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Saturday, April 27, 2019

THE GREAT ABSCONDING

I am sure you have heard of “Tricky Dick” Nixon, and probably “Slick Willy” Clinton. But did you ever hear of President Martin Van “Ruin”, or President “Ruther-”fraud” B. Hays. I you ever did, you might also have heard about “Ten Cent” Jimmy Buchanan - who opined that a dime was a fair daily wage, and vetoed new colleges because “"there were already too many educated people -”.   But I am pretty certain you have never heard of James William “Honest Dick” Tate, even if you are from Kentucky.  But you ought to have.
 
Sans his nom de plume, there was nothing special about James Tate (above). He was of average height and average weight. His forehead was made large by his retreating jet-black hair line. But his bushy “coffee stainer” mustache was the fashion in his day.  They adorned lots of upper lips.  However, it did hide a down turned mouth, that perhaps hinted at the tragic death of his three year old son, Howard.  Still his daughter, Edmonia Lloyd Tate, survived, as did his loving wife Lucy Hawkins Tate. Then in 1867, after 13 years in various appointed positions in Kentucky politics, the 36 year old James Tate had so “materially contributed, by his personal popularity, to the great success of the Democratic party"  that he was elected State Treasurer.
The Treasurer was responsible for all funds collected in fees, permits, taxes, fines and rents, managed the state's bank accounts, paid state employees and dispensed benefits and verified and paid all bills. And it was during his campaign for the office that James William acquired his cognomen. But I cannot escape the suspicion “Honest Dick” Tate was not chosen by the party for his probity, but for his “popularity”.  In fact it was Democratic Party supporters who actually bonded him, pledging their wealth as a guarantee of Tate's “rock sand honesty”, as required by law before he could assumed the position. But that guarantee was contingent upon other state officials verifying “Honest Dick's” work And there is no evidence anybody ever actually did that.
To the public, James “Honest Dick “Tate was an average man, making an average salary of  $2,400 a year (barely $60,000 today), with perks worth perhaps a thousand dollars more. Jame's average unassuming home, at Second and Shelby Streets in Frankfort, cost all of $6,000 (about $100k today). In other words, just about average. But James was moving in powerful circles now, re-elected every two years for the next two decades.  He was the “Treasurer for Life”, and it became known in Frankfort Democratic circles that should a politician need to borrow a few thousand dollars, as Governor Preston H. Leslie did in 1872, then “Honest Dick” would be happy to accept their IOU, and not be too bothersome about demanding prompt repayment. So amiable was “Honest Dick” that he had a safe filled with personal checks, cashed for Democratic friends, and drawn on public accounts, but never submitted for reimbursement.
James Tate also chased his own financial Eldorado, investing in land in Indiana, Virginia and Tennessee, along with several coal mines in Kentucky. However the land he bought does not appear to have appreciated in value, and the mines never seemed to produce enough coal to justify their purchase price. James also tried speculating in stocks and, it appears, when those investments failed, more direct forms of gambling. And like all gamblers, losing was just an excuse to risk more.
All of this was below the surface, while in the public view the 1878 “Biographical Encyclopedia of Kentucky” noted that “Honest Dick” Tate was “successively re-elected by popular majorities, perhaps exceeding those obtained by any other candidate for office in the State...it would seem that his lease on the office might be regarded as a fixed fact.” And in 1886, John McAfee described James Tate as the “trusted and honored treasurer” with an “unblemished record for probity and principle...(James) is held in high esteem, and his integrity and forbearance are regarded as of the highest order.”.  But rumors must have been floating about Frankfort, because during the 1887 campaign for governor, the perennial second Kentucky party Republicans brought the issue to the surface.
The Republican candidate for Governor that year was the ex-prosecutor from Garrard County, orator William O'Connell Brady. Trying to find a sore spot during the first gubanetorial debate, Brady charged the Democrats had created unneeded extravagant new offices, like Railroad Commissioners and an Agricultural Bureau. And then, almost as an aside, Brady suggested the time was past due for an audit of “Honest Dick” Tate's books. The Republicans had no evidence, but the attack touched such a tender spot that after just one debate, ex-Confederate General and Democratic candidate Simon Bolivar Buckner, invented a reason to avoid any further debates.
Democrat Buckner defeated Republican Brady as Governor. But his 3 August 1887 victory margin was just 5 points.  Brady had made the strongest Republican showing since the Civil War, and it scared the hell out of the Kentucky Democrats. In the same election, James “Honest Dick” Tate won re-election for the 11th time, by a margin of 67,000 votes, far more impressive than Governor Buckner's 16,712 vote margin.  That made "Honest Dick" the strongest potential Democratic opposition to the new Governor.
