Citizen's Companion

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The Joy of Documents

Posted on Friday, February 17, 2017 at 12:38 pm

Well-written articles and books are one kind of joy, but there is something even more satisfying in the words of original documents, the raw stuff of history, created at the time, on the spot. There are, of course, millions of pages of such documents, scattered among archives, libraries, and private collectors. The three following items are here by reason of serendipity, and are just a few grains of sand from the vast dunes of papers still extant. Perhaps they will add a little variety for the readers of the Companion.

Our first document is on yellowed Treasury Department letterhead, Office of the General Agent, Cincinnati, dated October 1, 1864. In it, Treasury Agent William P. Mellon wrote to Secretary of the Treasury W. P. Fessenden. The location in question is Natchez, a city with two parts: the mansions of the rich planters up on the bluff, and down below, on the river, Natchez-Under-the-Hill, a crowded area of steamboat landing, saloons, and bordellos. The South, in 1864, was full of cotton bales which never got to Great Britain’s mills, cotton picked by slaves, organized by planters, and financed by Baltimore and New York bankers. Many of the Union occupiers were shamefully buying and selling such bales, through bribery and fraudulent permits. The letter begins:

“I have just learned that Assistant Agent Wm. Burnett, of Natchez, Miss., is in confinement under a military arrest without knowledge of the charges against him. Mr. Burnett is a son of the late Judge Burnett, and this is as much as can be said in favor of the family relations of any man in the West. Mr. Burnett has always sustained a high character for integrity in this City s any man in it; and I cannot believe he has been guilty of any misconduct for which you would reproach him.. I am ignorant as to what charges are made against him. He has written to me on the subject, and I am informed by persons from Natchez … that in the latter part of August, he learned that a Captain Oldin, A.A. Agent of General [Mason] Brayman, Commanding at Natchez, had accepted a bribe for some official act, and he (Burnett) promptly communicated the fact to Major General [Edward] Canby (then commanding the military division of West Mississippi), or [Napoleon] Dana (then commanding the Department of Mississippi). That upon investigation it was admitted by Captain Oldin, who was placed under arrest. That thereupon Captain Oldin made charge against Mr. Burnett. That he (Oldin) made arrangement with a lewd woman, named Wells, in Natchez, to go to Vicksburg, and made these charges against Mr. Burnett to General Dana.”

The full set of papers is incomplete and leaves us several questions. Was Oldin an army captain or a steamboat captain (they were often complicit in smuggling). Oldin does not appear in Francis Heitman’s  Historical Register of the United States Army 1776-1903, nor is he in the eight-volume Army Register of the Volunteer Forces. He is also absent from Riverboat Dave’s Roster of Steamboat Captains. Thus Oldin remains a mystery.

And why was Dana fooled by the “lewd woman?” Unlike the fishnet stockings and short skirts of today’s ladies of the evening, Civil War prostitutes dressed in the latest fashions and did their best to look lady-like.

Gettysburg is next in this group of documents. In the movie Gettysburg Sgt. Kilrain tells Col. Chamberlain that many men keep loading without firing, thus repeating a traditional story, mostly undocumented. Now the real story has been unearthed by intrepid researcher Charles Pate, an authority on cavalry arms, who discovered that a clerical error by a War Department clerk, filed the loaded gun survey under “Reports of Experiments. The original report was written by Master Armorer J. Dudley. He reported on 27,574 small arms picked up on the Gettysburg battlefield.

Of these, at least 24,000 were still loaded. Roughly 12,000 had two loads in them, unfired. Approximately 6,000 had three to ten loads each. A small fraction had only one load. There were many variations in the findings. Some guns had six balls, but only one load of powder. In others, the ball had been inserted first, with the powder loaded on top of it. One Springfield rifle had twenty-three loads, all correctly loaded, but not fired. One hundred and thirty-six of the weapons showed signs of having hit by a projective, damaging the piece and probably wounding the man holding it.

Master Armorer Dudley that the British-made Enfields and the Austrian muskets (all from Confederate forces) were of inferior quality in both material and workmanship. These figures suggest that of the 120,000 men engaged at Gettysburg, roughly five percent loaded but did fire their weapons. One explanation is the overwhelming panic and terror of combat. (The full original report is available at NARA RG156, e201, Report #376.)

Being shot by a firing squad is a dreadful way to die. Even worse is hearing the dreaded “snap,” when muskets do not fire as they should and the killing process goes on and on. Such an event is described in a letter written home by Pvt. George S. Youngs, Co. G, 126th New York Volunteers.

“…two men belonging to the 14th Connecticut [Pvt. Edward Elliot a drafted man in Co. I and Pvt. George Layton a substitute in Co. K] were shot in the presence of the division yesterday (September 16, 1863) … one of them was shot five times before he was killed. After the procession had halted … the square was formed the men being seated on their coffins, their eyes bandaged and everything being ready the detail of eighteen men were ordered to fire. A great many of them snapped and one or two went off. One of the men fell over on his coffin. He was not dead however. The other not being hit immediately threw up the bandage from his eyes and looked to see if his companion was killed.

-By Thomas P. Lowry