New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Soldiers & Sailors

Rebels on the Green

On the morning of Wednesday, October 19, 1864, the Civil War seemed far away from St. Albans, Vermont. The local newspaper, the Daily Messenger, wrote that Grant was fighting Lee at Petersburg, roughly 600 miles south. Later that day, the editor would have the scoop of his life when the Civil War’s northernmost battle broke out on Main Street, bullets smashing his windows and a dying man streaming blood on the office floor.

The Confederacy sent commissioners abroad to seek full diplomatic recognition and purchase arms and supplies. In Canada, Commissioner Cassius C. Clay worked with a network of sympathizers, escaped prisoners, and Copperheads—Northerner supporters of secession—to organize a campaign of terrorist sabotage, including the November 25, 1864 New York City fires that destroyed Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway at Ann Street, across from St. Paul’s Chapel.

The attack on St. Albans, Vermont was organized and led by Bennett Young, one of Morgan’s Raiders. Tall, slender and—to judge from his photograph in Stewart Holbrook’s Forgotten Men of American History—Byronically handsome, Young had been captured on a raid into Ohio in 1863 and imprisoned at Camp Douglas near Chicago. Behind the good looks were cold intelligence and iron nerve, and he had he had escaped to Canada within months.

At Clay’s suggestion, Young returned home by blockade runner. After conferring with Secretary of War James Seddon at Richmond, and with President Davis’s approval, Young returned to Canada with a lieutenant’s commission, a sealed letter for Clay, and special orders signed by Seddon, dated June 16, 1864, authorizing Young to “organize for special service a company not to exceed twenty in number from those who belong to the service and are at this time beyond the Confederate States.”

Clay sent Young to Chicago, where local Copperheads, the Sons of Liberty, plotted to seize the city during the 1864 Democratic National Convention while Young led a mass escape of prisoners from Camp Douglas. The conspiracy was betrayed and Young barely escaped. He then went to Columbus, Ohio, to organize an uprising of the six thousand prisoners of war at Camp Chase. Again, the conspiracy was betrayed and abandoned.

By now, Young had a cadre of some twenty reliable men, mostly ex-cavalrymen like himself. Disgusted by his failures, he met with Clay and then reconnoitered Vermont. He targeted St. Albans, a town about fifteen miles south of the Canadian border.

In 1864, St. Albans had 5,000 residents, three banks, hotels, boarding houses, and numerous stores and service businesses. Young arrived on October 10. Seven others arrived that day and the next, registering under assumed names at the American House or the Tremont House. Other young men, allegedly from Montreal and St. John’s, registered at local hotels and boarding houses. Circulating quietly, they observed the habits of the people and the location of the banks and stables. Wednesdays, the day after market day, were always quiet.

Wednesday, October 19, proved cloudy with a threat of rain. At three p.m., the twenty-two rebels struck. Each wore a pair of Navy sixes—Colt Model 1851 Navy .36 caliber six-shooters.

Cyrus N. Bishop, teller of the St. Albans Bank, was at the counter when two men entered, proceeded to his window, and drew revolvers. They seized him and, pointing two revolvers at his head, identified themselves as Confederate soldiers, advising him that if he attempted resistance they would blow his brains out. They forced Bishop to open the safe. At that moment, the bank’s front door opened and in walked Mr. Breck of Breck & Wetherbee with $400 in currency for deposit. “Right over here, mister,” commanded one of the raiders. “I am taking deposits today.” Working fast, the robbers stuffed $73,522 into bags. Then they herded the Vermonters into the directors’ room, locked the door, and departed.

At the Franklin County Bank, one raider drew his gun. The others followed suit. “We are Confederate soldiers,” announced the leader. “There are one hundred of us. We have come to rob your banks and burn your town.” Marcus Beardsley, the teller, froze. The other employee ran for the door but stopped at the threat of death. The raiders went through the drawers and the vault, gathering some $70,000 in greenbacks. The Confederates then locked the two employees in the vault.

At the First National Bank, the raiders found Albert Sowles, the cashier, and ninety-year-old General John Nason, who was deaf and reading the Springfield Republican. As the bank clock struck the hour, Sowles looked up to see three men in greatcoats entering the bank. They drew revolvers as they advanced. General Nason was absorbed in his paper.

The first Confederate to approach Sowles announced, “You are my prisoners. If you offer any resistance I will shoot you dead.” Meanwhile, two other Confederates tossed $58,000 in bonds and greenbacks into haversacks. General Nason looked up. “Who are these gentlemen?” he grumbled. “Seems to me they are rather rude in their behavior.”

Just as the raiders were about to leave, William H. Blaisdell, a local merchant, came into the bank. He took in the scene and tackled the nearest robber. They rolled over and Blaisdell looked up into the mouth of a Navy six. A second muzzle was pressed against Blaisdell’s head. At this point General Nason abandoned his newspaper, creaked forward, and suggested, “Two upon one was not fair play.”

Blaisdell capitulated. Then the cashier, the merchant, and the old soldier were marched across the street to the green, where other citizens were already under armed guard. General Nason, who could hear nothing and had seen little, having read his newspaper during the robbery, asked Sowles, “What gentlemen were those?”

Half a dozen armed strangers appeared at Fuller’s livery stable. They told the hostler to bring the horses out of the stalls, and be quick about it. E. D. Fuller was across the street when he heard commotion in his stable. He entered at a dead run, roaring, “Put back them horses.” A raider rode to meet Fuller, roaring back, “Get out of here, damn you, or I’ll blow me a hole through you.”

Fuller vanished out the door. He reappeared almost instantly across the street with a Colt dragoon revolver, took cover, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. It clicked. Nothing. He squeezed again and again. Still nothing. To his dying day, E. D. Fuller cursed his unloaded gun.

Captain George P. Conger, First Vermont Cavalry, home on leave, strode down Main Street in uniform. The rebels put him on the green with the other citizens.

The Confederates now were gathering and the guards were momentarily distracted. Then Captain Conger sprinted across the green toward the American House. He burst through its front door amidst a fusillade of rebel bullets, bursting glass, and chipped brickwork, ran through the lobby, out the back door, and down Lake Street, shouting the Rebels had come. He grabbed a rifle and shoved two boxes of cartridges into his pockets, took cover behind the American House, aimed at Bennett, and fired. Bennett returned fire with his revolver.

Now townsmen, hearing gunfire and rumors, pulled revolvers and shotguns from desk drawers and closets. Others took muskets from the War of 1812 or even the Revolution from over the mantel. Mrs. John Gregory Smith, the governor’s wife, picked up a horse pistol. Some townspeople began shooting from buildings around the square. Collins H. Huntington came toward the green, firing. A raider’s shot laid him in the street. Another shot knocked down Lorenzo Bingham. The bullets tore through the Daily Messenger’s front door. The windows of Miss Beattie’s Millinery Store and A. H. Munyon’s store tinkled and crashed as the black powder smoke drifted among the elms.

Elinus J. Morrison, a local contractor and apparently unarmed, turned the corner near the Dutcher & Sons pharmacy. A raider saw him and fired.  Morrison staggered, clutched his stomach, stumbled into the Daily Messenger streaming blood, and collapsed. He died the next day.

Now all Young’s men had reported. The mission accomplished, he gave the order to ride. With bullets flying and $208,000 in their saddlebags, the raiders galloped out of town.

Captain Conger stopped firing and took command. Gathering perhaps a dozen men with guns and horses, he swung into the saddle and pursued as other townsmen followed as quickly as they could secure horses or buggies.

On the road north, the Confederates met a farmer on horseback. Without explanation, they pulled him down. One mounted the fresh horse, leaving an old nag in its place, and they galloped off. The farmer stood examining the jaded plug he had suddenly acquired.

Then Captain Conger and his men, riding hell for leather, burst into view. They recognized the old horse, thought the farmer must be a Confederate, and started shooting. He fled across a field, the posse in chase, and escaped into a swamp. The Union horsemen took the nag and dashed off.

At Sheldon, hot on Young’s heels, the posse thundered across a burning covered bridge, just fired by the raiders.

The Confederates did not stop at customs. They tore into Canada. The customs officers stepped into the road, gazing north at their dust. Then Conger and his men charged through at a gallop.

Over the next two days, Conger captured ten raiders before Canadian authorities stopped him. Young learned next morning that several of his men had been arrested by Canadian authorities at Philipsburg. As he was their commander and held the authority for the raid, he chose “to give himself up to the authorities and make the cause of his men his own,” knowing Clay would arrange their release on bail.

On the way to Philipsburg, Young was trapped at a farm house where he had stopped for refreshment when some twenty-five Vermonters surprised and then pistol-whipped him. They dragged him to an open wagon, threatening to shoot him as “they denounced him in unmeasured terms.” When they reached the road to the border, Young suddenly knocked down his guards, seized the reins, and turned the horses toward Philipsburg.

He was recaptured within moments. As the posse worked him over again, a British officer trotted by, stopped, and asked for an explanation. Young said he was a Confederate officer on British soil, entitled to protection. As John W. Headley writes in Confederate Operations in Canada and New York, “The British officer reasoned with the Americans for a time, who were reluctant to listen to argument or to delay their return to St. Albans.” The Briton said other raiders had been arrested and all were being sent to St. Albans the next day. Young’s captors finally agreed the officer should take him under their escort to Philipsburg.