It was that fall, that newly elected Democratic State Senator John Kerr Hendrick, an ex-prosecutor from Livingston County, called for a full audit of “Honest Dick” Tate's books. But James Tate said a family illness required his attention, and he needed a little time to get the records together. Senator Hendricks thought Tate was stalling, but the Governor agreed to put the audit off until the spring of 1888.
It was than that a change appeared in “Honest Dick's” modus operendi. Some on his staff noted cash deposits in the state's bank accounts slowed to a trickle. And, if any had noticed, he paid off in full a number of his personal debts. Then on Wednesday, 14 March, 1888, Henry Murray, a Treasury Clerk, noticed his boss in the office vault, filling two tobacco sacks with gold and silver coins, and an approximately 4 inch thick roll of paper money.  Murray assumed the Treasurer was preparing to make a bank deposit. And even after “Honest Dick” was found to have slipped out of the office unseen, no one was alarmed. A note left on his desk informed the staff he was going to Louisville for two days.  It caused little notice. Long time staffers knew better than to expect the boss to return to the office before Monday.
But “Honest Dick” did not return on Monday morning. A staffer dispatched to his home on Second Street, was told his wife Lucy had not heard from him since he left for Louisville, the previous Wednesday. Telegraphed inquires to the Ohio River town said the Treasurer was last seen on Friday evening at a bar, drinking heavily.  Saturday, 17 March, he had been seen boarding a train for Cincinnati. After that, James “Honest Dick” Tate simply vanished. Newspapers would call it the “Great Kentucky Absconsion”.
The scene left behind told the story of a desperately disorganized personality.  Staffers said it had always been that way. The account books seemed written in barely legible hieroglyphics, filled with post dated transactions, erasures, corrections, and indecipherable notations. The safe contained women's beaded bags and purses, and a satchel belonging to a dead infant. It was also brimming with $150,000 in IOUs and “cold checks” from $5 to $5,000, some going back ten years. No hard cash was left behind except for a bundle of $1,000 in $10 bills, found under the safe. How long it had laid there in the dust, no one could say.
In the afternoon of Tuesday, 20 March, 1888, the Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, and the President of the state Senate, and the Secretary of State, received the following message: “It having been learned this morning that said James W. Tate has been absent from his office since the 15th instant...there is in all probability a large deficit in his public accounts...we by virtue of the authority vested in us...hereby suspend said James W. Tate...” It was signed “S. B. BUCKNER, Governor”.  From this day forward, “Honest Dick” Tate would be referred to as “The Defaulting Treasurer.”.
George Willis, a Democratic spin doctor was left spinning. “Such flash of lightning and peal of thunder as was never heard before or since came out of clear sky and rocked the state and the Democratic party as nothing had done since the (Civil) war."  Kentucky's state historian noted that “almost everyone was under suspicion either as an accomplice of Tate or because of owing the treasury money, and those who had borrowed money from the treasury were numerous.” Briefly, and perhaps for the first time in Kentucky history, the politicians were ashamed. The Governor was forced to make a personal loan just to keep the state afloat for awhile.
So inaccurate and confused was The Defaulting Treasurer's record keeping that it proved difficult to make an accurate account of the missing funds. And it was not in the interest of those with checks and IOU's in the safe to make an accurate accounting. A week later Governor Buckner announced the missing tally at approximately $247,128.50 (almost $6 million today). Within a week James “Honest Dick” Tate was impeached in absentia on six counts and removed from office, and then indicted by a grand jury.  A reward of $5,000 was offered for his arrest. But the money was never claimed.
Luckily, daughter Edmomia had married a man named Martin, and was living free and clear in distant Kansas City, so the abandoned wife, Lucy,  could live with her. She had to leave Frankfort because the state of Kentucky had seized the house and everything of value within it, all of Jame's bank and stock accounts, including 100 barrels of “Big Spring” bourbon whiskey – another bad investment by the “Defaulting Treasurer”. 
The house, the whiskey, the investments, were sold at auction, and collected $50,000 (over $1 million today.) But that left the bond holders on the hook for the remaining $200,000 (about $5 million today). They paid, but thanks to a Kentucky Supreme Court decision in 1895, none of those who had authored checks or IOU's found in the safe were required to reimburse the bond holders. That judgement was marked “Not to be officially reported”, and sealed. Most of the names on the IOU's never became public, leaving the bond holders on the hook.
