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Curiosities of the Civil War
Strange Stories, Infamous Characters, and Bizarre Events
By Webb Garrison
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Webb Garrison
All rights reserved.
Lincoln and Davis Started Out Less Than One Hundred Miles Apart
Abraham Lincoln liked to ask exceptionally tall men to stand with him, back to back, in order to compare measurements. He was rarely topped, because wearing a very tall silk hat, he measured almost seven feet from head to toe.
Headed for a visit with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, Lincoln stopped at Aquia Creek, Virginia, to review troops. Almost as soon as he entered the encampment, the Federal commander in chief spotted a lanky member of the Ninety-third Pennsylvania Regiment. Gesturing, the president let Mahlon Shaaber know that he wanted a word with him. "Turn around, young fellow," he is alleged to have said, "and put your back against mine while I take off my hat." As soon as their heads touched, Lincoln knew he had met a man considerably taller than he.
Carefully measured, the seventeen-year-old from Pennsylvania proved to top the six-foot, four-inch president by two and one-half inches. Together, the two men, who towered above most of those who surrounded them, gleefully measured others who considered themselves exceptionally tall. They found Brig. Robert A. Cameron to be six feet, one inch in height. To lincoln's suprise, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin, who was present for the review, topped Cameron by a full inch.
As a memento, Lincoln jotted down a memorandum listing the names and heights of "six-footers" on hand for the spur-of-the-moment ceremony that Shaaber never forgot.
* * *
As president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis frequently had occasion to sign orders that meant certain death for numerous soldiers. Yet intimates described the former U.S. secretary of war as being "exceptionally tender-hearted." Once when Davis was lying on a sick bed, a member of the family started reading to his son, Willie. Unable to endure the horror of the centuries-old story, Davis demanded that the reading of "Babes in the Woods" come to a halt.
* * *
Elida Rumsey, considered too old to serve as a nurse in the hospitals of Washington, became the talk of the capital because of her skill and patience in singing to the sick and wounded. When she accepted John Fowle's proposal, the upcoming wedding of a couple past the usual age of marriage was widely discussed.
Learning of the impending plans, Abraham Lincoln declared that no ordinary ceremony was good enough for Elida. Upon the initiative of the president, the wartime ceremony was held on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1863—before a joint session of Congress.
* * *
A furious fight among Democrats split the party three ways in 1860. Seasoned observers commented in advance of the Republican National Convention in Chicago that any man who won the nomination was sure to go to the White House.
Lincoln, who was not present at the convention, was the surprise victor over "Mr. Republican," William H. Seward of New York. On the heels of Lincoln's nomination, adviser's urged him to make no speeches and give no interviews. "Don't budge from Springfield," they insisted.
The President-elect followed this recommendation so faithfully that he did not meet Hannibal Hamlin until after the veteran congressional leader from Maine had been elected to serve as his vice-president.
* * *
Jefferson Davis, prominent among Democrats expected to have a chance at nomination for the presidency in 1860, had some staunch admirers in the North. One of them was Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, destined soon to receive from Lincoln the first commission as a major general of volunteer troops entering Federal service.
Senator Davis, who placed a high value on the support of Butler, was not disappointed in him. During fifty-seven ballots, the man from Massachusetts voted in favor of pitting Davis against any presidential candidate that Republicans might choose.
* * *
Franklin D. Roosevelt is widely remembered for trying to enlarge, or "pack" the U.S. Supreme Court with justices considered likely to espouse his causes. Far less familiar to the general public is the fact that Roosevelt was not the first to attempt this strategy.
During months in which it seemed that Union military force might not be enough "to quell the rebellion," Washington was agog with talk about legal tests of matters in which Lincoln was deeply involved. Settlement of "prize cases" concerning the disposition of captured ships taken by Federal vessels was a central issue of the period.
Attorneys for owners of the ships Amy Warwick, Brilliante, Crenshaw, and Hiawatha were expected to argue that the president had pronounced a blockade without authority, because war had not been declared. Had this reasoning prevailed, the legality of the conflict itself would have been at issue.