The Englishman had lied. The Confederates at Philipsburg, including Conger’s prisoners, were in Canadian protective custody. Young and his men were safe for the moment.

A crisis between Great Britain and the United States erupted overnight. The United States government demanded extradition, claiming the raiders were not soldiers and hence common criminals under the civil law. Amidst it all, Lieutenant Young wrote to the Daily Messenger, enclosing three dollars for a subscription, giving his address as “Montreal Jail.” Another raider wrote to the proprietor of the American House, enclosing “my check for five dollars in payment for my room, which I neglected to settle because of the bustle and excitement which accompanied my business in your fair city,” and asked the landlord to give his warmest regards to the fascinating “young lady who occupied the room adjacent to mine.”

When their case was called on December 7, 1864, Young introduced into evidence his commission and the orders from Richmond. He testified he was a citizen of the Confederate States, which was at war with the United States, and an officer in its army, and his actions at St. Albans were pursuant to orders. On December 13 or 14, 1864, Magistrate C. J. Coursol ruled he lacked jurisdiction over the prisoners and discharged them.

At the behest of the United States, the raiders were arrested and held for trial under a warrant issued by the Superior Court. The prosecution argued the absence of full documentation from Richmond vitiated the defense of authorization. On the last day of trial, literally at the last moment, the Reverend S. F. Cameron, a Confederate chaplain, ran into the courtroom. He had smuggled the official documents confirming Young’s orders from Richmond. Finding the prisoners were indeed soldiers under orders, duly authorized by their government to conduct expeditions against the United States, the Court released them.

At the war’s end, Young was among the handful of rebels excluded from President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation: a remarkable distinction for a lieutenant. He remained abroad for three years. On his return, he was admitted to the Kentucky bar and practiced law until his death in 1919. His 1906 photograph in Headley’s Confederate Operations shows a slender, handsome man with a full head of iron gray hair. He still looked very tough.

New York Press, August 18, 1999

December 25, 2015   No Comments

Sheridan’s Ride

Greenwich Village’s Sheridan Square is not named for Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who wrote The Rivals. The statue of General Philip Sheridan, for whom the square is named, is around the corner in Christopher Park. And the only nearby battle was the Stonewall Riot at 53 Christopher Street in June 1969. Sheridan’s statue, erected in 1936, is so poorly executed one might not know the subject without his name on the plinth. The sculptor was one of those of whom Hilaire Belloc observed, “We dream in fire and work in clay, and some of us puddle in butter with our toes.”

One can forgive bad public art if it is bad on a truly grand scale—the kind of stuff that Peter Fleming describes so well in Brazilian Adventure: “Victory has got a half Nelson on Liberty from behind. Liberty is giving away about half a ton, and also carrying weight in the shape of a dying President and a brace of cherubs. (One of the cherubs is doing a cartwheel on the dying President’s head, while the other, scarcely less considerate, attempts to pull his trousers off.) Meanwhile an unclothed male figure, probably symbolical, unquestionably winged, and carrying in one hand a model railway, is in the very act of delivering a running kick at the two struggling ladies, from whose drapery on the opposite side an eagle is escaping, apparently unnoticed. Around the feet of these gigantic principals all is bustle and confusion. Cavalry are charging, aboriginals are being emancipated, and liners launched. Farmers, liberators, nuns, firemen, and a poet pick their way with benign insouciance over a subsoil thickly carpeted with corpses, cannon balls, and scrolls.”

The works of Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) are—sadly—a cut above this. Her genius was for small, subtle, vivid animal sculptures, and she is not forgotten: the National Museum of Women in the Arts sells a reproduction of her Yawning Jaguar in genuine hydrostone for $99.99 online, shipping and handling extra. Huntington’s large sculptures combine her superb technique with overblown romantic bombast. She studied with Gutzon Borglum, whose megalomaniacal later works include Mount Rushmore and the Confederate monument on Stone Mountain, Georgia. (Borglum began what became the world’s largest bas-relief, three acres of Lee, Jackson, and Davis on horseback, all at least nine stories high.)

In 1923, Anna Hyatt married Archer Milton Huntington, who bankrolled the Hispanic Society of America. Understandably, then, her flamboyant El Cid Campeador dominates the society’s forecourt at Audubon Terrace, between 155th and 156th Streets. An admirer wrote, “The Cid gloriously bestrides his mount, he carries himself with exactly the flourish that is associated with his legend, and from the tips of his feet to the hand clenching the staff of his flaunting banner he is magnificently alive.” Mrs. Huntington added four statues of seated warriors about the base, surrounded by heraldic lions, stags, does, bears, jaguars, vultures, and wild boar, and then, energies unquenched, designed the bases of two nearby flagpoles, carved with “muscular men and frantic horses entangled in desperate struggle, kneeling monks and churchmen, and statuettes symbolic of the arts.” On the rear walls of the forecourt are equestrian bas-reliefs of Don Quixote and of Boabdil, Granada’s last Muslim king, who has reined up to turn and gaze at his lost city. On its base is engraved a verse by Mr. Huntington:

He wore the cloak of grandeur. It was bright
With stolen promises and colours thin,
But now and then the wind—the wind of night
Raised it and showed the broken thing within.

Mrs. Huntington’s genius sometimes overwhelms. Yet if she had sculpted Sheridan’s statue in Christopher Park, we would recognize the subject. He is better represented in the bravura statue by Borglum at Massachusetts Avenue and 23rd and R Streets in Washington: having pulled up his warhorse Rienzi, Sheridan has turned in the saddle, hat crumpled in his gloved right hand, ready to roar out his orders and turn the tide at Cedar Creek.

Philip Henry “Little Phil” Sheridan, who never lost a battle, was short—about 5 feet 5 inches tall, with a long torso, stumpy legs, and, as Lincoln quipped, “such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.” After eight years’ active duty, Sheridan was still a second lieutenant in 1861. Within a year he would be a general. Like most great American commanders of the past, he would be unwelcome in today’s Army, corrupted by Robert McNamara and his successors into a puddle of political correctness.

Sheridan was quick-tempered and blunt: West Point suspended him for a year after he assaulted a cadet officer with a bayonet and his fists. Ten years later, Major Generals Sheridan and George H. Thomas—the latter justly called the Rock of Chickamauga—were conferring in a day coach when a Southern railroad conductor spoke to Little Phil with “less than adequate respect.” Sheridan wordlessly rose, beat the conductor senseless, threw him off his own train, returned to his seat, and resumed the conversation, “no explanation given and none required.”

Yet Sheridan’s planning reflected a deliberate, thoroughly professional mind. He had been a quartermaster, one who marshals men and supplies, and the discipline took. His commands fought hard, but never without food, clothing, shelter, or ammunition.

Perversely, he became immortal for the day he was surprised. In the fall of 1864, Sheridan was campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley, transforming the breadbasket of the Confederacy into a wasteland, where “crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their own provender.”

Before dawn on October 19, 1864, the Confederate Army of the Valley, Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early commanding, fell upon Sheridan’s encamped army at Cedar Creek, Virginia. Like Sheridan, Early was tough, irritable and profane. Always outnumbered, always outgunned, he was audacious and imaginative. Three months before, he e had terrified the Union when he had reached the gates of Washington, having slipped his command through the Army of the Potomac. Now he had surprised Sheridan’s army and hoped to stop the campaign of destruction.

He shattered the Union’s left and center. The entire Eighth Corps, nine thousand strong, panicked and ran. The attack happened so quickly that a goodly number of federal troops fled in their underwear. The rebels were looting Sheridan’s tents as the sun rose over the Shenandoah Valley.

Little Phil was not there.  He was returning from a conference in Washington. He had reached Winchester, Virginia, and Thomas Buchanan Read’s most famous poem, “Sheridan’s Ride,” begins there:

Up from the South at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste, to the chieftain’s door
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.

When called at dawn on October 19, in Winchester, “twenty miles away,” Sheridan heard distant artillery fire. He thought it part of a reconnaissance in force he had ordered before departing for Washington. He stepped outside around 9 a.m. The guns seemed louder. He mounted his warhorse Rienzi and met his cavalry escort. Then, puzzled, he dismounted and put his ear to the ground. What the ex-Indian fighter heard was the continuous roar of full battle and the sound was approaching. His army was in retreat. Now he trotted forward. As he crested a rise, Sheridan suddenly saw, in Maj. George “Sandy” Forsyth’s words, “hundreds of slightly wounded men, throngs of others unhurt but utterly demoralized, and baggage-wagons by the score, all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion.” He received reports as Rienzi walked forward at a measured pace. A conventional commander might have regrouped just outside Winchester, gathering stragglers into a defensive line. Instead, he ordered the stragglers collected and funneled back up the turnpike toward the front.

Then he spurred Rienzi toward the sound of the guns. At his right, an orderly carried Sheridan’s personal battle flag, bearing the two stars of a major general.

But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good broad highway leading down…
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.

It was a brilliant Indian summer morning. Rienzi stretched his legs, leaving most of the escort in the dust. The Newtown crossroads were jammed with supply wagons and caissons. Sheridan took Rienzi over the wall and into the fields.