But what happened to the “Defaulting Treasurer”, “the Great Absconder”, AKA James “Honest Dick” Tate? He was rumored to be everywhere from Bremen, Germany, to Toronto, Canada. Some said he had joined the expiate Confederate community in Honduras, or Brazil, where slavery remained until May of 1888. In October of 1893 there was a brief flurry of excitement when a newspaper reported he was “Said to have been seen on the “Cotton Belt Train.” in Arizona Territory. But that proved to be mistaken identity, since the New York Times had reported “friends who should know” said he had died in China three years earlier. In 1894 Navy Ensign Hugh Rodman, who had known Tate back in Frankfort, reportedly had dinner with the “Defaulting Treasurer” in Japan, and said he was not well. That should not have been surprising, since he would have been well over sixty by then.
Edmonia later admitted to receiving letters from her father, posted from San Francisco, British Columbia and Japan. The last one read, in part, “I know I will be much denounced and by parties who forget former circumstances”. He professed to being interested in returning to denounce his partners in crime. But he never came back, and he never sent any money to his abandoned wife and daughter.  In 1896 1,200 Kentuckians signed a petition asking the Governor to grant a pardon to James Tate, so he could return and name names.  No such pardon was ever offered. With time new scandals rocked Kentucky, and people forgot about “Honest Dick “ Tate. But we should remember our mistakes. That is how we learn from them.
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Friday, April 26, 2019

THE SPITTING LYON

I can prove the regularity of Senator William Blount's intestinal functions, because his enemies in the U.S. Senate depended on them. Their trap was sprung on a Tuesday morning, while Blount was visiting “The Necessity” behind Philadelphia's “Congresse  Hall”.  The Senatorial conspirators gained time because Blount had to go all the way downstairs and out to the little shed, to do his business. But they need not have rushed because he took his time – such things should never be hurried – and by the time Blout and returned from his seat to his seat,  the letter had been read and William Blount's political career was toast.  It was Monday, 3 July, 1797, and if he were not so arrogant (and regular) Senator Blount (below) might gone on to great things.  I'll bet even the “Spitting Beast of Vermont” wished he had.
“Dear Cary”, the letter began, “I wished to have seen you before I returned to Philadelphia,...I believe  the plan...will be attempted this fall...(and) in a much larger way then we talked about....I shall probably be at the head of the business on the part of the British...You must take care...not to let the plan be discovered by...any other person in the interest of the United States or Spain..William Blount.”
The plan was the invention of John Chisholm, who owned a tavern (above) across the street from Senator Blount's Knoxville, Tennessee mansion. Chisholm figured it was only a matter of time before Spain would be forced to sell their American colonies to France. And if France controlled Louisiana and Florida, they might deny American ships access to New Orleans. That would bankrupt all the western farmers in Tennessee and Kentucky.  So Chisholm planned was to use local militia and Creek Indians to capture Pensacola and New Orleans, in the name of the British Empire - who would then promise to allow Americans to use New Orleans as if they owned it.
It was a fantasy of course, but the more Senator Blount thought about this idea, the more he thought it was his idea - particularly after he had improved it by creating a well paid job for himself as a British agent. So Blount wrote this letter to James Cary, who was a translator with the Creek Indian nation in eastern Tennessee. Senator Blount expected Cary to convince the Creeks to join the conspiracy. Instead, Cary shared the letter with his bosses in the War Department, who immediately shared it with President John Adams. Adams was a Federalist and he saw a chance to embarrass his own Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, who presided over the Senate (above) and was also the leader of the opposition party, the Democrat-Republicans - of whom Senator William Blount was an important member.  So Adams sent a copy of the "Dear Cary" letter to Federalists in the Senate, but insisted it be kept secret until Senator Blount could do nothing to stop the public reading of the letter. Blount's toilet trip provided that opportunity.
By noon half of Philadelphia (above) wanted to hang Blount as a traitor, and the other half was trying to deny they had ever met him . The President's wife even said it was too bad America did not have the guillotine. Senator Blount was arrested trying to slip out of town. Dragged in front of the Senate he denied writing the letter. He was arrested anyway and posted bail. And once free he hightailed it back to Knoxville – where being part of an anti-government conspiracy had made him something of a hero. A week later the Senate voted 25 to 1 to expel him. For the next six months both parties downstairs in the House of Representatives, Federalists and Democrat-Republicans, tried to make the impeachment of Senator Blount work for them in the upcoming 1798 Congressional elections. And that is how our story came to involve an expectorant infused Congressman from the Green Mountain State.
