Friday, May 02, 2014


I admit that eventually we must all bow to the will of genetics, even if we aren’t common cattle. And when you come up against a human family like the Smith’s of Glastonbury, Connecticut, any argument of nature verses nurture seems almost pointless. Zephaniah Hollister Smith graduated an ordained minister from Yale, but he gave it up because he did not believe in mixing prophets with profits. Allegedly he excommunicated his entire congregation, and they returned the favor. Swinging to the other extreme Zephaniah then became a successful lawyer. His wife, Hannah Hadassah Hickock Smith was a linguist, a mathematician and a poet, all the more amazing an achievement since she lived in the second half of the 18th century when women were little more than chattel. The couple shared a fascination for astronomy, a passion for the abolition of slavery, and five girls.
 First there was Laurilla Aleroyia Smith, born in 1785, who painted portraits in her own studio on Main Street in Glastonbury. She also taught French in nearby Hartford. Then there was Hancy Zephina Smith, born in 1787. She was of a mechanical mind. She built her own boat, and invented a machine to shoe horses. Then there was Cyrinthia Scretuia Smith, born in 1788 with a green thumb. She raised fruit trees, grapes, strawberries, and grafted her own varieties of apple trees. In her free time she was also a scholar of Latin and Greek literature. But the real revolutionaries were the two youngest girls.
They told a story about Julia Evelina Smith (born in 1792.) While trapped during a long stage trip with a Chancellor and a professor, both from Yale, “Miss” Julia was insulted when the two men began an animated conversation in French, ignoring her completely. After listening for several minutes, Julia spoke up, saying “Excusez-moi, mais je comprends le français.” Without an acknowledgement of her presence, the two men immediately shifted their discussion to Latin, whereupon Julia interrupted again; “Excuse mihi , EGO quoque narro Latin.” The intellectuals were appalled at the continued interruption and shifted to Greek, and Julia responded with “Και κατανοώ επίσης ελληνική". Finally the Chancellor spoke to the lady directly, demanding, “Who the devil are you!?”
Julia also spoke Hebrew, and had been conducting her own study of both the Old and the New Testaments. You see, she had expected the world to end in December of 1843, and was determined to find it why it had not. Her younger sister, Abby Adassah Smith (born in 1797) was the quietest of the five, and much to everyone’s surprise (including herself) was perhaps the best public speaker of all. It seems a pity to point out that none of men in the area seemed to have been bright enough to garner any of the ladies’ interests in marriage.
It also seems a pity that of this entire family, all of them independently financially successful, intellectually powerful and culturally sophisticated, only the father, Zephaniah, was politically empowered. And when he died, on February 1, 1836, the richest, best educated family in central Connecticut, was no longer allowed to cast a single vote.
This oddity lay simmering beneath the surface until November of 1873. By now most of the female members of the Smith family had gone on to meet their maker, until only Julia, now aged 82, and Abby, now aged 77, were left to bear the Smith genetic code. It was then that the male officials of Glastonbury made the decision to raise the property tax assessment on the Smith farm by $100. The sisters would have no trouble meeting the obligation, but the increase bothered Abby, and she looked into it.
What she discovered was that in the entire town, only three properties had suffered the reassessment; the Smith farm, and the properties of two widows. Not a single male property owner had been reassessed. Abby was so incensed that she wrote a speech, which she delivered at the next town meeting. “…here, where liberty is so highly extolled and glorified by every man in it, one half of the inhabitants…are ruled over by the other half...All we ask of the town, is not to rule over them as they rule over us, but to be on an equality with them.”
Well, the male citizens at the meeting responded to the speech in the same way the Yale Chancellor and Professor in the coach had responded to Julia. They ignored the little lady. So, the sisters decided more radical action was required. They announced that until they received representation (the right to vote), they would no longer submit to any additional taxation. Oh, they paid their property taxes each year, and promptly, but they refused to pay the reassessment.
In response the tax collector, Mr. George C. Andrews, seized from the Smith farm seven cows. The bovines were almost pets of the Smith sisters -  named, Jessie, Daisy, Proxy, Minnie, Bessie, Whitey, and Lily. The cows were valued well beyond the $101.39 additional tax bill. So the determined sisters dispatched an agent to buy the beloved pets at auction, paying far in excess of the tax bill to save four of them. The remaining three were sold at auction, although I doubt they proved to be worth the price since none of the cows were willing to be milked unless Julia was present.
