Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

Note: This is the first part in a three-part series about Samuel Dana Greene and Cumberland (MD)’s connections to in the epic battle between the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia.

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The CSS Merrimack sinks the USS Cumberland in 1862. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

She was a monster; a thing of nightmares. A more fitting name for the C.S.S. Virginia would have been The Phoenix, for she had been created from the ashes of the U.S.S. Merrimack.

And the U.S.S. Cumberland, which had aided in the demise of the Merrimack, would help complete the birth of the Virginia.

The Cumberland was a warship launched in 1842 and converted into a heavy sloop-of-war in 1856. Her armament consisted of 22 nine-inch guns, a 10-inch pivot guns and a Dahlgren rifle gun that fired a 70-pound ball.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, the Cumberland was docked at the Gosport Navy Yard in Virginia. Though Virginia had not yet seceded from the Union, its sympathies were with the Confederacy. The day following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the decision was made to open the underwater valves of the Merrimack, another warship, and sink her.

“I begged the captain of the Cumberland to withhold the order; for assistance might be sent, and at any time she could be sunk with a shell from our battery. But the order was given, and the Merrimac slowly sank till she grounded, with her gun-deck a little out of water,” Thomas Selfridge wrote in an 1893 article in The Cosmopolitan. He served as a lieutenant on the Cumberland.

The next day the order came to abandon the shipyard. Nine ships, or one-quarter of the U.S. Navy according to Selfridge, were burned and an immense amount of weapons and munitions were left behind for the Confederacy.

“It was a splendid, but melancholy spectacle, and in the lurid glare, which turned night into day, the Cumberland slipped her moorings, and, in tow of the Pawnee, left Norfolk,” wrote Selfridge.

In November, the Cumberland sailed to the mouth of the James River near Newport News, but in the interim, she had fought in the bombardment and capture of the Hatteras forts. She was the last American frigate to go to battle under sail.

By this time, reports had made their way north that the Confederacy had raised the Merrimack and were turning her into an ironclad fighting ship. The Union was scurrying to build its own ironclad, but the Confederacy had a head start.

Hampton Roads, where the Cumberland was stationed was the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay and from there the gateway to both the capital of the Union and the Confederacy. Union officials feared what the Merrimack, now rechristened the Virginia would do if made its way to Washington. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles ordered fleet commanders to send ships in Hampton Roads out of harm’s way. “The blockade commanders couldn’t get the ships out of the Roads in time, and on March 8, a clearly rattled Welles reversed the order. By now, it was too late. His worst nightmare was unfolding,” wrote Paul Clancy in his book Ironclad.

As the Virginia, steamed toward Hampton Roads, Union shore batteries shelled it and watched in amazement as the shells bounced off the iron hull.

The Cumberland’s crew sighted the Virginia around 12:30 p.m. March 8. At first, she was believed to be a mirage because of atmospheric conditions.

The Virginia steamed full speed toward the Cumberland. As it passed the U.S.S. Congress, it fired a broadside damaging the frigate. Then the Virginia rammed the Cumberland with a 1500-pound iron spar. Even as the ram sunk deep into the Cumberland under the waterline, the Virginia reversed its engines. The ram broke off inside the Cumberland.

The Cumberland’s crew fired upon the ship. “So furious was the Cumberland’s response that the greased sides of the Confederate battery seemed to fry like bacon,” wrote Clancy.

Protected by its iron skin, the Virginia’s guns tore up the crew and deck on the Cumberland. Yet, the Cumberland’s gunners continued firing until the guns slipped underwater.

Selfridge wrote of the crew, “They really believed themselves invincible, and indeed could they have had a fair fight would have shown themselves to be such. With but few officers, for the first time in their lives exposed to a terrible shell fire, seeing their comrades mangled and dead before them. The manner in which these decimated guns’ crews stood unflinchingly at their guns, with water pouring over the decks, the ship trembling in the last throes of her disappearance, until the word was passed from their officers, ‘Every man look out for himself,’ just before the ship went down, was not only sublime, but ought to embalm the name ‘Cumberland’ in the heart of every American.”

Seeing the fate of the Cumberland, the Congress moved into shallower water where the Virginia couldn’t follow. However, the Congress ran aground leaving the Virginia free to draw as close as it could and fire upon it until the Congress flew the white flag of surrender.

When Confederate boats approached the Congress, Union shore batteries fired upon them so the Virginia fired incendiary shells at the Congress and burned her to the waterline.

It seemed almost too easy. It had been two warships against one new, untested ship. Yet the one had triumphed with no loss of life while the Cumberland had sunk with 121 lives of 376 lost and the Congress had been burned with 240 dead out of 434.

Nothing could stand in the way of the Virginia. It could steam up the Potomac River and bombard Washington or make its way up the coastline to destroy New York Harbor. It was unstoppable.

