The US Camel Corps – In New Mexico – The USS Supply – A Bizarre Adventure

Today in History, June 4, 1855:

US Army Major Henry C. Wayne sails aboard the USS Supply (commanded by US Navy Lt. David Dixon Porter) for the Middle East to purchase camels that would become part of the US Camel Corps. Either he or Gen. Edward Beale had convinced US Secretary of War Jefferson Davis that the animals would be perfect for transportation in the American Southwest.

70 camels would eventually be part of the Corps, and they WERE perfect for transporting supplies long distances…but they were also cranky and difficult to manage, and scared the Army’s horses. When the US Civil War began, the project was largely forgotten as the new Union Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, didn’t support it. Feral camels were seen roaming the Southwestern United States as late as 1941 as a result.

You may have noticed some other interesting names mentioned. David Dixon Porter was part of an already famous naval family…Farragut. David would serve with distinction in the Civil War.

The USS Supply. If her planks could have talked. The Mexican-American War….she was instrumental. Through her life she make numerous trips to the Levant…served in South Africa, South America, Brazil…she was part of two Expeditions Commodore Mathew C. Perry made to Japan, sailing into Odo Harbor on the Historic dates.

Then Supply returned and became part of the swashbuckling adventures during the Civil War Blockading Squadrons.

The First Use of the “Temporary Insanity” Defense

Today in History, February 19, 1859:

New York Congressman Daniel E. Sickles is acquitted of murder using a temporary insanity defense, the first time this defense was used in US courts.

Sickles was quite a character…he had been censored by Congress more than once, most prominently for having brought a known prostitute into the House chamber, and then taking her to England and introducing her to Queen Victoria while his wife was at home pregnant.

Despite this, he was enraged when his wife confessed to him that she had been carrying on an affair with the District Attorney for the District of Columbia, Phillip Barton Key II (Francis Scott Key’s son…you know..the Star Spangled Banner author).

Sickles confronted Key in Lafayette Square, across the street from the Executive Mansion (White House) and shot him dead. Sickles then went to the Attorney General’s home, turned himself in and confessed.

Future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton defended Sickles at his trial, painting the wife as a cheating harlot, and securing Sickles’ acquittal. Sickles went back to his wife, which enraged his supporters much more than the murder.

When the Civil War began, Sickles used his influence to recruit NY volunteers and gain a political generalship, something that was possible in those days. With no military experience he actually made a good accounting of himself in several battles.

Ironically, his most controversial act was yet to come.

At the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, his III Corps was assigned a portion of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. On his own he decided to move his unit forward to higher ground, which thinned his lines and left a gap in the Union lines, and blatantly ignored the orders of the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Meade.

Confederate General James Longstreet’s Corps attacked and decimated Sickles’ command, costing Sickles his leg.

The controversy amongst historians is whether Sickles sacrifice of his Corps helped or hurt the Union’s chances of victory. In the end the Union could count Gettysburg as a victory, but in my humble opinion, the ambitious Sickles had little to do with it. He put it at risk.

In his later years Sickles served as Minister to Spain (continuing his womanizing there) and returned to the legislature.

He spent much effort in creating the Gettysburg National Military Park and in denigrating Gen. Meade, while promoting himself as the true reason for the victory at Gettysburg. After lobbying for 34 years, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the battle. Perhaps most telling is the fact that there are memorials to almost all of the generals involved in the battle at the Park, but not for Sickles.

Good or bad, between his killing of Francis Scott Key’s son, his pioneering use of the insanity defense, and his military career, Sickles’ story is fascinating.

The Democrat Jack-Ass is Born Amidst Hatred

Today in History, January 15: 1870 –

“A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion” “And Such a Lion! and Such a Jackass!”

Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast publishes a cartoon which popularizes the Jackass as the symbol for the Democrat party.

A German immigrant, Nast is considered by many to be the father of the modern political cartoon. In addition to the Democrat Jackass, he popularized the Republican Elephant and our conception of Santa Claus. I use the term popularize because he wasn’t the first to use any of these symbols, but he made them known to everyone.