Meantime, the Springfield Massachusetts Republican newspaper reprinted Abby’s speech, and it was picked up and reprinted in newspapers nationwide. The story was even repeated in Europe. It was, wrote one newspaper, “A fit centennial celebration to the Boston Tea Party.”
In April Abby was denied time to speak again at the next town meeting. So she climbed on board a wagon out side and delivered her remarks from there, this time heard about equally by men and women. When tax time came around again, the sisters still refused to pay the additional assessment. This time Mr. Andrews seized 15 acres of Smith pasture, worth about $2,000. And this time he moved the location of the auction at the last minute, so the sisters could not even buy back their own land. The valuable property was bought by a male neighbor for less than $80.
In response the sisters sued Mr. Andrews in local court,  and they won. The court ordered the property (and the cows) returned to the sisters, and fined Mr. Andrews $10. The city appealed, and the case began the tortuous climb through the courts. In November of 1876, the old maids won at the Connecticut Supreme Court, and the city finally accepted it had been beaten by two lady spinsters.
Julia wrote an account of their adventure, “Abby Smith and her Cows”, published in 1877. That made the sisters famous, and they spoke at suffragette meetings until Julia’s death in 1878. Abby followed her in 1886. But women still could not vote in Connecticut until the 19th Amendment to the National Constitution was officially passed, in August of 1920. The Smith family home was finally made a National Historical Landmark, but not until 1974.
The history of the Julia and Abby Smith, and their cows ought to be considered by members of the modern Tea Party. In the Smith case it was the right to vote that was denied by the government. While in the modern version of the tea party it is the obligation of citizens to support their government which is denied. The problem is, one is directly connected to the other. In the former case, it was brilliance of mind and spirit that drove the two ladies to protest and win. In the latter it seems it is arrogance and selfishness that fuels the protest, and in the long run it is doomed to lose. He - or she - who holds the purse strings, holds the power. And you can advocate the destruction of the political system for only so long, because if you succeed, you lose.
- 30 -

Wednesday, April 30, 2014



I believe it is the most famous magic story of all time. It’s the source of a dozen movie plots and it far surpasses the tale of "The Great Coullew", a magician in Lorraine, France, in 1613, who was beaten to death by his ticked off assistant. Or even the 1922 story that came out of historic Deadwood, South Dakota, when the magician “The Black Wizard Of The West” was murdered by his wife, who switched the blank round in his “Bullet Catch” gag with a real bullet. This one, the story of "The Original Chinese Conjurer" is a real hum-dinger, and its true.Or as true as anything in show business, be it magic acts, or political acts.Ching Ling Foo, “The Original Chinese Conjurer” was the most famous magician to ever come out of China, according to his advertising. In 1898, when he brought his show to America, he offered $1,000 to any magician who could duplicate his act. Much to his surprise, shortly thereafter, another magician, under the name Ching Ling Soo, began doing just that: and also billing himself as the “Original Chinese Conjurer”. Suddenly there were two originals.In January of 1905 Soo began headlining at the Hippodrome Theatre in London. One month later, at the Empire Theatre, just across the street, Foo opened his identical show, advertised with identical posters and the matching tag line, “The Original Chinese Conjurer”. The two began campaigns of trash talk, accusing each other of fraud and name calling that kept the theatre critics working their pencils to the nub, until Foo offered Soo $2,000 for a 'trick off' in front of the press. On the appointed day Foo was there but, alas, Soo was not. The London Weekly Dispatch asked, “Did Foo fool Soo? And can Soo sue Foo?” Alas, those questions were never answered.Then, in March of 1918, Soo was performing on the stage of the Wood Green Empire club in London, doing his most famous trick, a variation on “The Bullet Catch”, he called “Condemned to Death by the Boxers”. In this trick audience members loaded a rifle, which was then fired at Soo’s chest. Soo caught the bullet in his hand to thunderous applause. Or at least he did until March 23, when after the guns fired Soo collapsed. As horrified cast members rushed to his side, Soo was clearly heard announcing, “Oh, my God. Something has happened. Lower the curtain”, in perfect English. Luckily for his agent, he died the