn, Booth deciphered part of an eerily prophetic message. At the time the words made no sense to him as he frantically turned the Wheel back and forth in an effort to determine the rest of the message. In the end the only words he was able to decode were "Useless, Useless".
It was at this time that the barn was surrounded by troops and Lincoln's murderer was shot dead with a carbine in one hand and a genuine Cypher Wheel in the other."
Moses Johnson, THE Black Confederate
The recent publication of such books as _Black Confederates and
Afro-Yankees in Civil
War Virginia_ by Ervin Jordan and _Black Southerners In Gray_ by Richard Rollins have renewed interest in the role of African-Americans in the Confederacy. While there is little doubt that African-Americans made significant contributions, albiet reluctantly; as laborers, teamsters and servants, their role as soldiers in the Confederate armies is much less documented. While some insist that there were NO African-American Confederates; others point to accounts of hundreds or thousands of black men in gray uniforms. This story examines one possibility.
Professor Eugene Wigfall of the University of Southeastern Virginia has just released his research into free blacks who served in the Confederate armed forces. Prof. Wigfalls research has taken more than a decade and is based on attempting to match the names of free blacks from the 1860 census with the names of known Confederate servicemen. Wigfalls research also relied heavily on input from informed sources on several Internet discussion groups.
The results of Prof. Wigfalls research show conclusively that a free black man, 32 year old Moses Johnson of Yorktown, Virginia served in the Confederate army. Records indicate that Johnson offered his services to the Confederates immediately upon the secession of his home state. He was rebuffed however, due to his race and, angered by the rejection, traveled to Fortress Monroe to offer his service to the Federals. Gen. Benjamen Butler, upon meeting Johnson, declared him to be a contraband of war, and put him to work polishing his silverware collection. Dissatisfied with his treatment by the Federals, Johnson deserted in early June, 1861. While walking down the road towards Bethel in the early morning hours, Johnson was stopped by a detachment of Union troops. Fearing a return to Fortress Monroe, Johnson told the soldiers that he had just passed a detachment of Confederate troops headed that way. The Union troops quickly set up an ambush and fired on a column of troops as it marched into view. In the resulting firefight Johnson slipped away to the Rebel lines where he told the story of how he managed to trick to Union regiments into firing into each other. His story so impressed Gen. John B. Magruder that he enlisted Johnson on the spot.
The next month found Moses Johnson attached to Gen. Thomas J. Jacksons command as a guide. During the battle of Bull Run, Jackson watched as Gen. Barnard Bees South Carolinians begin to withdraw in confusion. Jackson dispatched Moses Johnson to inform Bee of the whereabouts of Jackson troops. When Johnson reached Bee he conveyed the Generals instructions. Bee, still unsure of Jacksons whereabouts, asked Johnson to point him out, to which Johnson replied: "dars Genl Jackson, next to dat stone wall". In the heat of battle, Johnsons response was relayed by Bee to his men in his now legendary statement.
The following year found Moses Johnson in the vicinity of his home town of Yorktown. Johnson was once again reunited with Gen. Magruder and was employed as a scout and guide. During this time it came to the Generals attention that Johnson was an excellent shot as well. Johnson soon became a terror to Union pickets and rumors abounded of a company of black sharpshooters. Magruder, always eager to seize the theatrical advantage, ordered all his sharpshooters to don blackface when on the front lines. Gen. McClellan, who had been provided with accurate estimates of the Confederate strength, suddenly fell victim to the ruse that large numbers of blacks were being enlisted by the Confederates. Accordingly, he revised his figures to reflect the enlistment of every black man of military age in Virginia, giving his enemy a strentgh of more than 500,000 troops in the trenches before Richmond.
Records of Johnsons service are almost non-existent for the rest of 1862. In the spring of 63 however, Moses Johnson again turns up in Jacksons command. At the battle of Chancellorsville it was Johnson who suggested to Jackson that he: "sneak around dem Yankees and wop dem upside de head". Johnsons contributions at Chancellorsville did not end there, the following day, acting as a sharpshooter, Johnson spied a high ranking Union officer standing on the porch of a nearby home. The officer was partially obscured by a stone column, making it impossible for Johnson to get off a good shot. Johnson, ever the innovator, fired a shot into the top of the column, breaking off a large marble chunk, which struck the Union officer squarely on the head. The Union officer was, of course, Gen. Joseph Hooker.