Then, striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line ’mid a storm of huzzas…

Sheridan thundered through the files of retreating men, most wounded only in their pride. He roared, “Come on back, boys, face the other way, we’ll giveem hell, God damn them, we’re going to lick those fellows out of their boots,” among other things. A witness of Sheridan’s verbal skills wrote he “didn’t spare anybody in the bunch and included all their kinfolk, direct and collateral. It was a liberal education in profanity to hear him.” And it worked. Thure de Thurlstrup’s painting, Sheridan’s Ride, now at Brown University, shows Sheridan at full gallop, the pennant whipping in the breeze, as the stragglers stop, stare, begin cheering and turn around.

South of Newtown, he regained the road to find the Sixth Corps standing fast in line of battle. Not everyone had run away. General Alfred Torbert rode up, saluted, and said, “My God, I’m glad you’ve come.” Sheridan rode out before the troops, wheeled Rienzi and shouted, “Men, by God, we’ll whip them yet. We’ll sleep in our old tents tonight.” The men roared back. He found his three corps commanders conferring nearby. Brigadier General Emory murmured that his men were ready to cover the retreat. Sheridan spat his reply: “Retreat! Hell, I just got here!”

It was 10:30 a.m. His men hungry and exhausted, Early’s assault had bogged down. Major General John Brown Gordon, who had broken Sheridan’s left that morning, begged to renew the attack. Early replied, “This is glory enough for one day.” Sheridan brought up his reserves and regrouped. At noon, he rode the length of his own front, as biographer Roy Morris Jr. put it, “swinging his hat in his right hand to give the soldiers a glimpse of his familiar bullet-shaped head.” Their thunderous cheers rolled down the line with him. At 4 p.m., 200 Union buglers sounded the charge. Sheridan smashed into the Confederate left, turned it and then rolled up Early’s line. By 5:30 the fighting was over. Sheridan’s horsemen pursued the rebels into the night.

Cedar Creek was Sheridan’s greatest triumph. At 9 a.m., he was beaten; by sundown, he had driven the enemy from the field. Within a week, Read’s poem was a bestseller. The horse gets the best lines:

I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester, down to save the day!

“Sheridan’s Ride” was recited in high schools for nearly a century.

On April 1, 1865, Sheridan personally commanded the charge at Five Forks, leaping Rienzi over the rebel breastworks into, as Morris noted, “a group of astonished southerners like the angel of death,” forcing General Robert E. Lee from Richmond. On April 6, he forced six generals and 10,000 men to surrender at Sayler’s Creek. On April 8, he blocked Lee’s last line of retreat. Around 1 p.m. on April 9, Grant and Sheridan rode up to Wilmer McLean’s home at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Lee waited in the parlor.

The performance of Sheridan and his men during the first nine days of April 1865 is nearly unparalleled. As Grant said, “Sheridan has no superior as a general, either living or dead, and perhaps not an equal.” Little Phil was then 34 years old.

Rienzi died in 1878. Sheridan had his body preserved. Today, in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Armed Forces History, Rienzi stands, saddled as he was that golden October morning:

Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester, twenty miles away!

New York Press, August 29, 2000

February 6, 2015   No Comments

The Man Who Did Not Invent Baseball

Abner Doubleday,” baseball historian Harold Peterson wrote, “didn’t invent baseball. Baseball invented Abner Doubleday.” Even Ezra Warner’s Generals In Blue, the biographical dictionary of Union generals, says Doubleday is more famous “for the canard that he originated the game of baseball than his military career.”

Most Union generals were forgotten in their lifetimes. We might not remember Custer were it not for the Little Big Horn. We would not remember Abner Doubleday save for an incident fourteen years after his death.

He was born on June 26, 1819, at Ballston Spa, New York, whose promoters believed it would become America’s Baden-Baden once the world knew of its alkali, sulphur, and warm springs, “good for the treatment of rheumatism, gout, liver trouble, blood ailments, dyspepsia, and even cancer.” Soldiering ran in the family. His grandfather fought for independence. His father, Ulysses Freeman Doubleday, had been mustered into the militia in the War of 1812 and was twice elected to Congress as a Jacksonian Democrat. Both of his brothers became colonels of volunteers in the War of the Rebellion.

Abner graduated from West Point in 1842. His classmates included seven future Confederate generals, including James Longstreet and Earl Van Dorn. Doubleday served in the Seminole and Mexican Wars without disgrace or distinction. In the spring of 1861, he was assigned to duty at Charleston, South Carolina. Apparently Captain Doubleday fired the first Union shot in reply to Confederate artillery fire at Fort Sumter.

The Union army in 1861 consisted of 1,098 officers and 15,259 enlisted men. There were only four generals. Within months, the army would explode to 2.5 million men. Generals were needed to command them and, as the history of the war indicates, sometimes anyone would do. Doubleday went from captain to brigadier general commanding a brigade of the First Corps, Army of the Potomac.

On the first day at Gettysburg, when Major General John Reynolds was shot dead from his horse by a rebel sniper, Doubleday took command. He fought competently throughout the day, maintaining his line in good order despite being pushed through Gettysburg to the low hills beyond. There, on orders from Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, he anchored his line on Seminary Ridge.

General George Meade, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, had known Doubleday in the prewar army. As he lacked confidence in Doubleday’s initiative, Meade relieved him of command. He held no further field command and served on staff in Washington to the end of the war. In 1865, he was brevetted major general for his services and survived the postwar reductions of the army to become colonel commanding the 35th Infantry, from which he was retired in 1873.

Doubleday established San Francisco’s first cable car company. A good writer, he published Reminiscences of Fort Sumter and Moultrie in 1876 and Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in 1882. He died in Mendham, New Jersey, on January 26, 1893. He is buried at Arlington. His statue stands at Gettysburg. That is not why we remember him.

The word “baseball” does not appear in any of his diaries, memoirs, or articles. At least one historian speculates the word may never have passed Doubleday’s lips. Nonetheless, an egotistical sporting goods king made him baseball’s bastard father some fourteen years after his death.

The origins of baseball are obscure. It may have been based on rounders, an English schoolboys’ game, which may in turn be a form of cricket. It is mentioned as early as 1744 and described in some detail in the second edition of The Boy’s Own Book, published in 1828. There are many versions of this game, which has no official rules: the number of players on a side, the number of bases, the distance between them and so forth, varied from place to place. One consistent element was that fielders might put out a runner by hitting him with a thrown ball between bases. It has been summed up as “a pickup game that was played by children.”

Albert Goodwill Spaulding had been a pitcher for the Boston Red Stockings. From 1871 to 1875, he won 207 games and lost only fifty-six. He then became a manager, an executive, and finally a sporting goods manufacturer. Spaulding was a bigoted enthusiast. He believed baseball a purely American invention, innocent of foreign derivation, so when sportswriter Henry Chadwick published an article in one of Spaulding’s publications, The Baseball Guide of 1903, that baseball was based on rounders, Spaulding published a rebuttal in his 1905 Guide, calling for a commission to investigate baseball’s origins.

He selected his own commission. Its chairman, A.G. Mills, had been president of the National League; two members were U.S. senators. The research, if one can call it that, was performed by James Sullivan, a hack writer for Spaulding’s American Sports Publishing Co.. The commission received a letter from Abner Graves, an eighty-year-old retired miner in Denver. Graves claimed he had been a childhood playmate of Abner Doubleday. While living in Cooperstown in 1839, he had seen Doubleday directing a crowd of boys in a game with a limited number of players and distinct teams on each side.

“Doubleday called the game Base Ball,” he recalled, “for there were four bases in it. Three were places where the runner could rest free from being put out, provided he kept his foot on the flat stone base. The pitcher stood in a six foot ring. Anyone getting the ball was entitled to throw it at a runner between bases, and put him out by hitting him with it.”

His testimony was later “verified” by an object among his personal effects: a rotting baseball. Somehow, people assumed Doubleday must have touched it. Mills claimed to believe the letter, although he ignored Graves’s statement that Doubleday’s rules had permitted a player to put out a runner between bases by hitting him with a thrown ball. In fact, Mills claimed Doubleday had eliminated this practice.

The commission’s official report, dated December 30, 1907, recognized the General as the inventor of baseball. However, as Ralph Hickok writes, “…there were, and are, a lot of problems with the story.” There is no evidence Doubleday was ever in Cooperstown. He was educated in Auburn, New York. In 1839, he was at West Point, which then had no summer vacations. He never claimed to have invented baseball. He may never have seen a game. His obituary in The New York Times does not mention baseball. These facts were no problem for Spaulding. The commission’s report was accepted as gospel for decades.

In 1936, the baseball industry, the state of New York, and the village of Cooperstown began constructing the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was scheduled to open in 1939, the centennial of Doubleday’s alleged invention of the game. The state put up signs along the roads declaring Cooperstown to be the birthplace of baseball. The post office even issued a commemorative stamp.

Amidst the commotion, one Bruce Cartwright wrote a letter of his own. He claimed his grandfather, Alexander H. Cartwright, a native New Yorker, had invented baseball in 1845 and provided his grandfather’s diaries to prove it.

Cartwright and some friends had been playing ball for a few years before they organized the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club on September 23, 1845. Cartwright and a friend, Daniel L. “Doc” Adams, drafted what became the first codified baseball rules. Fines were established for misconduct: profanity, 6¢; arguing with the umpire, 25¢; disobeying the team captain, 50¢.