next day.At the inquest into his death Soo’s widow, Miss Olive Path (who also appeared in the act as his male Chinese assistant and as a Chinese princes), explained that the rifle was a prop. It was a real gun and capable of firing a real bullet, but with a hidden chamber. Cocking the rifle forced the bullet loaded by an audience member to drop out of the way, clearing space for another bullet made out of paraffin. It would dissolve with the force of the exploding gunpowder, allowing Soo to produce a bullet he had supposedly caught. It was and still is an amazing gag, when it works. It was also impressive when it didn't. See, over time Soo had allowed a buildup of gunpowder residue to foul the gun's chamber. On that terrible night the real bullet remained jammed in the chamber and blocked the safe paraffin round from entering. And so when the bullet was fired, it was really fired. And Soo was really killed.The inquest had also determined that Soo, the other “Original Chinese Conjurer” , was not actually Chinese. His real name was William Robinson (above). He was from Brooklyn and he had worked as a magician under the name “The Amazing Robinson”, with Olive as his assistant, until he had hit upon the idea of grafting onto the success of Ching Ling Foo, the actual original "Original Chinese Conjurer" -And Foo, amazingly, actually was Chinese,  but was actually named Chee Ling Qua. (Confused yet?) The lesson here is that you should never trust a magician, especially if you are another magician. Or a politician.

- 30 -

Sunday, April 27, 2014


April’s Fools day, 1863,  marked a new beginning for the American Civil War. The first draft in American history went into effect in the North, and all males between 20 and 45 years of age were required to register for the draft. However, you could buy an exemption for $300 (equal to over $6,000 today), or pay someone to serve for you. The war was becoming increasingly unpopular in the the North.  In July the draft would lead to riots in New York City (above) that would only be brought under control with Federal troops.
Also on this day Union gunboats are trying one more time to approach Vicksburg from the north by re-opening a silted up bayou called the Yazoo Pass, beginning just below Memphis, Tennessee. This roundabout approach might outflank Confederate defense at Haynes Bluff, the northern shoulder of the Vicksburg defenses  But at Greenwood, Mississippi on the Yazoo River, the rebels had constructed "Fort Pemberton" with 8 heavy guns behind seven tiers of cotton bales and 8 feet of earth. Further north they had also sunk a steamboat  to block the channel of the Coldwater River coming down to join the Yazoo. This day, April first, Federal gunboats wedged single file past the sunken riverboat and up to Fort Pemberton. Troops of General Sherman's Corps were landed to attack the fort. But deciding that the defenses were too strong, the Federal troops and gunboats withdrew after nightfall.
Several thousand women in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia march to the Capital Square chanting “Bread! Bread! Bread!” and begin to systematically loot groceries and dry goods stores. They seem to have been inspired by a March 18 incident when the wives of 50 to 75 Confederate soldiers invaded a grocery in Salisbury, North Carolina and liberated 23 barrels of flour, some molasses and salt – and $20 in confederate cash. Over the previous two years the price of wheat in Richmond had tripled and milk and butter had risen to four times their prewar prices. After pleading with the mob to disperse, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had to dodge a loaf of bread thrown at him. He then took out his pocket watch and announced that in five minutes he would order the militia to open fire. Before the willingness of the militia to shoot down hungry women was tested, the crowd dispersed. Several people were brought to trial, including the imposing 6’ tall Minerva Meredith, a 40 year old butcher’s apprentice, who was charged as “one of the ringleaders.” Minerva was sentenced to six months in jail and fined $100. Later there were similar food “riots” in Macon, Savanna and Atlanta, Georgia. The war was also growing unpopular in the Confederacy.
This April 2nd, Union troops of General McClernand’s corps began a slow advance down the west bank of the Mississippi River, facing minor resistance from Confederate soldiers under Col. Francis Cockerell. The Union troops are moving slowly because they are corduroying the road as they advance. The involves felling trees, splitting the logs and laying them across the road, flat side up. This would provide a stable usable surface for supply wagons for a limited time, but one that would never stand up to the torrent of wagons needed to supply an entire Army for a campaign.