Following Jacksons death, Moses Johnson was attached to Lees staff . As plans unfolded for an invasion of the North, Johnson suggested to Lee that he enlist all the free blacks that they should come across in the northern states. This plan, like the rest Lees plans that summer, turned out to be a total disaster. Disappointed that other free blacks had not followed him into the Confederate army, Johnson accompanied the Army of Northern Virginia northward to the small town of Gettysburg. Following two days of fierce fighting, Lee ordered the massive, but suicidal, attack that ended with the bloody repulse of Picketts division. Riding forth to console his beaten forces, Lee remarked: "This was all my fault"; to which Moses Johnson unhesitantly replied: "Damn right! Genl Lee, what de hell wuz you thinkin."
In the fall of 1863 Moses Johnson accompanied Longstreets corps to the western theater, where he took part in the battle of Chickamauga. One evening, shortly after the battle, Longstreet introduced Moses Johnson to a group of Confederate generals who had spent the evening drinking and cursing Braxton Bragg. After hearing Longstreets description of Johnsons distinguished service, Gen. Patrick Cleburne grabbed a piece of paper and scrawled a lengthy proposal for arming blacks for Confederate service. All of the generals present eagerly endorsed the document, although most denied recollection of having signed it the next day.
Moses Johnson continued to serve with the Army of Northern Virginia throughout the bloody campaigns of 1864. Disappointed with the Confederate governments reluctance to enlist blacks into service, Johnson lobbied tirelessly to get legislation that would not only recognize, but encourage blacks to join the Confederate ranks. Moses Johnson finally got his wish in early 1865 when the Confederates passed a bill authorizing the War Department to organize black troops for Confederate service. He was bitterly disappointed however, when not one black volunteered for service.
As Petersburg and Richmond fell, Moses Johnson, ever the faithful Confederate, began the trek west toward Appomattox. At some point during the retreat he convinced Gen. Fitz Lee that his cavalry could escape through the encircling Union lines and strike in their rear if they donned blackface and pretended to be escaping slaves. Fitzhugh Lee was however, not as clever as his illustrious uncle and he forgot to have his men change out of their gray uniforms. It was Fithugh Lees troopers in disguise that several witnesses reportedly mistook for black Confederate cavalry during Lees final retreat. The observant Yankees were, of course, not fooled by Confederate troopers in blackface and killed or captured most of the unit. A handful survived to surrender a few days later with Lee at Appomattox. They had not stopped during the retreat to remove their blackface and, consequently, were listed as being black on their parole papers.
Moses Johnson all but disappeared following Lees surrender. Some say that he was killed by vengeful ex-slaves, other stories have him fleeing to Mexico with several high-ranking Confederate officers, and one story has him travelling west to join Gen. Nathan Badford Forrests night riders following the war.
Whatever happened to Moses Johnson, his legacy as the only black man to serve in the Confederate army offers a fascinating twist to a war that continues to excite interest to this day.
The Burning of Columbia SC
On February 17, 1865, fire swept the capital city of Columbia, S.C. Southerners have long blamed Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his army of 'bummers' for the conflagration. Others have traced the origin of the blaze to Confederate cavalry burning cotton and supplies to prevent capture by the Union forces. At long last the real truth has emerged as explained in the following article.
The following item was recently published in the Columbia Historical Society Review, the quarterly newsletter of theColumbia Historical Society:
CIVIL WAR DIARY FOUND
The recent discovery of the Civil War diary of Miss Anna Hastings Botwell has excited historians across the state. The diary, which was discovered in the Society archives during the ongoing effort to catalog and index Society documents, was found in a box of papers belonging to Capt. John Botwell. Capt. Botwell's papers were donated to the Society in 1944 and have not been viewed for more than fifty years. The fifty-six page wartime diary of Miss Botwell (the Captain's daughter) offers a naieve but revealing look at life in the Confederacy through the eyes of a southern belle.
Anna Botwell was seventeen and attending the Cornwall Finishing School for Girl's in Columbia when she made her first entry in the diary which covers the ten month period between September, 1864 and June, 1865. One of the more interesting entries records the events surrounding the capture and subsequent burning of Columbia during the closing days of the Civil War. The entry reads as follows:
"This morning our boys left town in a hurry. We pleaded with them to stay and protect us from those horrid Yankees but to no avail. Lt. Grissom told me they were executing a 'change of base'. As I am ignorant of military matters I cannot concieve what this means.