His name was Matthew Lyon, and he had been a Second Lieutenant in the Green Mountain Boys when they captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1776. The next year General Horatio Gates ordered Captain Lyon to take 60 men north to the Onion River. And just as they arrived, word came of a party of 500 Indians coming to attack them. Lyon said later, “The soldiers considered themselves sacrificed”, and they decided to retreat.  Despite Lyon trying to talk his independent minded soldiers to stay, Gates still ordered Lyon arrested and tried before a military court.  Found guilty, Matthew lost his command, but he was not reduced in rank. Captain Lyon later fought bravely in the battles of Bennington and at Saratoga, rising to the rank of colonel. After the war the Vermont hero twice ran for election to Congress, and failed when the court martial was used to smear him. Third time was the charm, however, and in 1796 he finally won election, as a radical Democrat-Republican. Two years later he was even re-elected.
And that was how Lyon ended up delivering a speech from the well of the House chamber (above) on Tuesday, 30 January, 1798. In his speech Lyon chastised the Connecticut Federalists for not defending the honor of their citizens by impeaching Senator William Blount. That suggestion brought Federalist Connecticut Congressman Roger Griswald to his feet. As Lyon stepped away from the podium, Griswald, in his best snarky voice, asked if Lyon would be defending the people of Connecticut with his wooden sword.
Now, Lyon never had a wooden sword. Occasionally, an officer convicted of cowardice would be required to wear a wooden sword, as a way of embarrassing him before the army. That had not happened in Lyon's case, because he was not accused of running from the enemy, but was tried for not maintaining discipline among his men. General Gates' later career provided ample evidence of his cowardice and incompetence, as Lyon's later career provided evidence of the reverse. But that was reality, and politics is about image - just ask John Kerry who was Swift Boat'ed over 200 years later.
Well, Lyon had been hearing this Federalist smear since the war. It had been used to defeat him twice in his congressional campaigns. And hit in the back of the head with it, the Green Mountain boy in Lyon reacted instinctively. He spun on Roger Griswald, and spit in his face. We can assume it was pretty disgusting logy. The forty year old Lyon was a tobacco user, and mouth wash and dentistry were still in their infancy. And then, having expectorated his peace, Lyon turned his back on Griswald again. In the words of an historian, from that moment “No man in the whole Republican party...(not even) Thomas Jefferson...was so hated and despised (by Federalists) as Matthew Lyon.”  Griswald went ape and charged at Lyon.
Cooler heads from both sides rushed to separate the two combatants.  And then, this being Congress, the argument about the traitor Senator Blount became about the “spitting Lyon” and the hot head Griswald. Federalists wanted Lyon censured for “gross indecency” - for spitting on a college - making him the first Congressman honored with an ethics charge.  Democrat-Republicans wanted Griswald censured for the insult,  making him the second Congressman so honored. In the end, both charges were dropped. So two weeks later, it got worse.
On Thursday 15 February, Roger Griswold entered the house chamber carrying a cane he had been loaned by a friend. He walked directly to Matthew Lyon's desk, and without warning began beating the Democrat-Republican with the stick. Covering his head, Lyon struggled to his feet, and retreated toward the fire pit, meant to take the morning chill off the chamber. He grabbed a pair of tongs from the wood pile, and began an insane fencing duel with his attacker (above). Again, cooler heads separated the two
The spitting only made the attacks on Matthew Lyon's honor louder. One bad Federalist poet even manged to include the insult into an ode to a theatrical Boston pig. “You boast your little pig can spell the hardest word; But did your little pig ever wear a wooden sword?....Though your piggy screws his snout in such learned grimaces, I defy the squeaking lout to spit in Christians’ faces...,Then tell us no more of your little grunting creature, But confess that the LION is the GREATEST BEAST in nature.”  As I said, he was a bad poet.
The Spitting Lyon so angered the Federalists members of Congress,  it made it easier for them to pass both the Alien and the Sedition Acts, the second of which was signed on 14 July, 1798, six months after the assault by and on the “Spitting Lyon.”  It's actual title was “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes” (above), the crimes being writing or publishing anything false or malicious against members of the government.  It also forbid the defendant from pleading the truth of their writing as a defense. Three months later, on 10 October, Matthew Lyons was convicted under the Sedition Act, and sentenced to four months in jail.
But Representative Lyon had the last laugh.  Twice.  First he was re-elected from his jail cell, with 55% of the vote. Then, the Presidential election of 1800 was a tie, and thrown into the House of Representatives. The contest became a 35 ballot knock down drag out between Democratic Republicans Jefferson and Aron Burr, engineered by the lame duck Federalist majority. The issue was finally settled on the 36th ballot, when the Federalist Representative from Vermont abstained. This allowed Matthew Lyon, the Democrat-Republican from Vermont, to cast the deciding ballot making Thomas Jefferson Third President of the United States.