Federal gunboats again shell Fort Pemberton, again to no effect.
General U. S. Grant sends a telegram to Washington notifying them of his plan to move his entire army south of Vicksburg via a circuitous route through the interconnecting bayous on the West bank of the Mississippi (just pioneered by General Osterhaus and 54 of his men) down to Grand Gulf, Louisiana (below).
The Yazoo Pass expedition has to admit failure and withdraws back to Memphis and the Mississippi river.
General Bowen, the confederate commander at Grand Gulf  below Vicksburg - and Col. Cockerell’s superior-   sends a telegram to his commander at Vicksburg, General Pemberton, suggesting that more troops be sent to support Col. Cockerell on the Arkansas shore. Pemberton replies that the Federal advance on the far shore is not a viable threat, and points out that any troops sent across the Mississippi risk being cut off by Federal warships now prowling the river south of Vicksburg. No more troops will be sent to support Col Cockerall.
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman (above) writes to his brother that Sherman's men are working at night on building a “secret artillery battery” on the west side of the Mississippi river, within range of the Northern Vicksburg defenses on the east shore , but adds that a Confederate Major Watts, who had come through the lines to discuss a prisoner exchange, requested that the guns hold off firing for the night, because he was hosting a party and did not want it disturbed. Sherman mentions that he does not know Grant’s plans in detail,  but adds he has little faith in what he does know of those plans.
Nathaniel Banks, (above) a “political general”,  one time Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (elected in the longest contested contest in congressional history Dec. 1, 1855 – Feb. 2, 1856), and one time governor of Massachusetts (1858 – 1860), and now a General of Volunteers, who has raised his own 30,000 man corps in New England, has replaced General Butler in command at New Orleans. And he now begins operations out of New Orleans against Grand Gulf, the southern edge of the button and hook of the Vicksburg defenses.  His first move is to send a division up the Teche Bayou and the lower Atchafalaya River. His object is to cut the Red River supply line for Port Hudson, which runs down Teche Bayou.
Confederate Brig. Gen. Richard Taylor, from his position at Fort Brisland on Bayou Teche, sends out cavalry to his front to meet any Federal landings there. But he also sends out infantry skirmishers to his rear, as he has heard of a possible landing north of the community of Franklin, Louisiana.  In the afternoon of this day Union troops form a battle line in front of the fort. An artillery exchange continues until nightfall, when the Union troops withdraw.
The artillery barrage on Fort Bisland (above) begins again at about 9:00 am. And then, just after 11:00 am Union troops begin their assault. As evening approaches General Taylor gets word that Union troops have indeed landed and are moving on Franklin, in his rear. Taylor immediately begins evacuating his men and supplies.
Union troops enter the empty Fort Bisland at 7:00 am and raise the American flag.
Later that same day, commanded by Admiral Farragut, three Union gunboats make the run upriver past the Rebel high ground at Port Hudson. Two, the USS Hartford and USS Albatross, get through, but a third ship is disabled and sunk.
Just after 4:00 am Col. Cockrell, on the Louisiana shore, sends the First Missouri infantry through the waist deep waters of Mill Bayou to attack the Second Illinois Cavalry encamped at Dunbar’s Plantation. The Missourians drive in the pickets and force the Union troopers to fall back. But Federal reinforcements quickly come up and then the rebels are forced to retreat.
The strength and speed of the Union reinforcement surprises Cockrell and he alerts his boss General Bowen at Grand Gulf (above). But Bowen decides to downplay the results to his own boss, General Pemberton. Bowen tells Pemberton only that Cockrell had killed 2 Union troopers and captured 4 others, along with freeing captive white women and children and capturing “100 negroes”. Given that the released captives had to be dragged through a waist deep swamp, the claim of a hundred slaves returned to servitude seems grandiose.
General Grant orders Gen. Sherman to make one more demonstration against Steele’s Bayou up the Yazoo river, and to then move his corps down the river to Carthage.
In the city of Vicksburg, a ball is held to celebrate the deliverance of the city from the Yankee invaders. At a quarter past nine in the evening eight Federal gunboats and three troop transports attempt to slip past the rebel cannon atop Haines Bluff and the Vicksburg batteries (above). Anticipating this attempt, as it is a moonless night,  the Confederates have set fire to cotton bales soaked in turpentine to illuminate the river. The Union ships are hit repeatedly, and one is sunk. But all the others make the run successfully, and below Vicksburg they make contact with the Union troops moving on Carthage, Louisiana.