The Yankees soon entered the town in rapid order. They seem to be in high spirits and do not straggle and sulk as our boys do. They greeted us with exceptional politeness and on the whole were a great deal more congenial than we had been led to believe.
For the most part they were perfect gentlemen with the exception of one scoundrel who has caused exceptional suffering and hardship by his wicked acts. It seems that one miscreant stole into the barn of a Mrs. O'Leary who lives on Canal St. While there he attempted to make off with the very milk which Mrs. O'Leary depends on for her poor young children. Needless to say, a good Confederate, the cow would not tolerate theiving Yankee hands on her teats and she kicked the young cretin near senseless.
Upon gaining his sense the ill-mannered Yankee made a hasty retreat to the safety of his comrades. In his haste however he left the cigar which had been clenched between his wicked teeth lying on the floor of the barn. It seems that the burning embers ignited either the straw or several bales of cotton which Mrs. O'Leary's brother-in-law had hidden in the barn. In short order the whole barn was ablaze and the fire crew was called for. They made slow going since all of the younger men are off serving with Genl. Beuregard.
Several Yankees near to the scene pitched in and assisted the firemen. They used their bayonets to poke holes in the hose so that the water would come out in a sprinkler effect, thereby covering more area. They assured the fire chief that this tactic had been used to great effect in Atlanta.
Despite the brave efforts of our own crew, assisted by the Yankees, the conflagration soon grew out of control. At this point Genl.Sherman himself ordered a whole brigade to construct a fire break. This was done in short time by removing the cotton from the warehouses and piling it at strategic points. Kersone was then used to light the cotton in hopes that the blaze would be contained. If not for the quick action of Genl. Sherman and his men I should think that the whole city would have been destroyed."
Miss Botwell's diary is currently being edited by esteemed author Emma Barnwell, Professor of Women's Cultural Studies, at The Citadel. Ms. Barnwell research shows the events relayed in Miss Botwell's diary to be historically accurate. Barnwell's research indicates that the Mrs. O'Leary referred to in the diary moved to Chicago, Illinois with her children and livestock after the war. Miss Botwell became engaged to Lt. George Cross of the 38th Indiana Cavalry. After the war she traveled to Indiana only to find that Lt. Cross had already been married five years previous. The situation was resolved when Lt. Cross, his wife, and Miss Botwell moved to Utah in 1866 and converted to Mormanism. Miss Botwell's brother, Sgt. Evander Botwell, was awarded the Confederate Cross of Honor for his actions in spiking his guns under heavy fire during the evacuation of Charleston. We will be printing more excerpts from Miss Botwell's diary in future issues. The entire diary will be published in the spring of 1997 and will be available from Citadel Press.
In October of 1864, Confederate agents crossed over from Canada into Vermont and raided the small town of St. Albans. This account explores some of the previously unknown facts about that raid.
Perhaps no events of the Civil War have been so misunderstood, and so incorrectly reported, as the secret Confederate operations that took place in Vermont during the year 1864. The events have usually been treated as a series of separate events culminating in the failed attack on the village of St. Albens. Recent information, however, suggests that the Vermont incidents were part of a well coordinated, but ultimately futile campaign against the maple sugar industry of that state.
The story begins on the 3rd day of the Battle of Gettysburg when Gen. George Stannards Vermont brigade smashed into the flank of Confederate Gen. Kempers brigade during Picketts Charge. The Confederates vowed revenge on the nine month men from the Green Mountain state. Their revenge on the battlefield never came, however, as Stannards men were soon mustered out and returned to their homes in Vermont, boasting of their achievement.
The plans for the Vermont Campaign grew solely from a desire by Kempers men to get revenge on those who had ruined their moment of glory. Several of Kempers soldiers, discharged due to wounds received at Gettysburg, plotted to take their revenge behind enemy lines.
The Confederate Secret Service, eager to lend a hand to any plan that would inflict damage on the hated Yankees, quickly approved the plan and provided logistical support for the conspirators. Dozens of operatives in New England and Canada were mobilized and sent to the rural regions of Vermont in an insidious plot to ruin the Vermont economy.
The Confederate agents, many of whom formerly fought with Kemper, quickly infiltrated the Vermont woods and began reaping a terrible toll on the vital maple sugar industry in that spring of 64. Most of the damage was done by night, with the operatives traveling the wooded paths and pouring out the valuable contents of the sap buckets. Other methods included sabotaging equipment and polluting the raw sap.