So it turned out, Senator Blount's act of betrayal did not end up preventing Jefferson from winning the White House. The arrogant Blount did not witness the victory, having died in his home (above) during an epidemic in March of 1800. The next year Matthew Lyon moved to Kentucky, and won election to Congress from that new state six times, finally retiring in 1811, and dying in 1822. The Spitting Lyon, the Green Mountain Beast, was then buried in the Blue Grass state (below). And what a shame we have allowed his memory to fade, in part because we insist upon neutering our "founding fathers" - denying them and us both our shared humanity, warts and all. The lessons are usually in the warts, you know.
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Thursday, April 25, 2019

KEEPING TIME

I remember a proverb that says opportunity knocks only once. That may be true, but it is also true that having heard the knock you still have to get off your behind and open the door. And, in one of the most amazing twists of history, when the scientists at the Royal observatory at Greenwich, England heard that knock they were mightily annoyed. So they pawned off the job of dealing with the disturbance to one of their servants. He turned that disturbance into a career. In fact he made three careers out of simply telling the time. The Royal Observatory was founded by Charles II in 1765 as part of his restoration and “re-scientific-ication” of government after the religious fanaticism of that great Puritan villain Oliver Cromwell. The observatory was to use the stars to perfect “the art of navigation.” But the builders, despite going over budget by all of twenty pounds, went cheap on the materials, and the observatory, which was to house the most accurate telescopes of the day, was constructed 13 degrees out of alignment. The Royal astronomers, like the NASA astronomers dealing with the deformed mirrors on the orbiting Hubble telescope, have had to make mathematical adjustments from that day to this.
But besides powerful telescopes, the scientist at the Greenwich observatory also needed accurate clocks. In order to say a particular star was at a particular point in the sky at midnight, they had to know precisely when midnight was. So they also installed two pendulum clocks, built by Thomas Tompion, each accurate to within seven seconds a day. By 1833 (sixty-four years later) the observatory had done its job so well that ships’ captains and navigators had come to rely on the precise time provided by Greenwich to follow the charts provided by Greenwich. That year the observatory began a practice they follow to this day.At exactly 12.55 p.m., (they do it then so as not to interfere with the weather observations made at noon) a large red “time ball” is raised half way to the top of a mast erected atop the observatory. At 12.58 the time ball is pulled all the way to the top. And then at 1:00 P.M., exactly, the ball quickly falls to the bottom of the mast. (If you have ever wondered why they use a ball to mark midnight on New Years Eve in Times Square, New York City, this is it.) Any ship’s captain waiting in the Thames River to set sail could now coordinate their shipboard watches and clocks with the official time as they set off from the “prime meridian” or “longitude naught” - "0" degrees, "0" seconds and "0" minutes east/west, because Greenwich is where longitude starts - and time.Two years later, in 1835, the observatory got a new boss, George Biddle Airy. He figured his primary job was to perfect the astronomical observations for those ships, and he hired more “computers”, which in the 19th century were actually men who did the dull and boring math required to confirm and correct the stellar charts used to navigate on voyages to the far flung corners of the empire. So when the London merchants appealed to Mr. Airy to share in the time service he saw them as an annoyance. He asked one of his assistants, a man not qualified to be a “computer”, Mr. John Henry Belville, to handle the problem.Airy gave Mr. Belville a pocket watch to use. It had been originally owned by Prince Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex (above), the sixth son of George III, the favorite uncle of Queen Victoria and the man who gave her away at her wedding. The watch had been made by Mr. John Arnold & Sons in 1794 and it was accurate to within one tenth of a second per day. Each Monday John Henry (he rarely used his last name because of the anti-French public bias in post Napoleonic war Britain)  would present himself and “Faithful Arnold”, the watch, to a clerk at the observatory time desk. The clerk would set the watch and then hand John  a certificate asserting to the watch’s accuracy for that day. Then John Henry would make his way by carriage and rail to London, where he would literally deliver the time to some two hundred customers; shops, factories and offices. He charged for the service, of course.  For most of the people in London, John Henry Belville was the face of official time, and he was earning four hundred pounds a year doing it when he died in 1856.After John’s death his widow, Maria, still had a daughter to support. She begged the observatory to allow her to continue the time service as a private business, and they agreed. By now (1852) Charles Shepherd had designed and installed a “Galvano-Magnetic” clock (above) at the Observatories’ gate (now called Shepherd’s Gate) where anyone could get the time at any time day or night, for free. But still the London merchants continued to pay for Maria’s direct door service. Every Monday she strode up the observatory hill, watched while Arnold was synchronized with the official time, and then went on her rounds by rail and on foot. To those who saw her trudging across the streets of London, she became known as the Greenwich Time Lady.Maria retired in 1892, and her daughter Ruth now took over the employment (above), carrying the tool of her trade, Faithful Arnold, in her handbag. By now (1884) 25 countries had agreed to set their watches by Greenwich time, and every clock at every railroad station in England was connected directly via telegraph lines with the Royal Observatory. And still, the time delivered by Ruth Belville was just as accurate, if slightly less convenient.Beginning in 1924 the BBC Radio began broadcasting “pips” before each hour announcement and in 1936 the Royal Observatory set up a “talking clock” which anyone with a telephone could dial at any time to get the correct time to within a hundredth of a second. And still Ruth Belville was making her rounds, still serving more than fifty paying customers over a hundred years after her family business had begun.Finally, in 1940, Ruth celebrated her 86th birthday and decided to retire. In America we would have long since replaced her with newer technology. But the English have more respect for keeping what works, particularly if it is a living person. On her retirement, Ruth agreed to pose for a photograph (above), looking a bit like a visitor from another time in 1940's London. And , since she had no one to pass the task on to, when Ruth retired the Belville family work was finally completed.