To be sure, there were some differences. They caught the ball barehanded (it was much lighter and larger than today’s); there were no balls or strikes: the batter could stand at the plate all day until the pitcher threw the right kind of ball; and a ball caught on the first bounce was an out. The Knickerbockers played at least fourteen intraclub games before their first real match against “the New York Club” at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken. They lost, 23-1.

Other teams sprang up within months. By 1854, there were at least a half-dozen in the metropolitan area. By the late 1850s, more than 100 teams flourished in and around New York City alone. There were teams from Buffalo to Cleveland, Chicago, California, and even the Minnesota Territory.

Meanwhile, Cartwright left New York on March 1, 1849, for the California gold fields. He traveled overland and, as his descendant Alexander Cartwright IV has written, he “walked most of the way. He took a few balls and bats along with him on the excursion, and became a kind of baseball Johnny Appleseed, planting the seeds of the game across the land.”

He is said to have played with miners, storekeepers, Indians,and settlers at frontier towns and Army posts along the way. He hated California and left San Francisco within five days for the Sandwich Islands (now called Hawaii). He spent the rest of his life there, becoming a successful businessman and founding the Honolulu Fire Department (he was chief for nine years). He also taught the Hawaiians how to play baseball. He died in 1892. A street is named after him, as is Cartwright Field, a small ballpark, and there is a bronze plaque in his honor at Honolulu’s City Hall.

As the Hall of Fame was being built, Robert Henderson, a New York Public Library researcher with a passion for baseball, presented his own evidence that baseball was derived from rounders. Most commentators agree his evidence was conclusive. Besides, even the Cartwright claims rest in ambiguity: the Delhi, New York, Gazette for July 13, 1825 has a notice listing the names of nine men challenging any group in Delaware County to a game of baseball at the home of Edward B. Chace for $1 a game. There are references to some kind of organized sport called baseball in Rochester and Genesee, New York, by the 1820s. By the 1830s, there were organized baseball clubs in Philadelphia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. We do not know the rules by which they played, but the name is the same.

The Hall of Fame opened at Cooperstown in 1939. The so-called “Doubleday baseball” is still on exhibit. Baseball is the village’s biggest business, bringing some 350,000 visitors a year. Local merchants still promote the Doubleday legend. The annual Hall of Fame game is still played on Doubleday Field. As recently as 1995, Montrew Dunham published Abner Doubleday, Young Baseball Pioneer. Alexander Cartwright was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 for his contributions to the game. Doubleday, who has a monument in the Hall itself, has never been inducted.

New York Press, July 25, 2000

February 6, 2015   No Comments

The Commodore

In 1802, Uriah Phillips Levy ran away to sea at the age of ten. He returned two years later, as he had promised his mother, to prepare for his bar mitzvah. Then he was apprenticed to a Philadelphia ship owner. To Levy, it was life and death. A square-rigger has more than 200 ropes, each with a distinct name and function, and Levy had to know them all. To confuse a clew line with a halyard, or a lee brace with a weather backstay, could mean the end of the ship and everybody in her.

Within nine years, as Levy wrote, “I passed through every grade of service–cabin boy, ordinary seaman, able-bodied seaman, boatswain, third, second and first mates, to that of captain…” In 1809, while he was on shore leave in Tortola, a British press gang seized him. He was carrying his papers. However, a Royal Marine sergeant sneered, “You don’t look like an American to me. You look like a Jew.” Levy replied, “I am an American and a Jew.” “If the Americans have Jew peddlers manning their ships, it’s no wonder they sail so badly,” the Royal Marine replied. Levy hit him full in the face.

Hitting a Royal Marine in the face is almost invariably a mistake. When Levy came to in the brig of HMS Vermyra, the officer of the watch was shoving a New Testament at him and demanding he swear himself into the Royal Navy. Levy refused, saying, “I am an American and I cannot swear allegiance to your king. And I am a Jew, and do not swear on your testament, or with my head uncovered.” He somehow gained an audience with Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who agreed his papers were valid and released him.

In 1811, at nineteen, he became master and part owner of the brig George Washington. He nailed a mezuzah outside his cabin door. When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, Levy entered the U.S. Navy as a sailing master. Levy was captured when his ship was taken by a British warship. He was imprisoned at Dartmoor for sixteen months, during a winter so cold the Thames froze solid to the bottom. He learned French and fencing; he failed only in organizing a congregation among the prisoners for want of a minyan.

On his return, he was assigned to USS Franklin. At a ball in June 1816, Lieut. William Potter, an anti-Semite, bumped into Levy three times. Levy slapped Potter. Potter shouted, “You damned Jew!” Levy replied, “That I am a Jew I neither deny nor regret.” The next morning, Potter sent Levy a written challenge. On June 21, 1816 they met in a meadow in New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia. When asked if he had anything to say, Levy recited a Hebrew prayer. Then he suggested they abandon the matter as ludicrous. Potter called him a coward. “You’re a fool,” replied Levy, who was a crack shot.

They stepped off twenty paces. Potter shot and missed four times. Each time, Levy fired into the air. Potter fired a fifth time, nicked Levy’s ear, screamed, “I mean to have his life,” and began reloading. Perhaps sensing Potter might be finding his range, Levy then took aim for the first time that morning and squeezed the trigger. Potter was dead before he hit the ground.

Within a month, Levy had an argument with a Marine officer in the Franklin‘s wardroom, ending when the two men were separated after the Marine called Levy a damned Jew. Each was court-martialed for ungentlemanly and unofficer-like conduct, found guilty, and sentenced to be reprimanded by the Secretary of the Navy. It was the first of Levy’s six courts-martial. Nonetheless, on March 5, 1817, President Monroe signed Levy’s commission as a lieutenant. He was the second Jew to become a naval officer and would be the first to make the Navy his career. He was then assigned to duty in USS United States. Her captain, William Crane, wrote a letter to his superior officer finding Levy personally objectionable. Crane court-martialed Levy within the year for a petty infraction, sentencing him to be dismissed from the service; President Monroe ordered the decision reversed.

In USS Guerriere, Levy was court-martialed on February 12, 1819, for his language in rebuking another officer and sentenced to be dismissed from the service. Again, Monroe reversed the decision. In USS Spark, he was court-martialed on June 8, 1821 for calling another officer “a great many unsavory names.” This time he was sentenced to reprimand by his commanding officer.

After seven years in the Navy, he had been court-martialed four times, and he was not yet 30 years old. Despite his professional skill, efficiency, and courage, he was proud, arrogant and self-righteous. He was also a Jew with no tolerance for anti-Semitic insults. Last, he was a crusader for an unpopular cause: the abolition of flogging in the Navy.

Levy saw his first flogging on United States. A sailor had been sentenced to twelve lashes on each of three charges. After the man was tied to a grating, the boatswain took the first swing with a cat-o’-nine-tails. By the fifth stroke, the man’s flesh had opened. By the twelfth, his back was a mass of chewed flesh, and his blood dripped down onto the deck. After each stroke, the boatswain ran the cat’s tails through his fingers to comb out the bits of flesh clinging to the leather. After the twentieth blow, the boatswain took up a fresh cat. At the thirtieth lash, the sailor passed out. A bucket of salt water was splashed over his back and he received the final lashes.

Levy, utterly revolted, found it barbarous and degrading. He claimed it was also ineffective because it embittered rather than reforming the criminal. His fellow officers found this subversive to discipline. Thus, Levy became doubly a pariah.

Nonetheless, six years passed before his fifth court-martial, aboard USS Cyane. He was found guilty of using bad language and challenging two other officers to duels and sentenced to be “reprimanded publicly on the quarterdeck of every vessel of the Navy in commission, and at every Navy Yard in the United States.” In 1838, he was ordered to Pensacola to take command of USS Vandalia. The sloop barely floated and its officers and crew were a congregation of thieves, misfits and drunkards. Within six months, he rehabilitated the ship and her crew and took her to sea.

He abolished corporal punishment aboard Vandalia. Instead, he resorted to public humiliations. A man caught stealing was forced to wear a wooden sign lettered “Thief” and a man found drunk on duty would wear a bottle-shaped sign lettered “A Drunkard’s Punishment.” I was unable to find what he did in cases of sodomy.

Three years after taking Vandalia to sea, the Navy court-martialed him for his “cruel and scandalous” methods of punishment. The court-martial ruled that Levy be dismissed from the service. President John Tyler reportedly laughed aloud when he read the report. The President asked whether substituting such punishments for twelve strokes of the cat merited Levy’s dismissal from the service. He mitigated Levy’s sentence to one year’s suspension. Then he promoted Levy to captain.

Meanwhile, Levy’s real estate investments on Duane and Greenwich Streets in Manhattan made him a wealthy man. His means let him indulge his interests, including his admiration for Thomas Jefferson. In 1833, he commissioned a statue of Jefferson which now stands in the Capitol rotunda. His gift of a full-sized bronze copy is still in the Council chambers in New York City Hall. On May 20, 1836, he bought Jefferson’s home, Monticello, for $2,700. Levy would not let his hero’s mansion fall into ruin. He slowly restored each room, often repairing and rebuilding them himself, and recovered many of Jefferson’s original furnishings. When he was done, he opened the house to the public.