Within a month the spring harvest was in serious jeopardy with desperate farmers were standing guard in the woods at night. The state economy teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and desperate measures were needed. A savior came in the form of Webster Finkle, president of the Bank of Vermont in St. Albans. The St. Albans bank had been built with a huge vault, capable of storing a tremendous amount of money. St. Albans however, was a poor rural community which had suffered greatly from the maple syrup recession. The great vault in the St. Albans bank was nearly empty, and available to hold the states precious stockpile of maple syrup. And so, as the maple syrup season drew to a close, the precious stockpiles of syrup that had survived the Confederate onslaught found their way to the steely confines of the St. Albans bank. For the time being the states economy was saved.
All through the summer months the Confederates fumed and cursed the Yankee ingenuity that had thwarted their evil plan. As summer turned to fall, and the maple leaves began to change, one Confederate operative named Bennett Young offered to lead a raid against the St. Albans bank to destroy the precious maple syrup reserve.
In October of 1864, Confederate agents converged on the small Vermont town, meeting at a nearby inn to finalize plans. As luck would have it, a free black woman named Aunt Jemima was working as a waitress at the inn. She overheard the Confederates plotting to attack the St. Albans bank and that night slipped out and warned the local constable of the impending attack.
The next day Bennett and his associates stormed into town, crashing into the bank with intentions to blow up the vault. Once inside they discovered an empty vault; sticky syrup residue told them that their mission was a bust. Thanks to the timely warning by Aunt Jemima, the local farmers had held an all-night boiling session and the bottled syrup was well on its way to Montpelier.
As the Confederates exited the bank they were met with a hail of bullets from dozens of Stannards veterans dressed in farmers overalls and hidden in nearby buildings and on rooftops. For a time the scene resembled Picketts charge, with dead and wounded Confederates lying in the streets. The survivors quickly mounted up and galloped out of town with a Yankee posse in close pursuit.
To this day folks from the Green Mountain state still honor the memory of the brave Aunt Jemima who risked life and limb to warn the citizens of St. Albans of the impending danger. And thus another Vermont legend was born.
In September of 1864 Confederate General Wade Hampton led one of the most daring and successful cavalry raids of the war deep behind enemy lines. Hampton's raid delivered thousands of beef cattle to Lee's starving army in the trenches around Petersburg. This narrative explores the hidden story behind the "Beefsteak Raid".
The War Between the States saw many unusual groups of individuals march off to war. From the colorful Zouaves and Chaussers of the Union army to plumed cavaliers of the Confederacy. Men of every age, nationality and occupation took up arms in the bloodiest of the American wars. None were more unusual however, than the men of Company B, 4th Virginia Cavalry.
Company B was commanded by Capt. George Chippendale, an entrepreneur and businessman from Richmonds red light district. Days after Virginia seceded Capt. Chippendale began recruiting in the bars and bordellos of Richmonds back streets. He began by recruiting bouncers and bartenders who, he reasoned, were used physical confrontation and would make aggressive fighters. Chippendale soon realized that he would not be able to fill his company with such men so he began enlisting performers from the local night clubs.
Little is known in regards to ante-bellum entertainment for women, however it seems that Richmond was home to a thriving business of live male dancers. Thus a majority of the stalwart troopers of Company B listed their occupation as "dancer" or "performer". The boys of Company B soon became favorites in the cavalry camp, performing dance revues on a regular basis to the delight of their commander, Jeb Stuart. In fact, according to survivors of Company B, it was they who persuaded the colorful general to wear a plumed hat and red cape.
While Company B were favorites of Gen. Stuart, their presence horrified the pious Gen. Robert E. Lee. Lee ordered Stuart to keep a tight reign on Company B and even assigned the 4th Virginia to his nephews command in the hopes that Gen. Fitzhugh Lee could keep control of the dancers-turned-soldiers. As the Army of Northern Virginia marched from campaign to campaign the soldiers of Company B became hardened veterans much like the other troopers of Stuarts cavalry.