But even as the crew of the Virginia celebrated the victory, one ship had heard the sounds of battle and even now steamed south where among the debris of battle. A David would challenge the new Goliath.

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embalmingThough embalming the dead has been done for millennia, modern embalming methods that rival those of the ancient Egyptians have only been around for about 160 years.

The Egyptians were known for their masterful ability to preserve the dead, but American techniques of the 19th Century were far cruder.

According to Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers in The History of American Funeral Directing (Brookfield, Wisc.: Burton & Mayer, 1995, pg. 199), one technique involved disemboweling the corpse and packing the empty body cavity with charcoal. The corpse was then wrapped in a sheet that had been soaked in alum.

French Develop First Effective Modern Preservation Method

Most sources point to 1836 as the birth of modern embalming. That is when Jean Nicolas Gannal, a French chemist, preserved a corpse by injecting it with six quarts of acetate of alumnia through the carotid artery. His idea was that his formula could preserve corpses for medical study.

“Very quickly, however, he realized that his embalming method would also find a market among funeral directors,” Thomas J. Craughwell wrote in Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

Funeral directors had been seeking a way that bodies could be left on display for a few days before burial. Craughwell suggests that it may have been a way to imitate the way bodies of royalty and other important people were displayed after death.

Gannal’s tests involved burying several bodies for 13 months and then exhuming them.

“When their coffins were opened, the dead embalmed by Gannal looked as fresh as the day they had been buried,” Craughwell wrote in Stealing Lincoln’s Body.

Sucquet Took Preservation One Step Further

One of Gannals contemporaries was J. P. Sucquet, another Frenchman who was also seeking an effective embalming method. His solution was to inject five quarts of a 20 percent solution of zinc chloride into a corpse through the popliteal artery. Besides preserving the body, it also gave the skin the appearance of white marble, according to Robert G. Mayer in his book Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice.

Civil War Creates American Demand for Embalming

The Civil War created a need for embalming in the United States as loved ones sought to have the bodies of their fallen sons, brothers, and fathers returned home for burial. As such, embalming was done in military camps before shipping a body home.

“President Lincoln took a great interest in embalming and directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize embalming to allow the return of Union dead to their home towns for proper burial,” according to the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association website.

Holmes Develops an American Preservation Method

Dr. Thomas Holmes was a captain in the Army Medical Corps during the Civil War. He was assigned to Washington D.C. where it is said that he embalmed more than 4,000 soldiers killed in battle.

When Holmes realized the commercial potential in some of the methods he developed, he resigned from the army and began offering embalming to the public for $100, according to the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association website.

No War, No Need For Embalming

Following the Civil War, embalming fell out of popularity. Most people died in their hometowns where ice could be used to preserve the body until burial. Another reason for its falling out of fashion was that there were too few undertakers who could do embalming.

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Gen. John Imboden

I was asked late last year to start contributing to the Wildfulness podcast, which covers topics about Mountain Maryland. I had never done one before, so I thought it would be fun. I would have time to learn a new skill without the pressure of producing a weekly show.


The story of the Confederate attack on Oakland, Md., was my first foray into podcasts.

Here’s the link to the Wildfulness blog if you would like to follow the podcast.

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This is the final post in a series about the Civil War in Frederick County, Md.



Union General George Meade


Change of Command

Union Col. James Hardie arrived at the Robert McGill farm in Arcadia, Md., in the early hours of June 28, 1863.

He was under orders not to dress in uniform or tell anyone where he was going. He had been “given the necessary passes and money to buy his way to his destination if he encountered delay or opposition. If met by [Confederate Gen. JEB] Stuart and the Confederate cavalry, he was to destroy his papers, endeavor to escape, and deliver his orders verbally,” John Schildt wrote in Roads to Gettysburg.

Hardie presented Gen. George Meade with sealed orders from the War Department. Meade now commanded the Army of the Potomac. He protested his appointment, but he could do nothing about it. Gen. Joseph Hooker was no longer in command.

The formal change of command took place around noon and Hooker left shortly thereafter.

Charles Coffin, a reporter on the scene, wrote, “Gen. Hooker bade farewell to the principal officers of the army on the afternoon of the 28th. They were drawn up in a line. He shook hands with each officer, laboring in vain to stifle his emotion. The tears rolled down his cheeks. The officers were deeply affected.”

Here are the other posts in the Frederick Civil War series:

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This is the sixth in a series of posts about the Civil War in Frederick County, Md.

Catoctin Aqueduct on the C&O Canal

Boating the border of warring nations

While the Mason-Dixon Line being the dividing line between the North and the South, an argument could be made that the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was the dividing line between the Union and Confederacy. Running alongside the Potomac River as it does, Virginia was directly south of the canal and Maryland was to the north. Whenever you read about an army crossing the Potomac River, it also had to cross the canal.

