Harper’s Ferry

Today in History, October 16, 1859:

Abolitionist John Brown leads a small group of followers on a raid of the US Army Armory in Harper’s Valley, Virginia. Brown planned to seize the weapons in the armory and start an insurrection. He believed he would be sparking a firestorm of slaves and abolitionists around the country to end slavery.

However local militia grabbed their weapons and responded quickly, surrounding the armory. A contingent of US Marines led by US Army Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lt. JEB Stuart arrived and attacked the armory, killing several of the raiders and arresting a wounded Brown. Brown was hanged on Dec. 2nd of the same year.

It may not have happened as he envisioned, but within months of the raid at Harper’s Ferry, the nation would be in the midst of a Civil War that would result in his goals being achieved.

The men that led the contingent that arrested him would be Confederate leaders. John Brown’s legacy would include an inspirational marching song that would be come immensely popular in the North, entitled “John Brown’s Body”. The ballad would have many versions, but the final song matched to the tune would become “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

Gettysburg

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Today in History, July 4, 1863:

On the same day, half a continent away, Confederate General Robert E. Lee leads his defeated Army of Northern Virginia south away from the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. No official surrender here…Lee’s army would survive to fight another day. While both battles were turning points, they did not spell the end of the South as many believe. There were years of hard, bitter fighting still to come with ghastly losses in life and injury. Gettysburg was, however, the last serious attempt by the South to invade the North.

The White House Razed

Today in History, June 28, 1862:

Union soldiers inadvertently burn the White House.  No, not that White House.  In fact, the Executive Mansion which housed the President wasn’t known by that name until 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it.

Another difference between these “White Houses”, is that George Washington never resided in the Presidential Mansion along the Potomac.  His successor, John Adams was the first President to live there.

But he courted and married the widow Martha Custis at and near the White House on the Pamunkey River.

One of General Washington’s officers was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.  His son, Robert E. Lee, would marry Martha Custis-Washington’s granddaughter, Mary.

Together they would live in Arlington House, overlooking the Potomac…and the Executive Mansion.  When the Civil War began, Robert E. Lee chose to support “his country”, Virginia; which also meant the Confederacy.  As a result he and his family had to leave Arlington House and move to one of their more southern Virginia properties…the White House on the Pamunkey.

As the Union dead mounted, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the area around Arlington House to be used as a cemetery so that Lee could never again live there.  Today it is Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1862 during the Seven Day’s Battles, Union forces pushed the Confederates back past the Lee family’s new home at White House Landing, using it as a major supply base.

Before she fled further south from yet another home, Mary Lee left a message on the door of the residence, “Northern soldiers, who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the house of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.”

Union soldiers agreed.  General George McClellan ordered a guard to posted around the house to prevent looting or vandalism.

McClellan took a lot of heat from the press and DC for the protection of General Washington’s one-time home.  It should be used as a hospital for Union soldiers!  Even though it had but six rooms.

As was frequent in the Civil War, the lines moved back north after moving south.  And on this date in 1862 Confederates took White House Landing back.  As the Union Army fled, McClellan ordered all supplies and outbuildings burned to prevent their use by the Confederates…with the exception of the White House, it was to be spared.

As often happens in war, orders from the top rarely get carried out to the letter.  The White House was burned to the ground.

The Lee Resolution – and You Can’t Pick Your Family

Today in History, June 7, 1776:

The Lee Resolution.

“Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”

Continental Congress member Richard Henry Lee, reperesentative from the Virginia Colony, proposes independence from Great Britain after receiving orders to do so from the Virginia Convention. It would take until July, after efforts by John Adams, Sam Adams, and Lee, to gather enough votes to pass the resolution as the Declaration of Independence.

The Lee family would fight in the revolution for Union and Independence. All families are complicated. I would love to know what Richard would have to say about his great-nephew Robert E. Lee fighting so hard to dissolve the Union Richard and his family fought so hard to create.

Private William Henry Christman Laid to Rest

 

Today in History, May 13, 1864:

Private William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, US Army, became the first soldier laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.  He was laid to rest in the Lee’s rose garden near the Custis-Lee Mansion, or Arlington House.

Private Christman’s brother had preceded him in service to his country, leaving William to manage the family farm.  William volunteered himself in part to help provide for his family.  He became ill and died in a DC military hospital.

The mansion and the plantation it was on had belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, step-grandson of President Washington.  He willed the property to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis.  She in turn married a young US Army Lieutenant and West Point graduate, Robert E. Lee.

Lee served in the Mexican-American War and was respected as one of the best officers in the US Army.  In fact he was offered command of the forces around Washington at the outset of the Civil War.  He turned this offer down and instead left the Custis-Lee Mansion to go further south into Virginia and command Confederate forces.

As the war progressed the mansion was used as a Union Headquarters.  A camp to assist former slaves was set up on the property.  And finally, faced with mounting casualties in the war, the Union assumed the property as a cemetery for Union war dead.

It was actually after Private Christman was interred that the property was designated the Arlington National Cemetery.  Today American soldiers from every war fought by the United States are buried and memorialized at Arlington, including the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

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Friendly Fire Changes History

Today in History, May 2, 1863:

He was, in today’s vernacular, the epitome of a “nerd”. He had an odd, ungainly walk, was very strict in his interpretations of religion, and either ignored or did not see his contemporaries and his students mocking him and laughing at him behind his back for his awkwardness.

He graduated from West Point, served with distinction in the Mexican-American War, and then became a professor at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He was a terrible teacher, and mocking him became a tradition amongst the students.

Then the Civil War came. Thomas Jackson didn’t have any particular political views, but he was true to his “country” of Virginia. So he served, proving to be efficient at training brigades at drill and military movements.

While still considered ungainly, Jackson earned the faith of his men by always being at the front, without guile, without fear. At the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run for the Union, Confederates called it Manassas), he did the same.

One of his contemporaries from the Mexican-American War, Gen. Bernard Bee, rallied his own men by shouting, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” And they did, and the battle was won.

The awkward Thomas J. Jackson had transformed into the legend of “Stonewall” Jackson and he would soon become the right hand man of Gen. Robert E. Lee. After many battles won, on today’s date, during the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson was returning to his camp at night when he was taken for a Yankee soldier and accidentally shot by a sentry. Within a few days, one of the South’s greatest heroes would die of his injuries.

Lee in particular would mourn the loss of a valued lieutenant, and would miss him during battles to come, particularly Gettysburg.

Assassin’s Demise

Today in History, April 26, 1865:

Union Army forces track down John Wilkes Booth 12 days after he assassinated President Lincoln. In the meantime, he had been hidden by Confederates, treated by Doctor Samuel Mudd (your name is mud) and hidden in a barn on the Garrett farm in Virginia, where he was found.

The barn was set afire and his associate surrendered. Booth refused…a Union soldier, Boston Corbett, saw Booth inside the barn and fired his Colt revolver…causing a mortal wound to Booth.

Many Confederates saw Booth as a hero. However many Southerners wept openly at Lincoln’s death, and Confederate Generals, including Lee and Johnston, denounced Booth’s actions.

Fortunately, in the interim between his deed and his death, Booth was able to see news accounts that recorded his hero’s denunciation of his act. So when he died, he knew what he was.