Manpower shortages in the Confederacy soon forced every able-bodied male into the army. This left an unfillable void in the Souths entertainment industry. By April of 1863 the need to relieve themselves from the constant strain of war forced many of Richmonds female populace to take desperate measures in order to obtain diversion from the solemn business of war. Several hundred of these "flowers of the South", frustrated by months without male companionship, rioted in the streets of Richmonds red-light district. Respected businessmen and wounded soldiers found themselves molested in the streets while hordes of sex-starved women searched the avenues and alleyways for able-bodied males. As the mob headed towards Chimborazo Hospital, home to thousands of defenseless men, President Jefferson Davis arrived on the scene and prepared to disperse the frenzied crowd.
Davis, using his best powers of persuasion, mounted a nearby cart and began to address the women. Words proved inadequate however, and the mob began to shout "Take it off! Take it off!". Davis, realizing the things were about to turn violent, began to disrobe. As the shouts and catcalls grew louder, Davis, unaccustomed to the stage, began to pull Confederate scrip from his pockets and stuff it into his undergarments. The sight of the Confederate Presidents scrawny behind and knobby knees was enough to calm the frenzied ardor of the crowd. In groups of twos and threes they began to retire from the scene, giggling and gesturing as they went. Only the most desperate staid behind to see the President lose his last shred of dignity. Understandably the Confederate government kept the affair quiet and only mention of a "bread riot" appeared in the press.
Following the Richmond riot Confederate authorities ordered Company B back to Richmond for "Provost Duty". In reality many of the men were given furloughs so that they could return to work. Things began to quiet down in Richmond and the men of Company B were able to avoid the disastrous Gettysburg campaign.
Things went fine until May of 1864 when Sheridans cavalry raided to the outskirts of Richmond. Company B was called to action and went into battle at Yellow Tavern with the rest of Stuarts troopers. During the battle Gen. Stuart was felled with a mortal wound, as the men of Company B rushed forward to save their fallen leader they became surrounded and were forced to surrender.
While Gen. Grant paid little attention to the prisoners of Company B, his aide, Adam Badeau, showed a great deal of interest. He arranged to have them perform several times and is said to have attended each performance.
The plight of Company B was soon reported to Gen. Lee by scouts operating in the rear of Grants army. The Confederate government, shamed by the sight of their troops gyrating before Yankee officers and still mindful of the Richmond riots, ordered Lee to use every means within his power to free them.
Lee turned the disagreeable task over to Stuarts successor, Gen. Wade Hampton, who, on September 14, led a force of 4,500 men behind Union lines in a desperate rescue attempt. They came across the members of Company B in mid-performance in a large tent near Coggins Point. The surprise was complete as most of the guard, members of the 1st D.C. Cavalry, were inside watching the show. Chairs were overturned, drinks spilled, and greenbacks flew everywhere as the startled Yankees fled in disorder. The troopers of Company B were quickly reunited with their comrades and whisked away towards Confederate lines. On the return trip Hamptons men came across a large herd of cattle which they also seized and escorted back to the starving Confederate army. Upon their return, Company B was immediately sent back to Richmond to return to their important duties. Gen. Hampton filed a full report on the raid which Gen. Lee, humiliated at being forced to send such a large force to rescue such an unmilitary prize, promptly rejected. Hamptons second report omitted all mention of the original objective of the raid and concentrated solely on the purloined beef. Thus no mention of the imprisonment and subsequent rescue of Company B exists in official records.
In the final days of the Confederacy, as Richmond was being evacuated and Lee was fleeing to the west, President Davis found himself without sufficient escort to escape the Confederate capitol. Once again Company B was called to active service and they escorted him on his flight from Virginia. On May 10, 1865, the fleeing Confederates paused near Irwinsville, Georgia. In an effort to lift the sagging spirits of the discouraged President, Company B agreed to make a special performance. As the President, his wife, and accompanying staff looked on, Company B performed their last military duty. As they show moved towards its Grand Finale, Union soldiers burst into the tent and ordered everyone to surrender. In a desperate attempt to conceal the Davis identity, members of Company B threw some of their stage clothing over the startled President. One look at the skinny posterior and knobby knees was enough for the Yankees to identify their quarry. Davis was taken into custody and suffered the additional indignity of being apprehended in clothes more suited for the dance hall stage.
Following the war, Capt. Chippendale kept in close touch with his former troopers and eventually convinced several of his veterans to move to San Francisco where he became a thriving promoter of Ladies Entertainment. As years passed the story of Company Bs contribution to the Confederate cause has been lost in the larger events that overshadowed them. Someday their story may be recorded and perhaps a monument to their service will be erected.
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