In 1855, Congress enacted the Naval Reform Act, largely to rid the Navy of superfluous officers. A board of fifteen senior officers met secretly to purge the Navy list. One of the victims was Levy, who was cashiered for “inefficiency.” Congress then amended the law to permit dismissed officers to present their cases before a board of inquiry. In November 1857, Levy had his hearing. A long string of officers testified against him: their vague, fact-free testimony failed to conceal their detestation of the Jew as well as the man. Levy presented thirteen active duty and nine retired naval officers, who testified to his competence, courage, and effectiveness. He then presented fifty-three character witnesses, including former secretary of the Navy and historian George Bancroft, governors, senators, congressmen, bank presidents, merchants, doctors, and editors. Bancroft confirmed Levy had been purged “because he was of the Jewish persuasion.” The hearing massively embarrassed the Navy.

On December 19, 1857, Levy began his testimony, which required three days. It was magniloquent: “My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors.” He boomed on to his main theme: “I am an American, a sailor, and a Jew.” At the end, there was a moment’s silence before the explosion of the cheers, the hats flung in the air, the wild applause. On December 24, 1857 Levy was restored to active duty.

On Feb. 21, 1860, forty-three years after President Monroe had made Levy a lieutenant, President Buchanan gave him command of the Mediterranean Fleet. With command came the Navy’s highest rank: commodore. The American fleet and frigates from Sardinia and Russia boomed out a thirteen-gun salute in the harbor at La Spezia as the pennant bearing a single star ran up the main mast of his flagship, The USS Macedonian.

On July 14, 1860, the Commodore saluted the Stars and Stripes and walked down the gangplank for the last time. Yet his country had use for him: President Lincoln apparently suggested to Gideon Welles, the secretary of the Navy, that Levy’s unique experience of the military justice system should not be wasted. The old sailor’s last assignment has a distinctly Lincolnesque humor: president of the Naval Court-Martial Board.

In the late winter of 1862, Levy came down with pneumonia. He died in his house at 107 St. Marks Place on March 22, 1862. Four days later, after Rabbi Lyons of Shearith Israel conducted services at Levy’s house, the Navy paid him honor, if only to ensure he was dead. Six sailors shouldered his coffin down the stairs to the hearse. Three companies of Marines snapped to attention. USS North Carolina‘s band struck up the “Dead March” from Saul. Three captains and three lieutenants served as his pallbearers.

His will reflects his generosity and his vanity. He must have been proud of the clause that reads: “I give, devise, and bequeath my Farm and Estate at Monticello, in Virginia, formerly belonging to President Thomas Jefferson…to the people of the United States…” He also must have loved the clause that allocates funds for his monument in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn: “A full length statue, in Iron or Bronze of the size of life at least, standing on a single Block of Granite sunk three feet in the ground, and in the full uniform of a Captain in the United States Navy, and holding in its hand a Scroll on which it shall be inscribed ‘Under this Monument,’ or ‘In Memory of’ Uriah P. Levy, Captain in the United States Navy, Father of the law for the abolition of the barbarous practice of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States…”

The Navy’s official website for naval history includes Levy’s portrait in full dress. However, his career is not described.

New York Press, September 12, 2000

February 6, 2015   No Comments

Haughty Bill, Fighting Cock of the Army

Broadway and Fifth Avenue meet between 23rd and 25th Streets, across from Madison Square Park. North of the intersection stands a marble obelisk. On bands around the shaft are names of battles and wars: Monterey, Chapultepec, Chippewa, Molina del Rey, Churubusco, Contreras. On its southern face is a bronze relief of a lone horseman, his horse rearing as the rider, turning to command, points his sword toward the unseen enemy. Beneath the whole is molded the words: MAJ. GEN. WORTH.

Here lies William Jenkins Worth, “Haughty Bill,” called by one of his admirers “The Fighting Cock of the Army.” Worth had panache. Remarkably good-looking, Worth was tall, superbly built, a magnificent horseman, charming when he chose to be, a good conversationalist, always tailored within an inch of his life, with a passion for cocked hats, gold braid, and epaulettes.

His pursuit of glory began at eighteen. He was working as a clerk in Hudson, New York when the U.S. Army came recruiting for the War of 1812. On March 19, 1813, Worth was commissioned a second lieutenant and appointed to the staff of the flamboyant Brigadier General John Parker Boyd. Frustrated by peacetime service, Boyd had resigned his commission in 1789 and journeyed to India, where he raised a private army of 1,800 mercenaries and sold their services to the native Princes. “Military history,” wrote Edward Wallace, “presents no more fascinating picture than this Yankee adventurer spurring across an Indian countryside with his brigade of turbaned lancers and a score of lumbering elephants with their field guns.”

Though colorful, and successful enough in India, Boyd proved incompetent in fighting British regulars in the service of the United States and was soon relieved by Winfield Scott, at twenty-six America’s youngest brigadier general. Three years before, as a captain, Scott had denounced his commander, General James Wilkinson, as a liar and a scoundrel. Scott did not know, as we do now, that Wilkinson was also a traitor, in the pay of the Spanish. Insulting generals does not ordinarily enhance an officer’s prospects. Yet within three years of his court-martial for insubordination, Winfield Scott was a general and William Worth his aide. They struck it off immediately and were close friends for nearly thirty-five years. Worth even named his only son Winfield Scott Worth.

They nearly missed their first battle. Scott and Worth had sat down to breakfast on July 4, 1814, when Worth observed several hundred Iroquois, then allied with the British and in an unsympathetic frame of mind, bursting from the trees at full charge, racing toward Scott’s headquarters. Clearly, someone had failed to maintain the perimeter. That would be dealt with later. For the moment, absence of body was as useful as presence of mind. Scott and Worth crashed out the front door, cleared the porch in a single leap, and sprinted for the main encampment.

Thus, inauspiciously, began the Battle of Chippewa, in which Scott turned and crushed his enemies. Scott wrote of Worth, “…there was no danger [he] did not cheerfully encounter in communicating my orders.” Three weeks later, on July 25, 1814, Scott fought the Battle of Niagara, also called Lundy’s Lane. Worth was so badly wounded that he spent the next year in bed and would limp for the rest of his life.

From 1820 to 1828, Worth was commandant of cadets at West Point. Josiah Quincy then observed Worth: the diarist wrote that Worth’s “polished exterior [concealed] the severity of a rigid disciplinarian; his men feel his slightest word has the force of an irrevocable decree.” He had a clear, crisp, full voice. He explained his orders clearly and concisely, as rare in military as in civilian life. He noticed everything, from a missing coat button to the quality of the food in the mess. He became wildly popular among the cadets, who cheered him wildly when he returned to active duty.

In 1840, Worth and his command, the Eighth Regiment, were sent to the Seminole War, our first Vietnam. The white men’s promises to leave the Seminoles alone had been broken. Matters were complicated by runaway slaves, who were welcomed by the Seminoles and then intermarried with them. The white men wanted the blacks re-enslaved. The Seminoles refused. The Seminoles used the Everglades as their home and their fighting ground. A tribe of 3000, including noncombatants, had defeated ten generals and tied down half the United States Army. Nearly 1,500 soldiers died of bullet wounds and fever in Florida: more than in all other Indian Wars.

Colonel Worth instituted sanitation in his camps and began taking his men into the swamp, gradually mapping the islands where the Seminoles lived. On April 19, 1842, the parade ground dandy led his men through the Everglades for two miles, through water to their waists, to a place called Palaklaklaha. There, he defeated the Seminoles in their last pitched battle.

The Seminoles fought no more, but never surrendered. They fell even further into the Everglades, where the white man would not pursue them and remained formally at war with the United States for another 130 years. Worth was brevetted a brigadier general for distinguished service.

In 1846, the United States provoked war with Mexico. President Polk, too clever by half in hoping to sow confusion among the Mexicans, allowed Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna to re-enter Mexico. He began raising armies and prepared to take the field against “the degenerate descendants of William Penn [come] to insult the sepulchers of our fathers.”

The Napoleon of the West, Mexico’s Man of Destiny, the Ever-Victorious, the Soldier of the People, the Enigma: Texan and American propaganda painted this restless, energetic, and unfocussed man as a nineteenth century Saddam Hussein. Santa Anna was merely a charming rogue, fond of medals and gold braid, pompous ceremonial, wenching, drinking, and cockfighting, and the truth was not in him. He could pose like a soldier, but his genius for politics—he was four times President of Mexico—did not extend to the battlefield.

Worth first fought in Mexico under General Zachary Taylor, a thick-set, laid back old soldier. He was kindly and a bit of a slob. He was also personally brave and a dogged slugger of a fighter.

At daylight on May 18, 1846, the U.S. Army crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. Worth led them across and then became the first American to raise the Stars and Stripes on Mexican soil during the War. Taylor slogged to Monterey, about one hundred miles south. He chose to storm the city. Taylor didn’t care for Worth, but knew him the best soldier at hand. Accordingly, he gave him the right wing.

By 8:00 a.m. on September 21, having cut the last road out of Monterey, Worth advanced upon the heights. Worth sent a column of regulars and a column of Texans up the ridge. The heights rose four hundred feet, were lined with rough chaparral, and were defended with two artillery pieces and infantry. Worth was in the saddle all day, constantly under fire, but he had baraka, as the Moroccans would say, and the bullets knew him not. After several hours of maneuvering, the regulars and Texans, deciding to get it over with, rushed up the hill, “all firing volley after volley, ‘followed by the wild cheers and shouts of the men.'” The Mexicans withdrew to fight another day.