Scheduled to be heard in March 1862, the case was deferred until Lincoln's close friend, David Davis, and two others recently named to the high court by him could take part in deliberations. Seizing an opportunity from the delay, Lincoln broke precedent by nominating and securing the confirmation of a tenth member of the judicial body.
Stephen J. Field, formerly chief justice of the California Supreme Court, had to cross the continent in order to assume his new position. He failed to reach Washington in time to participate in the debate about the prize cases, however. To the surprise of no one who remembered that four justices already on the bench had been chosen by the man from Illinois, the legality of the war he launched was confirmed by a vote of five to four. Seated after that decision was reached, Field "packed the court" as its tenth member.
* * *
On one of his numerous trips to visit military commanders and troops in the field, Lincoln told intimates that it might be expedient to go part of the way aboard the USS Malvern. In March 1865, it became certain that the warship would have the honor of conveying the commander in chief. Hence the chief carpenter of the vessel hastily put men to work to lengthen a bunk for the man who was more than a foot taller than most seamen of the day.
* * *
Seizure of Confederate passengers on the British mail packet Trent by the commander of the USS San Jacinto on November 8, 1861, was by far the most explosive international event of the war. England immediately announced plans to send a contingent of troops to Canada, and rumblings from the island kingdom sounded like threats of war against the United States.
During this dire emergency, Lincoln prepared his first annual message to Congress. James M. Mason and John Slidell, the Confederate commissioners to Britain who were taken from the Trent, were already occupying an improvised cell in Boston's Fort Warren. Dated December 3, 1861, the formal report of the president to lawmakers runs to at least seventeen printed pages in most editions of his works. Strangely, the lengthy document includes not a single word about the Trent affair, which was then the talk of Washington, London, and Europe.
* * *
West Point graduate Jefferson Davis, though enamored with a daughter of his commander, Col. Zachary Taylor, was not regarded as a suitable mate for Sarah. Ignoring potential consequences of the colonel's wrath, the couple eloped and Davis soon resigned his commission in order to become a Mississippi planter. To his lasting sorrow, his bride survived only three months after the wedding.
A dozen years later he met youthful Varina Howell and married her within a year. On their honeymoon, the future Confederate president took Varina for a solemn visit to Sarah's grave.
* * *
U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was open minded concerning changes in the military establishment. His decision to lengthen the term of study at West Point from four years to five years was soon canceled. Yet two of his innovations were remembered long after he left the service of the United States.
Two years after having joined the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce, he brought camels to the Southwest. Animals accustomed to desert life, he said, were likely to expand the usefulness of military units whose members were accustomed to riding horses. Shortly afterward, he introduced to the U.S. Army the newfangled rifle, which he considered superior to the time-honored musket.
Camels remained in action a few years, but were not replaced when they died. Rifles, still not in wide use at the time the Civil War broke out, eventually made muskets obsolete and contributed significantly to the defeat of Confederate forces.
* * *
The first battle of Bull Run clearly demonstrated that 75,000 ninety-day volunteers could not put down what Lincoln insisted on calling an "insurrection." Hence when Congress assembled for a special July 1861 session, the president asked Congress for 400,000 troops and $400 million.
Lawmakers enthusiastically voted to make $500 million available and James S. Gibbons published a song with a promise: "We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Four Hundred Thousand Strong." Issued in about twenty different versions, the patriotic melody sold two million copies. Yet fewer than 100,000 men who heard its stirring words volunteered to serve in U.S. military forces. Union ranks were largely filled with men who joined up for the sake of a bounty and with substitutes whose services had been purchased by draftees.
* * *
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1847, Jefferson Davis soon learned that his West Point education placed him in a minority. When he took his seat among the nation's senior lawmakers, he found that ten percent of his colleagues were graduates of a single institution: tiny Transylvania College in Lexington Kentucky.