Ruth received a pension from  “The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers” guild , where "Faithful Arnold" was also granted a rest and a place of honor. Ruth retired to a home in Croydon. One night not two years later, during one of the night bombing raids of London, Ruth turned her bedside gas lamp down low to save fuel.  The flame sputtered out, produced carbon dioxide, and Ruth Belville suffocated in her sleep.In effect, she ran out of time.
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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

LAST GASP, LAST GRASP

I would not have granted Confederate Major General John George Walker (above) a pardon in 1866. And not because he betrayed his nation. About one in four of the 31 million Americans actively supported the rebellion of the slave states in 1860, - a rebellion which killed 750,000 soldiers and civilians. But I believe John Walker should have been punished for the death of one young union private in particular, who died at the age of 23 for no other reason than because General Walker was stubborn and arrogant. What inspired Walkers' belligerence was the unexpected appearance at the mouth of the Rio Grande River of the quixotic Union general Lew Wallace.
On 11 March, 1865, the bookish Hoosier met with Walker's subordinate General James Edwin Slaughter, and local Confederate regimental commander Colonel John Salmon Ford in Port Isabel, at the southern end of South Padre Island.
But instead of the expected topic of prisoner exchange, Wallace(above)  wanted to talk about an immediate cease fire west of the Mississippi, and the negotiated surrender of all rebel troops. Slaughter agreed to forward the proposal to the Confederate Commander of the entire trans-Mississippi, General Edmund Kirby Smith. But first the offer had to cross the desk of the Texas Commander, General John George Walker.
On 25 March, from his headquarters in Houston, Walker berated Wallace for “seeking an obscure corner of the Confederacy to inaugurate negotiations.” Having insulted his own command, Walker admitted, “It would be folly...to pretend we are not tired of the war...”, but even discussing surrender said Walker, would render rebel officers “infamous for all time.” Walker then closed by saying, “With the blessing of God we will yet...extort from your government all that we ask.” Wallace accurately labeled Walker's rejection as “childish”. Nevertheless Walker was encouraged by his superior, General Smith,  to passively accept Wallace's cease fire.    
The Trans-Mississippi (New Mexico, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas) had been isolated from the rest of the Confederacy since the fall of Vicksburg in July of 1863. Federal troops had withdrawn from Louisiana and Texas in 1864, but they still occupied the barrier islands (above), blockading imports,  except for a trickle that could be hauled across the beach at Bagdad, Mexico, on the south shore of the Rio Grande river.  
Walker was convinced his soldiers had driven off the Federal invaders, but an enlisted man stationed in south Texas wrote home, “The soldiers are getting very restless, and some talk of breaking up and going home.” At the end of December 1864, General Slaughter had only 2,600 soldiers fit for duty along the Rio Grande. By the end of March 1865, desertion had lowered that number to less than 1,200 men.
Then during April of 1865 the eastern Confederacy was shattered. The Army of Northern Virginia surrendering on the 9th. , and on the 26th General Joe Johnston surrendered all Confederate forces in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. As their government melted away the inmates of The trans-Mississippi found the Confederate dollar was worth more as kindling than currency. 
Plantation owners could only sell cotton to the government for worthless paper, and the few small farmers who were not in the army had trouble growing enough for themselves. By early May, in Texas' largest city of Houston, a 50 pound bag of flour cost the entire monthly salary of an army captain. Even to the die-hard General Walker it was now obvious only a Yankee invasion could unite his disillusioned and hungry soldiers. Assuming they did not immediately surrender.