That evening it rained. Worth and his men had neither blankets, shelter, nor food. Off to the east, Taylor had lost control of his battle: the diversion to help Worth had become a major, unplanned assault on an entrenched enemy, with Taylor personally fighting in the streets like a subaltern instead of directing the battle like a general.

Taylor would not fight on the 22nd; Worth and his men would fight alone. Amidst the rain, the lightning, and the wild wind, Worth moved out at 3 a.m. The old Bishop’s Palace on a neighboring ridge was garrisoned and fortified. His men dragged their cannon up the hill as Worth waited. A little after noon, Worth’s men blasted down the palace doors and, pulling their guns into the complex, spread “grapeshot and consternation everywhere.” At 4 p.m., Worth personally raised the American flag over the palace.

He now awaited orders. At 10 a.m. on the 23rd, Worth, hearing artillery fire from the streets of Monterey, decided that his “orders must have strayed” and advanced. His men fought building by building until Worth was a block from the Central Plaza where the Mexican governor was holed up in the Cathedral. Worth then brought up a ten inch mortar saved for just this occasion. One round knocked a piece off the Cathedral. The governor immediately sent out a flag of truce. Thus ended the Battle of Monterey.

Worth won his second star.

Then Scott asked for Worth’s transfer to his own army. Scott envisioned a mass landing near Vera Cruz. Nothing on this scale had been done since William the Conqueror. On March 9, 1847, Worth and his First Brigade boarded sixty-five landing boats and headed for the beach. One moved ahead. It touched. Worth rose in the prow and turned to the landing force. His sword flashed from its scabbard. He roared, “Follow me,” vaulted over the side, and splashed ashore as, the other boats grounding, his men rushed after him, cheering. He was the first American on the ground at Vera Cruz.

By September 1847, Scott’s forces had fought their way to Mexico City.  It was largely surrounded by lakes, bridged by causeways held with artillery. Two causeways were guarded by Chapultepec, an old Aztec fortress rebuilt by the Spanish and the Mexicans. Scott chose Worth to take it.

The American artillery opened fire at 5 a.m. on September 12, keeping one shell in the air at all times. The north and east walls were too precipitous to be scaled; the west side could be approached only through a swamp. Even Worth believed he would be defeated. September 13 dawned clear and blue. The artillery fire stopped at 8:00 a.m. Then Worth’s forces rushed the castle. Its walls were so steep that the Mexicans could not direct aimed fire at their base.

The Americans clustered at the foot of the walls, out of the line of fire. Then the scaling ladders came. Sharpshooters began keeping the defenders’ heads down. The first ladders in place were toppled and the assault troops with them. But then enough rose to allow fifty men to climb simultaneously. Lieutenant George Pickett (who later commanded the Confederate charge on the third day at Gettysburg) stopped his sergeant. “I cannot command you to go where I would not lead you,” he said, and became the first American over the walls. Worth took Chapultepec within two hours.

Among those going over the walls were forty Marines. Thus they entered the halls of Montezuma. Six Mexican cadets, one holding their country’s flag in his arms, fought to the last shot and then, rather than surrender, leapt from the battlements. The great monument to Los Ninos Heroicos stands below the walls of Chapultepec.

On the next day, Winfield Scott rode into Mexico City. The friendship with Worth had been frayed by the stress of war, Worth’s ambition, and Scott’s occasional condescension. Soon, Scott would have Worth arrested for insubordination; Worth would prefer charges against Scott; neither man’s reputation remained untarnished.

Worth’s pursuit of glory ended on May 7, 1849, when he died of dysentery while commanding troops in Texas. His funeral took time to arrange, but was well worth the wait, and he would have greatly enjoyed it. On November 25, 1857, New York City’s shops closed at noon, when the church bells began tolling. His mahogany casket was borne out City Hall’s front doors and placed on the catafalque. This was drawn by sixteen matched iron gray horses, each shrouded in black housings that swept the ground, with black ostrich plumes nodding from their headstraps. Ahead marched four brigades of New York State militia in gorgeous full dress. The bands played the Death March from Saul. The parade was two miles long. It took three hours to reach Madison Square Park. Then the orators thundered: “The gallant chivalric Worth was ever seen with waving plume, in the heat of combat, leading to victory. His fame will endure when his monument shall have crumbled.”

The obelisk still stands; Worth is nearly forgotten.  As slaves whispered to Roman generals during their triumphs, all glory is fleeting.

— New York Press, February 17, 1999

February 3, 2015   No Comments

Napoleon’s Older Brother

On August 19, 1815, the Commerce, an American brig of 200 tons, Captain Misservey commanding, raced through the Narrows under full sail after outrunning two British frigates in the lower Bay.  Someone—Misservey never said who—had paid him 18,000 francs in gold to depart immediately from Bordeaux for New York, and some say the ship had sailed without receiving her cargo of cognac.

On July 24, she had made an unscheduled stop off Royan, at the mouth of the Gironde.  That night, several passengers boarded from an open boat.  Misservey did not examine their papers closely, including those of the dignified middle-aged man called the Comte Surviglieri. Under the circumstances, perhaps ignorance was best.

Napoleon Bonaparte, second son of a Corsican notary with noble pretensions, who within twenty years had gone from receiving a lieutenant’s commission to crowning himself Emperor of the French, had made his last play. On March 1, Napoleon had escaped from Elba; nineteen days later he had entered Paris in triumph. Within weeks, he had raised an army against the European powers (they had proclaimed him an outlaw—literally, “one beyond the protection of the law,” a man whose murderer would go unpunished), and taken the field by June 12.

He had not quite the Grand Army that had triumphed from Lisbon to the walls of Moscow, but it had him. He was in Belgium within three days. On June 16, the forces under his personal command smashed the Prussians at Ligny. If he struck swiftly, smashing his enemies one by one before they could unite… After all, he had done it before.

The luck ran out. On June 18, sick and worn out, he fought the British and the Dutch at a Belgian hamlet, little more than some buildings by the road, called Waterloo. At the last he sent the Imperial Guard up the hill, drums rolling, and they broke, and night and the Prussians came, and it was over.

Many had compromised themselves during Napoleon’s two decades in power. Some went to the wall. Others, like the man who called himself the Comte Surviglieri, went into exile. He took rooms in Mrs. Powell’s boarding house just off City Hall Park, on Park Place, west of Broadway, under the name “Monsieur Bouchard.” The New York Evening Post reported rumors of the arrival of a mysterious Frenchman.

One afternoon, the gentleman who now called himself Monsieur Bouchard strolled down Broadway.  Another Frenchman, an ex-grenadier who had served with the imperial armies in Spain, was walking up. The veteran glanced at Bouchard, who gazed back with polite reserve. Then the old soldier fell to his knees, bawled out “Majesty,” and kissed the hands of Bouchard, whom he had recognized as His Most Catholic Majesty Jose I, King of Spain and of the Indies.

That had been merely one of the lives of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother.

Joseph had been born in 1768 at Ajaccio—the capital of Corsica—and, after realizing he did not have a calling to the priesthood (neither celibacy nor chastity ran in that family), earned a law degree at the University of Pisa and returned to Corsica to practice law.

For all its sound and fury, the French Revolution—which began as Joseph completed his studies—had involved merely the violent substitution of one elite for another, accompanied by a massive transfer of wealth to the new class. In the politics of their time, the Bonapartes were extreme leftists, a pose that proved most profitable: Napoleon was a general by the age of 25; Joseph was elected mayor of Ajaccio in 1790 and then a deputy to the National Assembly.

But Joseph understood which Bonaparte was in charge. A wealthy, powerful uncle, on his deathbed, said to him: “You, Joseph, are the eldest, but Napoleon is the real head of the family. Never forget it.”

Neither man did. After 1795, no one did.  As head of the family, Napoleon devoted considerable effort to placing his brothers in good, high-paying jobs.  He placed Joseph with the army in a clerical post paying 6,000 francs a year. At this time, Joseph met the girl of his dreams. Julie Clary was short and horse-faced; she was also kindhearted, intelligent, and heiress to her father’s fortune; and she adored Joseph Bonaparte. In its own way, their marriage was a success: they had two daughters; she would become a queen; and she would be with him at the end.

In 1797 he served as French ambassador to the Papal States, insisting on a salary of 60,000 gold francs. (The paper franc had become wildly inflated; the gold franc was worth 75 paper francs in 1794, 2,000 in 1795 and 80,000 in 1798.) All the while, Joseph was making a fortune through commodities speculation, using insider knowledge from his brother.

In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the Republic, instituting a military dictatorship.  Five years later, in 1804, the Senate proclaimed Napoleon emperor. As Napoleon then had no son, Joseph was nominated as his heir, proclaimed a prince of the empire, appointed Grand Elector (the emperor’s representative in the Senate), and given the Luxembourg Palace as his residence. Joseph being Joseph, he held out for an annual allowance and expense account totaling more than 1.3 million gold francs. Around this time, Napoleon complained of him and of his other brothers, “…my brothers are nothing without me; they are great only because I have made them great.”