The unlucky location meant that the canal was vulnerable to destruction by both the Union and Confederate armies

“In some instances, battles were fought so close to the canal that the company’s property was hurriedly made into hospitals and morgues,” Elizabeth Kytle wrote in Home on the Canal.

The Confederate Army attempted multiple times to destroy the canal during the war or at least damage it so it wouldn’t hold water, thereby stranding the canal boats and keeping the coal from reaching Washington. The Monocacy Aqueduct was a target of their destruction, but it was a failed target.

“The C&O Canal was a pipeline to Washington for coal and the Confederate Army wanted to destroy it to cripple the Union Army,” said Chris Haugh with the Tourism Council of Frederick County.

When the Confederate Army crossed the canal in September 1862 on its way to Frederick, Confederate Gen. Daniel Hill stayed behind to destroy the canal.

He quickly learned that there wasn’t enough black powder or tools to destroy the aqueduct so he tried to blow up Lock 27. His men managed to drill small holes for the black powder, but the blast did little damage.

Confederate Gen. John Walker tried his luck a week later.  His men drove off the Union pickets at the aqueduct and tried to drill holes in each of the seven aqueduct arches for the black powder. “After several hours, Walker’s chief engineer reported little progress, complaining that the drills were extremely dull while the masonry was of ‘extraordinary solidity and massiveness,’” Harland Unrau, a National Park Service historian, wrote in The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal During the Civil War: 1861-1865.

Demolishing the canal would have taken them days, not hours. So the plan was abandoned. They would damage other areas of the canal during the war, but not the 438-foot -long Monocacy Aqueduct.

Because of the problems with raiders disrupting trade on the canal, President Abraham Lincoln had also authorized Representative Francis Thomas, a former president of the canal company in 1839-41, to organize four citizen regiments to protection canal property and boaters on the canal and along boat sides of the Potomac River. The companies would be called the Potomac Home Brigade.

Other posts in this series

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This is the fifth in a series of posts about the Civil War in Frederick County, Md.


The Occupation of Mt. Airy

Although Maryland remained in the Union, Mount Airy was strongly and openly pro-Confederate.  It was not unusual for that area of the Frederick County.

Chris Haugh with the Tourism Council of Frederick County explained that southern and eastern areas of the county had been settled predominantly by English and Scotch families from Southern Maryland who had no major problem with slavery. The northern and western areas of the county were settled heavily by German families who favored family farms.

Mount Airy’s leanings concerned the Union Army because the town was also a stop on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

“The railroad was important to the Union not just for troop transport but for communications,” Haugh said. “The railroad men were the eyes and ears for President Lincoln to know what was happening along the line.”

New Jersey Infantry commanded by Captain Jacob Janeway were stationed in Mount Airy to protect the railroad and National Road from Confederate sympathizers who might want to commit acts of sabotage.

The infantrymen used the Pine Grove Chapel as a barracks and the mess tent was set up in an area that is now the church cemetery. The land would become a cemetery while the soldiers were there.

“A sick and delirious soldier who wandered into Ridgeville and died was the first person given a Christian burial in the land at the back of the church,” according to the Town of Mount Airy web site.

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This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Civil War in Frederick County, Md.



Confederate General JEB Stuart


JEB Stuart’s Hunt for Horses

About a month after the battle of Antietam, Confederate Gen. JEB Stuart crossed back into Maryland with 1,800 soldiers. Their mission from Gen. Robert E. Lee was to capture equipment and horses that the Confederate Army needed. They were also to disrupt communication lines and destroy the C&O Canal or B&O Railroad when possible.

They moved through Washington County, Md., and Franklin County, Pa., taking what they needed and destroying what they couldn’t carry.

Rather than retracing their route through Washington County back into Virginia, Stuart was forced to take a southeastern route from Chambersburg, Pa. Rain had swollen the Potomac River making it impossible to cross at the time so they headed toward Frederick County.

Union Gen. Alfred Pleasonton was on Stuart’s trail. However, some bad intelligence caused Pleasonton a delay that allowed Stuart to get around him and head towards Emmitsburg.

In Emmitsburg, Stuart’s men fought a cavalry battle with members of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry who were on their way to Gettysburg.

“It was one of two cavalry battles fought in the streets of Emmitsburg during the war,” said John Miller, historian for South Mountain State Park and the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society’s expert on the Civil War.

Emmitsburg’s citizens welcomed Stuart’s men and gave them fresh bread, buttermilk, and meat. However, the fighting in Emmitsburg had given Union supporters time to warn other nearby towns forcing Stuart to cut short his visit. Fearing a strong Union response, Stuart headed south as quickly as he could.

Sarah Six’s family lived in Mechanictown. Word spread through the region that Confederate soldiers were taking horses and cattle when they found them. If they paid, they paid in Confederate scrip. Sarah’s father, William Six, was so worried about losing his stock that he took his two horses north to Wrightsville, Pa.

In the end, the hunt for horses didn’t yield much for the Confederacy.

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