As far back as February of 1865 Union commanders on the barrier islands had wanted to raid the Brownsville area. That request was denied because Washington did not want to pay for land they expected to soon get back for free. But then a rumor reached the Federally occupied southern most of the barrier islands, Bazos, that the Confederate army was evacuating Brownsville.
The new commander on Bazos, 30 year old Brevet Brigadier General Harvey Barret (above), knew if he asked Washington for permission to check out the rumor, they would say no. So he didn't ask. 
On the morning of 11 May, 1865, the “ambitious but inept” General Barret ordered Lieutenant Colonel David Branson to cross the lagoon over night and before dawn land 300 infantry and dismounted cavalry at Boca Chita – Small Mouth – of the Rio Grande River. They were to carry 5 days rations and 100 rounds of ammunition each.  If not resisted on landing, Branson was to push 7 miles east on the old military causeway road to the White Ranch, where the neck of land between the South Bay of the Bazos lagoon and the  Rio Grande was narrowest. There were thought to be about 65 rebel cavalry picketed at the ranch, but if he met no resistance Branson was to continue another 8 miles across the almost featureless landscape to the Palmetto Ranch. And if practical he was to probe another 12 miles toward Brownsville and Fort Brown. As a later report admitted, Barret's raid was “either without any definite purpose, or for some purpose that has never been made clear.” It was also without cavalry.
Colonel Branson's force of 8 companies – 250 men of the 62nd Colored infantry (above)  and 2 companies of the 2nd Texas (U.S.) Cavalry - 50 troopers without horses - landed at the end of the causeway about 2a.m. and pushed east ward. About 8:30 they got to the White Ranch, and found the place abandoned. Branson let his men grab a couple of hours sleep and then marched on to the Palmetto Ranch. As they approached the hacienda around noon on 12 May, the Federals took fire from some pickets, who fell back as the federals advanced. Left behind were 3 rebels on sick call, 2 horses and 4 Texas long horn cows, as well as rations for about 150 men. Burning the hacienda and supplies, Branson's men camped nearby.
The Confederates surprised at Palmetto Ranch were an under strength company of cavalry under Captain William Robinson. He gathered his 60 men in the sage brush a mile away, and sent word to his commander at Fort Brown, Colonel John Salmon “Rip” Ford. 
Ford (above), had earned his nickname because he always filled his causality lists with the notation “Rest In Peace”. He now responded that he would arrive the next morning with reinforcements. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Robinson realized the federals had no cavalry, and decided not to wait. 
About 3a.m. he sent his men flanking the federal camp, and laid down an harassing fire. Unable to match the rebels for maneuverability, Branson woke his exhausted infantry and marched them in the dark back to the White Ranch with his prisoners – 3 rebels, a horse and 4 cows. Robinson chose not to follow. And amazingly, for all the marching and shooting, the only causality was one of the unmounted Texas federals. So far. It seemed nobody on either side wanted to be the last man killed in the Civil War.
Colonel Branson sent details of the encounter to General Barret back on Bazos Island, expecting to be ordered to withdraw. After all, the mission had been to confirm the rumor that Brownsville was being  evacuated. And with cavalry picketed 11 miles east of Brownsville, it seemed likely the rebels were still there. Instead, Barret himself arrived at the White Ranch just after dawn on 13 May, with 9 under strength companies – about 200 men - of the veteran 34th Indiana infantry. While the Hoosier soldiers rested, Barret pushed the 300 men of the 62nd and 2nd Texas Cavalry back toward Palmetto Ranch.
Marching out from Brownsville to meet the Yankees that morning was Colonel “Rip” Ford and 360 mounted cavalry, and six 6 pounder artillery pieces (above). 
Given the flat, open terrain, with the only trees bordering the Rio Grande River, the battle would be decided by who best used their cavalry and artillery, and Barret had none, and no combat experience with either. Why he was being foolish was explained to Barret that afternoon, 13 May, when after a morning spent sniping at each other - again with no causalities - he tried to outflank the Confederates with foot soldiers.  About 4pm Ford's mounted troopers easily out flanked Barret's flanking maneuver.
In his after action report, Barret admitted what he should have realized before he launched his misadventure. “....a heavy body of cavalry and a section of (artillery),  under cover of the thick chaparral on our right, had already succeeded in flanking us...our position became untenable. We therefore fell back...This movement...having to be performed under a heavy fire from both front and flank.” In other words, trying to move infantry in cavalry country, without artillery or cavalry support, was foolish. Barret's excuse was that he didn't know any better.