On December 2, 1804, Napoleon’s coronation was held at Notre Dame. Before setting out for the cathedral, Napoleon took  Joseph by the arm and whispered, “If our father could see us!” In Jacques-Louis David’s painting of the ceremony, Joseph appears at the extreme left, dressed in a white silk tunic and a flame-colored, ermine-lined mantle, wearing a velvet hat with turned-up brim and ostrich plumes.

In 1806, Napoleon had Joseph proclaimed King of Naples, where he proved quite popular. Two years later, in May 1808, Napoleon invited the Spanish royal family to visit him in France, at Bayonne, just beyond the northeastern-most border of Spain. That they accepted the invitation is proof that brains had been bred out of them. They found a large French army at the Spanish border and a genial emperor who firmly suggested the abdication of King Charles IV and his son, King Ferdinand VII, in favor of Joseph. Proof that courage, too, had been bred out of the Spanish royals is that both men signed the papers. It is as if a corporate executive was being transferred from one division to another.

Initially, Joseph seems to have been persuaded by his brother’s propagandists that the Spanish people wanted him. He found they loathed him as a foreigner. Within days, Madrid was torn by riots put down by French troops, which Goya’s brush would make immortal.

Joseph found the streets empty and the windows barred against him. The only persons who welcomed him were soldiers of the French occupying armies and collaborators on the French payroll. The Spanish nationalist propaganda painted Joseph as a monster, a lecher and a drunk-Pepe Botellas (Joey Bottles), the Intrusive King. The Spanish resistance would cost millions of francs and hundreds of thousands of lives. It would bleed the French Empire to death.

If intentions were realities, Joseph would have been a good king. He was kindly and affable, and enough of an old Revolutionary to decree constant social improvements: universal suffrage, representative bodies in local, provincial and national governments, and universal free education for boys and girls (the latter was truly revolutionary in Spain). Today, the Prado, Spain’s greatest museum, quietly admits that King Jose founded it by decree in 1809.

But despite his uniforms and medals, Joseph had never commanded troops in battle. Only in 1812, when Napoleon shifted his first-rate military talent from Spain to the Russian campaign, did Joseph become supreme commander of imperial forces in Spain. The result was a succession of disasters, the loss of Madrid and the final, grotesque defeat on June 21, 1813, at Vitoria.

Joseph commanded some 57,000 men and more than 150 guns. His Anglo-Spanish opponents would have to ford the River Zadorra to advance against him. But the King neither ordered the river bridges burned nor even create a plan of battle, being distracted by one of his mistresses.

The British broke through the French lines. Around 1 p.m., the King ordered a general retreat. Neither he nor his staff had planned for an orderly withdrawal, as any competent commander might have done.  Thus, his soldiers simply turned and ran.  A British cavalryman, Capt. Windham of the 14th Light Dragoons, galloped alongside Joseph’s coach and fired his pistols into its near window. The Intrusive King extruded himself from the other side and, as a guard stopped a bullet that had been meant for him, leapt onto a gray, clapped spurs to its sides, and rode for his life.

In her biography of Wellington, Elizabeth Longford describes how the victorious British were distracted by loot. “It was as nothing the world had seen since the days of Alexander the Great: 151 cannon, just on two million cartridges, immense quantities of ammunition.” The French army’s payroll, some $5 million, had arrived at Vitoria just before the battle. Nearly all of it vanished, probably into British pockets.

Joseph also lost his state papers, his private correspondence (including some interesting love letters that provided general amusement when published), and the crown and regalia of a king of Spain. His large silver chamber pot was taken as a trophy of battle by Captain Windham’s regiment, now the King’s Royal Hussars, which nicknamed it “The Emperor.” For nearly two centuries, the regiment has required distinguished visitors at its mess dinners to use the pot for drinking toasts in champagne, after which it is placed ceremoniously on the visitor’s head.

Joseph and 55,000 men sprinted over the Pyrenees to France, as well as some 12,000 Spanish families—collaborators who followed him into exile. Napoleon ordered him to his estate at Mortefontaine, where he passed his time in playing music, shooting, boating, sulking, and fornication. At last, Joseph was appointed lieutenant general of France, the traditional title of a protector of the realm, with responsibility for the defense of Paris. Naturally, Joseph surrendered Paris to the Allies nearly without a shot. Upon Napoleon’s first abdication, he exiled himself to Switzerland.

When Napoleon returned from Elba, Joseph returned to Paris (after burying five million francs’ worth of uncut diamonds on his estate). Amazingly, he was appointed prime minister. It is unclear whether he did anything during his brief tenure. After Waterloo, as the imperial regime collapsed about him, he rejoined Napoleon at Rochefort, while  Joseph’s agents had chartered the Commerce to transport them to America.

A few days before his arrival at Rochefort, Joseph had been mistaken for Napoleon, arrested, and then released. Now, Joseph offered to remain, impersonating his brother while Napoleon sailed for America. Whether Napoleon thought this beneath an emperor’s dignity or resisted owing Joseph a favor is unclear. He refused and surrendered to the British, believing they would grant him asylum in England. He was wrong. Two months later, they landed him at the island of St. Helena, 1,200 miles off the Angolan coast, where he remained a prisoner until his death in 1821. In 1818, Joseph financed a substantial attempt to rescue Napoleon. As one might expect from anything to which Joseph lent his talents, it failed.

Once Joseph’s presence in New York was exposed, the press lionized him as an heroic figure of the Napoleonic adventure, a version of events with which he happily agreed.  Joseph spent seventeen happy years in America. He purchased Point Breeze, an estate near Bordentown, New Jersey, in the summer of 1816. He frequently entertained his neighbors, who found him polite, unpretentious, and kind. He imported the first company of ballet dancers seen in the United States. He was also denounced by the high-minded ladies of the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance for serving champagne at breakfast.

Queen Julie had remained in Europe and, despite Joseph’s frequent requests, never came to America with their daughters. But he did not lack for companionship. He kept one mistress at his hunting lodge in upstate New York—Annette Savage, a Quaker girl whom he had met in Philadelphia. Their daughter, Caroline, grew up to be a striking beauty and Joseph both gave her a dowry and paid for her wedding (one of the most elaborate ever seen in Watertown). Alas, her improvident husband lost everything and she ended up teaching French in Richfield Springs.  Joseph also maintained a principal mistress, Madame Sari, and fathered yet another child by Madame Lacoste, a Creole lady whom he was rumored to have bought from her husband.

Under Napoleon’s Law of Succession of 1804, Joseph would succeed to the imperial throne if Napoleon’s descent failed. In 1832, after Napoleon’s sole legitimate son died at Vienna, Joseph became the Bonapartist pretender. Later that year, after seventeen happy years in America, Joseph called on President Jackson to thank him for the hospitality of the American people.  He then returned to Europe, where he was reunited with Queen Julie, and yet again assumed a role his brother had created for him.

Joseph died in Florence in 1844 with Julie at his side, and by his express command was buried wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece, Spain’s oldest, most distinguished, and most noble order of chivalry. He had awarded it to himself.

New York Press, December 21, 1999

January 30, 2015   No Comments

Honore Jaxon, Professional Rebel

n December 1951, a ninety-year-old man was evicted from 157 East 34th Street. The building’s former live-in janitor and furnace tender, his old age and ill-health had precluded satisfactory performance and the landlord had fired him. Out on the sidewalk, his books and papers, neatly tied and wrapped in brown paper, were piled six feet high, eleven feet across, and forty feet long.

Major Honoré Joseph Jaxon told reporters that he was a Canadian half-breed, born of a Metis Indian maiden and a Virginian adventurer. The rest of his story was a vague farrago of treason, rebellion, and Indian wars in the Canadian West, and apparently no one put much stock in it. His photograph in the Daily News showed a bearded, decrepit old man with a thousand-yard stare.

Jaxon moved to the offices of the Bowery News, Harry Baronian’s legendary paper of “the basement of society.” After Jaxon sold two tons of newspapers and magazines for scrap, the rest of his collection—mostly books and papers on Indian history, life, and customs—were carried to his new residence, according to The New York Times,  by “gentlemen of the Bowery, led by one called Bozo.” Less than a month later, Jaxon died at Bellevue Hospital. His papers went to a city landfill.

Some of his story was fudge. He was not half Indian, nor had his father been a Virginian. But nearly seven decades before he had fought in Louis Riel’s North West Rebellion, serving as Riel’s personal secretary. He had also been tried for treason. He had generally spent his life serving revolutionary causes, and the lost mountain of his books and papers had documented the colorful, tragic history of the old Canadian West. It may, as the Ottawa Citizen wrote a few years ago, “have contained some of the secrets of one of the blackest periods in the history of Canada.”

Most Americans have never heard of Louis Riel. Few Canadians have not. He was born in 1844 in Manitoba of French, Irish, and Indian heritage. Louis was educated for the priesthood and then the bar. Neither took, and so he returned home.