* * *
Established during the Civil War as a reward for conspicuous bravery on the battlefield exhibited by noncommissioned officers and privates, the Congressional Medal of Honor soon became one of the nation's most coveted military awards. About one thousand medals were conferred during the war years, with many of them going to men who carried flags under fire or who captured Confederate flags.
Upon the death of Lincoln, War Department officials departed from tradition and awarded a few medals for service that could have been performed by civilians. These went, not to men who displayed gallantry under fire, but to first sergeants who escorted the body of the assassinated president to Springfield, Illinois.
* * *
Jefferson Davis never forgot that at the Democratic National Convention of 1860 at Charleston, perhaps his most devoted follower was Benjamin F. Butler. But late in 1862, the Confederate president found himself facing a dilemma. For months, Butler's name had been anathema in Richmond because of his unconventional and sometimes outrageous actions as military commander of occupied New Orleans.
Reports of financial misdeeds forced Lincoln to remove Butler from command at about the same time new stories of atrocities committed by him reached Confederates. Davis reacted by branding his one-time devotee a felon and an outlaw, not subject to the laws of civilized nations in the event of capture.
* * *
Positive proof is lacking, but many documents suggest that the strangest action taken by President Jefferson Davis came late in 1864. With the downfall of the Confederacy now seen nearly everywhere as inevitable, Davis sent Duncan Kenner to England and France on a special mission.
Much evidence indicates that Kenner was authorized to promise that slavery would be abolished in the Confederacy in exchange for diplomatic recognition by the two most powerful nations on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. If such an overture were actually made, it came too late; Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his men were about to crush the Army of Northern Virginia.
* * *
Within weeks of taking the oath of office as president of the United States, Lincoln received a gesture of courtesy from abroad. Having taken the helm of the world's largest and most powerful democracy, wrote Gaetano Belluri, it was only fitting that Lincoln be made an honorary citizen of San Marino, the world's smallest democracy.
* * *
Having gone aboard the tugboat Lioness for a short voyage of inspection in May 1862, Lincoln became the first sitting president to be exposed to enemy fire. "Having appeared out of nowhere," a party of cavalrymen in gray began firing at persons on the tugboat, in addition to members of a landing party that preceded it.
Lt. Frederick A. Rowe of the Ninety-ninth New York Regiment observed the entire incident and was surprised to see that Lincoln appeared to be unconcerned about his personal danger. Because men of Rowe's command insistently urged the president to seek a sheltered spot, he reluctantly "stepped behind the wheel-house while bullets whizzed across the deck" of the unarmed Federal vessel.
* * *
With Richmond located only about one hundred miles from Washington, presidents Lincoln and Davis spent the war years approximately as far from one another as during their earliest years in Kentucky.
Commissioned to paint an official presidential portrait, artist John Robertson made a nuisance of himself in the White House of the Confederacy. His portrait of Jefferson Davis, completed and hung in 1863 evoked a few bursts of ardent praise along with many highly critical evaluations. Most who labeled the work of art as inferior in quality did so "because it makes our President look too much like Lincoln."
* * *
Two civilians who had many other things in common shared with one another a refusal to yield to handicaps that would have put many men on the shelf.
Jefferson Davis lost the sight of one eye during the Mexican War and was subject to neuralgia so severe that during bouts of it he was all but blind. His agonizing stomach pains suggest that he had peptic ulcers. As though these handicaps were not enough, during severe attacks of head-splitting pain he sometimes was unable to use his right arm.
* * *
Some present-day medical specialists who have studied his photographs believe that Abraham Lincoln was a victim of Marfan syndrome. This hereditary condition leads to elongation of bones and abnormalities of the eyes and the cardiovascular system.
Moods brought on by Marfan syndrome would account for an otherwise puzzling incident. Departing from Springfield at age fifty-two, Lincoln told his fellow townspeople that he had grown old among them.
Excerpted from Curiosities of the Civil War by Webb Garrison. Copyright © 2011 Webb Garrison. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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