Tinkering Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection

The February release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes an array of documents relatable to wars from nearly any era: the battlefield readiness of new military technology; prisoner mistreatment and battlefield atrocities; and the deadly threat of espionage from within.

Engineer Stimer's Report of the Last Trial Trip of the "Passaic": Unparalleled Attempt to Throw Discredit upon Superiors, Language Unbecoming an Officer, His Dismissal from the Service Demanded, the Public Probably Deceived as to the "Result" of the Experiment of Firing inside the Turret (1862)
By One of the People

Alban Crocker Stimers was a U.S. Navy Chief Engineer who assisted with the design of the Navy’s latest technological marvel, the ironclads. After the launch of the U.S.S. Monitor, the first ironclad warship commissioned by the Union Navy, and drawing on lessons learned from its performance, naval engineers quickly began designing the new Passaic-class ironclad.

A controversy arose during the production of the new class of warships when the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox required the vessels be outfitted with a larger gun. This became problematic because the muzzle diameter of the new gun was too large for the turret opening and required the addition of a smoke box to capture the propellant gases released inside the turret. Unfortunately, the smoke box obstructed the view of the gunners, and they were no longer able to independently aim their weapon. However, according to Navy engineer Stimers, a supporter of firing from inside the turret, the experiment was a spectacular success. According to his report, the first shot…

…struck about 300 yards from the vessel in the water, glanced off, and flew into the bosom of the Palisades, kicking up more dust than a squadron of irregular cavalry. Every one rushed to the turret. Was it there? What part burnt? Who’s killed? No one—nothing broke—the turret was there, as strong and solid as the rock of Gibraltar. No one was smothered inside—no one deafened, the concussion was not felt any more than the Captain of an old-fashioned 32-pounder feels it on board the old-fashioned frigate.

“One of the People,” the author of this work, was unimpressed with Stimers and raised several questions and concerns about the experiment:

Why were there but two 35lb. charges fired, and but three altogether? Why was not the experiment continued? I take it for granted they don’t think we are going to settle the business on the Southern coast in three rounds from each gun. I sincerely trust that some means may be arrived at by which the difficulties may be overcome, for it will be a serious business if the arrangement for firing inside should give way in action.

“One of the People” continued his criticism, accusing Stimers of sending insufficiently trained and ill-equipped soldiers to war, culminating in a call for Stimers’ dismissal:

There is no work, upon which Mr. Stimers is engaged, that cannot be at least as well performed by twenty different persons at the command of the Department, and by men who will devote their whole time and energies to it, who have not “axes to grind” or “wires to pull.” If the grossly insulting tenor of the “Report” is not deemed sufficient by the Hon. Secretary Welles, to warrant the dismissal of this man from the service, let me say that no charges have been made, which cannot be proven and sustained by the most undoubted evidence before a “Court Martial.”

Historical Register and Confederates Assistant to National Independence: Containing a Discovery for the Preservation of Butter, together with other Valuable Recipes, and Important Information for the Soldier, and the People in General throughout the Confederate States of America (1862)
By Henry W. R. Jackson

Although the preservation of butter is no longer a pressing concern in the United States, its importance to the Confederate States of America becomes clearer when considered through the lens of today’s desire for energy independence. This work by Henry Jackson discusses the economics of Southern independence, including the need to end reliance on imports, like butter, from the North, and to maintain the production of the South’s largest export, cotton. Jackson describes the South’s ability to produce cotton abundantly and cheaply with this poem:

    Let us acknowledge our indebtedness to Him who gave
    Such important advantages to us and our slave;
    In a climate so congenial, with masters humane,
    Africans are civilized and proper culture obtain;
    Though incapable of obtaining political stations,
    They enjoy religious existence, and benefit all nations,
    By working our fields, producing a substance or thing
    Which, is agreed by consent of commerce, is king.

However, Jackson did not write exclusively about the economy; he also included this newspaper clipping from the Atlanta Commonwealth describing the abuse of captured soldiers:

YANKEE CRUELTY – We noticed yesterday an instance in which a Confederate soldier had been captured uninjured, and subsequently recaptured by our forces, badly wounded, having been assaulted violently by two Federal officers during his captivity. We have since heard it stated, that in several instances, where our wounded fell into the enemy’s hands, they were either shot or bayoneted. Those statements scarcely seem credible, and but for a Yankee letter which was found upon one of the battle-fields, we might well doubt their truth. An extract which we make from the letter fully establishes the statements alluded to. The writer, in speaking of going over the field after an engagement, says:

“It was a pretty hard looking sight. The ground was covered with dead rebels and wounded. There were a great many that were only wounded, and they were very spunky; that is, some of them were. After they were wounded, they would set up and fire at our men as they came up; but the boys soon put them out of the way by running their bayonets through them. It looked rather hard, but when a man is wounded he ought to be satisfied to stop.”

My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington (1863)
By Rose O’Neal Greenhow

In 1830 Maria Rosetta O’Neale’s parents died, and the orphaned teenager moved from Maryland to her aunt’s home in Washington, D.C. Five years later, she married a prominent doctor from Virginia, Robert Greenhow, and became a popular hostess. After her husband died in 1854, she remained an important figure in Washington, and her house continued to serve as a meeting place for political leaders.

Although she had not planned it, Greenhow had positioned herself well to become a Confederate spy. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, with her loyalty to the Confederacy and strong friendship with South Carolina Senator John Calhoun duly noted, she was recruited by then U.S. Army Captain Thomas Jordan. After the war began, Jordan passed his control of the Confederate spy network in Washington to Greenhow who would eventually be credited by Jefferson Davis with providing information that ensured a Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run.

In 1861, one of Allan Pinkerton’s first orders as head of the recently formed Secret Service was to keep Greenhow and her home under surveillance. The Secret Service would eventually search her house and find extensive intelligence materials, including scraps of coded messages, maps of Washington fortifications, and notes on military movements. After serving six months under house arrest in 1862, she was released with the condition she would stay behind Confederate lines. However, in the summer of 1863, she went to Charleston, South Carolina, and hired a blockade runner, aboard which she travelled to England and Europe.

While in London she wrote this memoir, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which was well received and sold well in Britain. When she attempted to return to the Confederacy in 1864, the British blockade runner she was aboard ran aground off the coast of North Carolina while pursued by a Union gunboat. Greenhow, fearing capture and imprisonment, attempted escape via rowboat but was drowned when the boat capsized. Ironically, she was weighed down by the gold sewn into her underclothes and hung around her neck, the returns from her memoir royalties.


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