The Jack-ass originally became known as a Democrat symbol when someone called President Andrew Jackson a jack-ass, and he decided to “own it.”

Among other things Nast was an abolitionist and a patriot. Which is why Northern Copperheads angered him so. Copperheads were Northern Democrats that were sympathetic to the Confederate (Southern Democrats) cause. Nast considered them racists and traitors.

Edwin M. Stanton had been part of President Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals”, the Secretary of War who prosecuted the Civil War from Washington and had become respectful and loyal to Lincoln. When Stanton died suddenly on Christmas Eve 1869, the Copperhead Papers in the North continued their criticism of him, speaking ill of the dead.

This was the inspiration for Nast’s cartoon.

This isn’t to say Stanton was a lovable character.  He angered many in D.C. and in the Army.  General William T. Sherman refused to shake his hand at a military review at the close of the war due to Stanton’s treatment of him.  Stanton was an opportunist, but he worked hard at his job.

Today in History, August 12: 1867 – “Hon. EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War.
Sir: By virtue of the power and authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and laws of the United States, you are hereby suspended from office as Secretary of War, and will cease to exercise any and all functions pertaining to the same.
You will at once transfer to General Ulysses S. Grant, who has this day been authorized and empowered to act as Secretary of War ad interim, all records, books, and other property now in your custody and charge.
Volatile politics is nothing new in America. For his second term, President Lincoln had chosen Democrat Andrew Johnson as his vice President because he was from a border state, loyal to the Union, but a Southerner. 

 When Johnson assumed office after Lincoln’s assassination, he did not enforce reconstruction in the South as strongly as Lincoln’s contemporaries in the cabinet and the Congress wanted. The battle was ongoing, with Congress passing the Tenure of Office Act to prevent Johnson from firing cabinet members that did not agree with him. 

 Most prominent was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. On this date Johnson suspended Stanton and replaced him with the popular Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who resigned the position once Congress reconvened and voted not to remove Stanton. Stanton refused to leave, to the point that in February of 1868 when Johnson formally fired him, Stanton barricaded himself in his office in the War Department. 

 The “radical” Republicans in the House voted to impeach Johnson over the ordeal, but the Senate, after a lengthy trial, kept him in office.

Stanton Sends a Message to Lee

Today in History, June 15: 1864 – US Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sets aside the land around Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee, as a National Cemetery. The home had been passed down to Lee’s wife from her ancestor, Martha Custis Washington, George Washington’s wife. When the Civil War broke out, Robert E. Lee, a US Army officer, surrendered his commission and went home to his “country”, Virginia, where he became the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederacy. When Lee’s efforts began filling up Northern cemeteries, Stanton decided to use Lee’s home to give the Union dead a place to rest, and Arlington National Cemetery was born. When you stand in Lee’s living room, you can see the White House, the Washington Monument, The Lincoln Memorial, and most of D.C. It is fascinating.    

Vengeance is Mine, Saith Edwin Stanton


Today in History, May 13: 1864 – A Union soldier is buried on the grounds of the Custis-Lee House, otherwise known as Arlington House. The adopted son of George Washington and Martha Custis-Washington had built the mansion in 1802. In 1831 his daughter, Mary Anna Custis married Lt. Robert E. Lee, and they lived in the home until 1861, when West Point graduate Lee resigned from the US Army and accepted the command of the Confederate Army.

1864 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the Lee’s property to become Arlington National Cemetery, so that Lee and his family could never again occupy the mansion. You can look out the front window of the mansion and see the major landmarks of Washington DC across the Potomac…it’s that close. Today, over 320,000 service men and women have been laid to rest at Arlington, including many of our nation’s most famous heroes from every war from the Revolution to Afghanistan. By the way, I took the photo I used…touring Arlington was a truly inspiring experience. To see the final resting place of so many of my heroes was an experience I’ll cherish forever.