General Banks, pushing his advantage gained at Fort Bisland, crosses Vermillion Bayou, while Taylor retreats to the town of Opelousas.
General Bowen crosses the Mississippi to inspect Col. Cockrell’s position.  He tells Pemberton that he could reinforce Cockrell or, if Pemberton insists, pull him back to Grand Gulf, on the eastern shore of the river. On the same day, Major General Cal Stevenson, who commands a 10,000 man division at Vicksburg, warns that he has heard reports that Union transports are being sent south of Vicksburg in order to move troops up Bayou Pierre, and requests that Pemberton strengthen the defenses at Grand Gulf.
General Pemberton now has about 40,000 men available for the defense of Vicksburg.  But they are scattered over half the state of Mississippi,  and even on the opposite shore in Louisiana. Pemberton now feels the need to consolidate. He orders Col Cockrell’s men back to Grand Gulf,  and dispatches to Bowen at that post an additional infantry brigade and a battery of artillery. Clearly he suspects things are about to heat up south of Vicksburg.  Maybe.  Also on this day, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson (above) and 1,700 troopers of the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2nd Iowa cavalry move out from La Grange, Tennessee, headed south (below).
Grierson’s troopers reach New Albany, Mississippi, 30 miles south of La Grange.
With the USS Hartford and USS Albatross having driven north past the batteries at Port Hudson (above), Admiral Porter sends the USS Switzerland and USS Lancaster down stream south past the batteries at Vicksburg. As expected they come under heavy fire and the USS Lancaster is blown up. But the USS Switzerland makes it safely and joins the growing fleet of warships below Vicksburg and north of Port Hudson.
The Chicago Times publishes an account of “a powerful battery” which it says “…is being erected on the extreme point of the main levee opposite the lower part of the city of Vicksburg…” claiming, “With these guns it will be possible to destroy…the whole city.” Confederate intelligence agents are certain to read this account. The battery is being built, but it will be weeks before it opens fire.
The 2nd Iowa cavalry splits from Garrison's command, and swings west to hit the Mobile & Ohio railroad, before heading back to La Grange. The hope is that rebels will think Garrison's entire command has gone with them. It  has not. But the problem for Pemberton remains. The Confederacy started the Civil War with just 9,000 miles of railroad track,  and will fail to produce a single new iron rail during the entire war. This means that every 39 foot length of iron that Greirson’s men heat, twist into a knot cannot be replaced.
And, amazingly, the Confederate government persists in melting existing rails into cannon and ironclad plating for warships, instead of cannibalizing less essential lines to repair vital lines,  like the Central Mississippi railroad through Jackson  to Vicksburg.
All the audacity of rebel raiders such as Bedford Forrest in Mississippi and John Hunt Morgan and Jeb Stuart in Virginia, all the headlines and romantic tales of bravery they generate, have less of an impact on the war than Greirson does on this single raid.  Rebel raiders can inconvenience Federal armies, even force them to retreat for a time. But Grierson, if left unmolested, can force the surrender of Vicksburg. all by himself. Pemberton knows this and has to respond to the raid with all the force he can muster.
Also on this day, April 20, 1863, Union gunboats bombard the forts (above) around Grand Gulf. 
Col. Grierson and his remaining 950 troopers camp outside of Starkville, Mississippi.
Six more transports and barges carrying supplies slip past the Vicksbug bluffs under cover of darkness. They suffer heavy damage and some causalities  from rebel artillery fire but succeed in re-supplying the Union troops gathering at New Carthage.
Attempting to block  Col. Grierson's  raiders, General Pemberton scatters his militia and cavalry, trying to block block every crossroads and protect every railroad crossing.
But after cutting through a swamp and destroying a tannery and a shoe factory as they pass, Col. Greirson's men strike their main target, the railroad at Newton Station, 75 miles due West of Jackson, Mississippi.