Manitoba then was part of Rupert’s Land, the vast territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Its people were Metis, descendants of French fur traders and native American women, whose distinct culture blended both traditions. In 1869, the Bay Company sold its lands to Canada. When the Dominion government sent in surveyors, the Metis believed their arrival signaled the loss of their farms and stopped them at gunpoint.

louisreiel_1878In a land of illiterates, a little education and a gift for mob oratory go a long way. Riel’s rise in late 1869 was meteoric. In October he became secretary of the Metis National Committee and by November had become such an irritant that Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s prime minister, discussed the possibility of bribing him into silence. By December Riel was president of Manitoba’s provisional government. He seized Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), where he established his capital. His troops closed the border. Riel then negotiated Manitoba’s admission to the Confederation as a self-governing province rather than a mere territory.

Things fell apart when Riel’s government executed Thomas Scott, a militant anti-Catholic, for inciting an armed uprising against Riel. Macdonald sent in the militia. Riel’s guerrillas drove them out. At Macdonald’s request, the Imperial government in London sent out Colonel Garnet Wolseley with British regulars. The model for General Stanley, W.S. Gilbert’s modern major-general in The Pirates of Penzance, Wolseley was idiosyncratic but effective: his dawn assault on Fort Garry in August 1870 found it abandoned and Riel riding for the border.

Though in exile and under indictment, Riel was elected to Canada’s House of Commons in October 1873. Parliament immediately expelled him. He was re-elected in January 1874, expelled again that April, and re-elected yet again the following September. This was becoming absurd. On October 15, 1874, Her Majesty’s government outlawed Riel for five years. It was merely the first-act closer.

Honoré Joseph Jaxon, who would be among Riel’s most fervent supporters, was born William Henry Jackson in Toronto on May 13, 1861. His parents were well-educated English-speaking Canadians. Jackson began his university studies at sixteen. When his father lost his business in a fire, the family took a homestead in the Northwest Territories near the proposed right of way of Canada’s first transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Pacific. Jackson joined them, helping his father sell farm machinery. He had a sentimental affection for Indians: he was moved by the thought of once-proud natives subsisting on mice and gophers, dependent on handouts from the very people who had destroyed their way of life. Yet his daily dealings with the white settlers made him aware of their grievances, too.

In 1882, in what seems to have been the kind of saturnalia of corruption more common in the New York State legislature than a British colonial assembly, the Canadian Pacific persuaded the federal Parliament to change its proposed route across the West. Suddenly, the Jacksons and other settlers who had purchased land along the proposed line found themselves 250 miles from the new route, leaving them unable to ship their products or import machinery and tools. Jackson started an anti-government newspaper, the Voice of the People. His firebrand editorials made his reputation: within weeks, he was acclaimed secretary of the militant Farmer’s Union. On July 28, 1884, Jackson issued his manifesto detailing the settlers’ grievances: unjust taxation, improper regulations and laws, government-subsidized monopolies, and high prices on imported goods.

canadian-pacific-trainThen, after fourteen years’ exile, Riel returned. He had been teaching at a mission school in Montana when a Metis delegation arrived. The provincial government had not kept Manitoba intact for the Metis, now outnumbered by white immigrants. The government’s procrastination over granting land to the Metis and its refusal to recognize them as a distinct people had revived discontent. Worse, Eastern speculators had been granted Metis-held lands and authorized to evict them.

In July 1884, Riel arrived at Batoche, Saskatchewan. He met Jackson, who fell under his sway. Jackson so identified with the Metis that he even converted to Catholicism. At Baptism, the English Canadian took the names Honoré Joseph Jaxon, thus reinventing himself as a French half-breed.

Riel began a speaking tour of the Metis settlements with Jaxon as his personal secretary. In December, Riel sent a petition to Ottawa. Even then, Macdonald still thought Riel could be bought off. But in March 1885, Riel was again elected president of a provisional government.  As the president’s personal secretary, Jaxon was the provisional government’s bureaucracy, generating exhaustive political, military, and government correspondence.

Riel’s troops cut the telegraph wires, stopped the mails, and seized government stores and ammunition. Then, on March 26, 1885 Metis soldiers, commanded by Gabriel Dumont, defeated the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Duck Lake.  Dumont, a forty-eight-year-old trapper and guide, was a born general.  He could neither read nor write, but spoke six languages and had been a warrior, horseman, and crack shot from the age of fourteen.

On the day after the defeat at Duck Lake, Major-General Frederick Middleton, CB, the head of the Canadian land forces, arrived at Winnepeg, having been sent West on the news of Riel’s return.  Middleton was stout, short, red-faced, and white-mustached; he had been a professional soldier for over forty years and had not expected active duty when he had taken command in 1882.  But behind the facade of a good-natured Colonel Blimp (he loved ice-skating) was a daring and imaginative officer who had been repeatedly cited for valor and recommended for the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Middleton realized that the North West Rebellion was no petty native uprising. He immediately ordered three thousand troops sent west and as they arrived began advancing on Batoche. Dumont fought him to a standstill with fifty mounted riflemen at the Battle of Fish Creek on April 24, 1885. Middleton’s troops, being at best half-trained militia, were shaky and he had to lead from the front, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire. At the end of the day, Middleton withdrew. It was the last and greatest victory of the Metis in their struggle against modern civilization.

Middleton calmly regrouped while awaiting reinforcements and supplies. Then he attacked Riel and Dumont at Batoche on May 9, 1885. As this made Jaxon’s paperwork irrelevant to the provisional government’s immediate survival, Jaxon went on active duty. He would later claim a cavalry major’s commission.

Despite overwhelming odds, the rebels held out for three days. After his surrender, Riel stood trial for treason as the sole cause and instigator of the rebellion. (Government policy clearly played no role in the Metis’s discontents.) Riel openly rejected his counsel’s argument that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. With fiery eloquence, he characterized the revolts as the acts of a people made desperate by political and corporate power: the Metis as a society were small but even so had rights; Canada, though far greater, “had no greater rights than them, because the right is the same for all.”

Riel was convicted. On November 6, 1885, he was executed at the Northwest Mounted Police barracks at Regina, Saskatchewan. The man hanged for a traitor is today honored as a freedom fighter, the Father of Manitoba, the People’s Hero. His life has inspired biographies, histories, novels, plays, and an opera.

Gabriel Dumont fled south across the border, where he was welcomed as a political refugee and—being between gigs—rode for a while with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After he received the Queen’s pardon in 1888, he returned to Canada and resumed his life as a farmer and trapper. Major-General Middleton was knighted, received a purse of $20,000, and retired a lieutenant-general in 1892 to become Keeper of the Crown Jewels. He died in his headquarters in the Tower of London in 1898.

After the surrender at Batoche, Jaxon was detained incommunicado. At least one Canadian historian, Howard Adams, has argued that Jaxon was silenced to suppress the extent of support for the Rebellion among white settlers. Jaxon was an uncooperative prisoner: he almost escaped once after bathing, racing naked across the prairie with Canadian cavalry in hot pursuit. Finally, at a trial that lasted a half-hour, he was adjudged not guilty by reason of insanity. He escaped a Fort Garry insane asylum within weeks and re-emerged in Chicago, where, surprisingly, he spent the next two decades as a successful, politically-connected general contractor, building sidewalks and lobbying for the cement and construction industries at City Hall and the state Capitol. He also lectured before women’s clubs on life among the Indians.

The Battle of Duck Lane

Yet the contemporary press strongly suggests that Jaxon was active in the political fringe, too. According to The New York Times, he “narrowly escaped being arrested as a principal conspirator…” after the 1886 Haymarket Riot. In June 1894, he marched on Washington with Jacob Coxey’s army of the unemployed. Embrey Howson’s Jacob Sechler Coxey sketches Jaxon as a “Canadian half-breed complete with blanket and tomahawk.” The Times, which detested the whole notion of Coxey’s “petition in boots,” fingered Jaxon to be the leader of an “Anarchistic plot” to blow up the Capitol, the White House, and the Treasury, War, and Navy buildings at Washington. The paper went on to allege that since his escape into the United States, Jaxon had been “engaged in mysterious conspiracies against the English government.” As late as 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt blasted Jaxon for supporting the Industrial Workers of the World.

Later that year, Canada pardoned Jaxon. He returned to tour the West, photographing its vanishing ways of life, and began collecting books, documents, and letters on Riel’s rebellions, the Metis, and the Canadian Indian peoples.

Up until 1911, Jaxon was still dabbling in international revolutionary politics, delivering a spellbinding address to the British Trades Union Congress’s annual conference as the representative of a Mexican revolutionary party. At some point around World War I, he retired to New Jersey, where he briefly edited a left-wing newspaper. In 1919, he relocated to Staten Island and in 1922 to The Bronx. By now the old revolutionary was no more than a gadfly. (The Daily News called him  “a thorn in the side of authority.”) He lived at 1383 Eastern Boulevard, a granite outcropping on the Bronx River. There he built a “palace” out of ammunition boxes, orange crates, and scrap wood, fencing it with boards and corrugated tin.

In February 1942, City health officials hauled Jaxon into court on the grounds that his residence was a rat-infested fire trap without running water. Jaxon argued that it was a fort, perfect for defending against “enemy submarines that might travel up the Bronx River.” The old man had lost none of his genius for resistance: it took four years before the city was able to force him to move, whereupon he took the custodian’s job on East 34th Street.

In his obituary, the Times printed the legend: Jaxon had been born in Montana, the son of a French pioneer settler and a Metis Indian girl, father a fur trader sufficiently wealthy to send him to University, and so on. Jaxon’s reinvented self had overcome his reality.

January 29, 2015   1 Comment