Luckily, the 34th Indiana now arrived, and threw out the 48 men of Company B as skirmishers, to cover the retreat of Barret's over extended 62nd regiment. 
In that line stretched across the hard dry chaparral, knelt Private John Jefferson Williams (above), a 23 year old blacksmith from Anderson, Indiana. The young man had been in the army since September of 1863, joining the unit after it participated in the capture of Vicksburg. And after duty in occupied New Orleans, his unist had moved on to Texas. This was Private William's first battle. And his last. 
Firing in the skirmish line, Private Williams stood to reload his musket when a rebel cavalryman fired a ball that entered William's skull just above his right eye, killing him instantly. 
Ford's cavalrymen herded the isolated Federal skirmishers into a bend of the Rio Grande River, and forced them to surrender, along with 30 stragglers from the 62nd and 2nd Texas.
The sacrifice of Company B and private Williams, allowed the 62nd infantry to form a longer skirmish line behind the retreating 34th. Their retreat was then covered by another line of the 34th Indiana. And thus began a 4 hour leap frog battle,  which Colonel Ford described as “a run”, all the way back to the White Ranch. From there the enclosing swamps restricted Colonel Ford's rebel flanking attacks, and he satisfied himself with lobbing an occasional artillery shell, and long range musket fire. The last shots of this, the last battle of the American Civil War, were fired by the last skirmish line of the 62nd infantry, before boarding their boats for Bazos island.. Seeing the Federals heading to the water, Colonel Ford told his troopers, “Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone, and retire.”
The final causality count from this final 2 day battle was, on the Union side, 4 dead – 2 from the 62nd colored infantry, and one each the 2nd Texas and the 34th Indiana, 12 wounded, and 101 captured. The Confederates suffered “five or six wounded” according to Colonel Ford. The low "butcher's bill" indicated that not only were few of the soldiers on either side willing to die for their "country", they were not eager to kill for it either. The last man to die in the “Battle of Palmetto Ranch” had been John Jefferson Williams, the last man to be killed by enemy fire in the American Civil War.  The $45 found in his pocket was sent to his widow in Anderson, Indiana. And even he would not have died if Confederate Major General John George Walker had not insisted on fighting for a month after the war should have come to an end. 
The next day, 14 May, 1865, the 400 man Confederate garrisoned in Galveston, Texas, tried to desert with their weapons. A soldier in Shreveport, Louisiana, wrote that, ”Mutiny and wholesale desertion was openly talked of.” A senior Confederate officer described “mobs of disorderly soldiery, thronging the roads, interrupting travel and making life and property exceedingly insecure”. On 20 May half the troops left in Texas did desert, and the remaining half refused to stop them. 
Final proof of the collapse of the Trans Mississippi was that not only were the prisoners of the 62nd Colored Infantry accorded respectful treatment, but they and their white Union comrades were all released by Colonel Ford within a few days. The rebellion of the slave states was over, even in the hearts and minds of the die hard rebels. Finally, on 25 May, General Walker himself admitted defeat, disbanded his command, and headed for Mexico with his wife and children.
Six months later John George Walker was in Liverpool, Britain, writing to U.S. President Andrew Johnston, asking for a pardon and restoration of his citizenship. 
After a year of lobbying in person in Washington, he signed a pledge that he did, “solemnly swear in presence of ALMIGHTY GOD that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States... and...abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations...with reference to the emancipation of Slaves. So help me God.”  The  “ambitious but inept” Barret did not know better than to try and keep the war going. But the experienced professional John George Walker, certainly should have. 
In November of 1869 the stubborn Walker (above) went to work for the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, and in the spring of 1873 was seeking to attract European immigrants to the lone star state. In 1885 Walker was named U.S. consul to Bogota, Columbia by President Grover Cleveland, and while in Washington, D.C. John Walker died of a stroke at 72 years of age, in 1893. He was never held to public account for his part in the last death in the American Civil War.

The captured men of the Indiana 34th regiment buried the body of Private John Jefferson Williams about 200 yards south of the walls of Fort Brown (above)  and 100 yards from the Rio Grande River. 
After the war the fort's burial ground became the Brownsville National Cemetery (above), where the earthly remains of Private Williams remained undisturbed for 44 years.
Then,  in 1909,  some 1,500 bodies, including that of Private Williams, were disinterred.
He was reburied in the 8 acre Alexandria National Cemetery, in Pineville, Louisiana. The last man to be killed in combat during the American Civil War is still there, buried in plot 797.  Proof yet again, that starting a war is easy, but stopping always costs more than anybody wants to pay.
Rest In Peace
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