Two irreplaceable  locomotives are blown up, and 25 irreplaceable freight cars filled with irreplaceable supplies are burned, as is an irreplaceable bridge, and extensive irreplaceable track .
By 2: 00 pm the raiders have moved on to Garlandville, where they fight a brief skirmish with militia. They camp that night on a plantation, 50 miles south of Newton Station.
Grierson rests his men and horses for the day.
Up the Black Bayou, north of Vicksburg, troops from Sherman’s corps exchange shots with Confederate infantry.
Federal troops of General McClernand’s corp march down the west side of Lake Saint Joseph from Bayou Vidal, and occupy Hard Times landing (above). They are still building bridges and cordoying roads as they slowly advance.
Unnerved by Grierson's raid and by Sherman's movements at Black Bayou, Pemberton hedges his bets and orders the withdraw of 1,000 men FROM Grand Gulf. He orders them north of Vicksburg to defend Haynes Bluff and Black Bayou. 
Federal gunboats make another attack on the Port Hudson batteries. But this attack is a diversion, to cover empty transports making their run up river past the batteries. Grant now has 10,000 men and ships above Port Hudson and below Vicksburg -   enough to move them across the river beyond the last Confederate fortifications at Grand Gulf. He orders more men to march down the west bank to Hard Times Landing.
Also on this day, Col. Grierson’s raiders cross the Leaf River and move on to Raleigh.
This Sunday, William T. Sherman writes his brother back in Ohio. “Tomorrow I start my corps to bring up the rear of the movement against Grand Gulf,...I feel in its success less confidence than in any similar undertaking of the war, but it is my duty to co-operate with zeal… Sixty thousand men will thus be on a single road, narrow, crooked, and liable to become a quagmire on the occurrence of a single rain. We carry ten days ration with us…Now, if we can sustain the army it may do, but I know the materials or food, forage or ammunition cannot be conveyed on that single precarious road.”
Grierson’s raiders seize the ferry over the Pearl River (which is destroyed after his men have crossed) and burn more freight cars and destroy more rails..
Grierson’s men halt 2 miles east of the village of Union Church, where they are stumbled upon by two companies of Mississippi cavalry out of Grand Gulf under Col. W.W. Adams. The Union troopers are as surprised as the Rebels, but quickly regain their composure and drive the Confederates off. Grierson’s men camp that night in Union Church.
At 8:00 am Admiral Porter’s River Squadron launches an assault against Grand Gulf, but by 1:30 pm it is evident that the Rebel batteries here will never be silenced from the river. This makes a landing at Grand Gulf impossible. It appears that Grant’s entire movement to the south is, as Sherman suspected, a disaster. But the Confederate commander on the spot, General Bowen, is not as certain as Sherman. He has just 5,000 men. He sees a danger of Federal landings everywhere along the east side of the river. He divides his command, spreading them up and down the river, even dispatching 500 men to guard the road from Bruinsburg to Port Gibson, even further south.
At 9:00 am Union gunboats open fire on Snyder’s Bluff, up the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg, to cover a landing about 6:00 pm of an Infantry division under Major Francis Blair, of General Sherman’s corps. Confederate batteries return fire and hit the Union ships a number of times. After dark Blair’s troops are re-embarked, without firing a shot.
This night, more Federal transports and gunboats run up the river, past the Rebel guns at Grand Gulf.
Grierson turns south, slipping out of an ambush prepared by Mississippi Cavalry. He drives off  500 militia at Brookhaven, 60 miles due south of Jackson, Mississippi, and burns another 15 freight cars at Bogue Chitto Station, and 25 more at the village of Summit.
Also this morning, a division of General Sherman's troops are landed at Drumbold’s Bluff north of Vicksburg, and about 3:00 pm the gunboats again open fire on Confederate batteries on the Haines Bluff. The firing continues until after dark, when the Union troops again withdraw, this time to begin their march south..
At noon Grant begins crossing to the east bank of the Mississippi river, landing 20,000 men at Bruinsburg, along  Bayou Pierre, below Port Gibson. Advance parties immediately begin to march on Port Gibson, even before most of the men are ashore. Now, at last, Grant is on the same side of the river as Pemberton, and can come to grips with him. From this moment onward, Grant is convinced that Vicksburg is doomed.
- 30 -

Blog Archive