All posts by Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and free-lance writer. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:

Was He a Fraud, or the Real Hero of Gettysburg? The Truth About Daniel Sickles.

Troops from Alabama and Minnesota, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1863, painting by Don Triona.

At his death in 1914, Daniel Sickles’ funeral was on par with that of an American President. Sickles story is an odd one. The Honorable Daniel Sickles was a successful lawyer, a Civil War general, and was even awarded (with much controversy) the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was twice elected a Congressman from New York, and served in the state assembly, and later as United States minister to Spain. Daniel Sickles was clearly successful and prominent, but, before his long life was over many questioned his character, and his judgment.

B. General Daniel Sickles, U.S.A.

Sickles had an amazing ability to persuade, and an even shrewder power to influence. Many considered him a brilliant lawyer, politician and debater. One observer of the time said that Sickles was “a lawyer by intuition – careful in reaching his conclusions, but quick and bold in pushing them.” William Marcy, who was the governor of New York, said that Sickles was an excellent debater, and “excelled any man of his years.” There was no doubt of Sickles talents, the larger question rested upon his honesty.

He used his persuasive abilities to sometimes spin questionable stories that usually came to the conclusion that he desired, and, not necessarily the truth. George Templeton Strong, a well-known publicist of that time wrote that Sickles was “one of the bigger bubbles in the scum of the profession, swollen and windy, and puffed out with fetid gas.” Liar, thief, drunkard, philanderer, and murderer were others terms which were used to describe him. Sickles was undoubtedly one of the most controversial characters of his time. But much of the public dismissed the drama, and loved the man. This work tries to find the truth about Daniel Sickles.

The funeral of Daniel Sickles.

Sickles pled temporary insanity when he shot his wife’s lover to death in broad daylight. He was the first person in the nation to use that defense, and he was acquitted. Was he temporary insane, or was Sickles just insanely jealous? Many suggest that he got away with it because of his many political connections. It didn’t hurt that the sitting President of the United States visited the trial and shook Sickles hand in front of the jury. The victim, was unarmed, while Sickles was carrying three hand guns.

Was Sickles the true hero of the battle of Gettysburg? He spent decades trying to convince the public that he, and not George Meade, should have received the credit for the Union victory. According to Sickles, he prevented General Meade from retreating from the battlefield. Meade, a West Point graduate, was a highly respected career military officer with loads of battle experience. Sickles, a lawyer and politician, had no military experience or training, and had been politically appointed as an officer.

The murder of Philip Key by Daniel Sickles.

In his later years, Sickles was recognized as a gifted speaker at veteran’s events and worked hard as a member of the New York military monument committee. He helped raise thousands of dollars to erect military monuments, but at age 92, was arrested and charged with embezzling from the same account he was entrusted to protect. His life was a see-saw of controversies, which, over time, created either loyal admirers, or those who despised and loathed him.

Even as an adolescent, his early behavior began forming its dark side. As a teenager he spoke at political rallies impressing many, and he was quickly noticed as a forceful speaker. When he was seventeen, however, he was accused of stealing $100.00 from a Mr. Peter Cooper. Cooper had been fond of the young man, and felt that Sickles had the potential to become a great minister. He thought that Sickles might be a good candidate to attend Princeton University, which was known for its program in theology. Because of his faith in him, Cooper asked Sickles to help him with a minor business transaction. Young Sickles only job was to transport the funds for the transaction, but, in the end, there was a shortage of $100.00. The research does not indicate the outcome of this accusation of stealing, but this early incident is an indicator of a trend of reckless and irresponsible behavior that followed him throughout his life.

Sickles fascination with women began at an early age. In his youth he began a lifelong passion of frequenting brothels, especially ones located in his home town of New York City, such as, The Diving Bell, The Swimming Bar, and the Arcade on Orange Street. He enjoyed being in the company of women of all varieties, but, especially Irish and non-white prostitutes.

As an adult he began his career in law and politics, and married and started a family. Despite the trappings of responsibility, Sickles strange behavior continued to develop. At the age of 33 he married a 15 year old girl. Even for that period, the age difference raised many eyebrows. Despite being married, and, an elected New York state senator, his obsession with prostitutes continued. In 1856 he was censored by the state assembly for escorting a known prostitute, Fanny White, into the senate chamber. By 1859, then Congressman Sickles, became aware that his child bride had decided to play the romantic field too, and with a good friend of her husband. Sickles and his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, had a so-called unexpected encounter on the streets of Washington, DC. In a jealous rage, Sickles, shot Philip Barton Key to death. This took place in broad daylight with witnesses, and, in view of the White House. He got off scot-free. After the trial, it was said that Sickles boasted to friends that, “he meant to kill him.”

In 1861 the Civil War was in full swing, and Daniel Sickles was looking for a way to repair his reputation. Despite having no military experience, Sickles gladly accepted a political appointment as an officer in the Union army. As with the other chapters of his life, Sickles, again, became a controversial figure, playing a significant, but controversial role in two of the wars major battles, Wilderness, and Gettysburg. It was here that his life’s work was clearly defined, and by defined by him.

Initially, Daniel Sickles was an officer on the staff of Major General Joseph Hooker, and later, Major General George Meade, both experienced and well trained officers. As noted, Sickles had no military experience, nor, does it seem, that he had any understanding of war strategies. Having these shortcoming did not prevent him from making bold decisions that turned into disasters, and, impacted two major battles. In fact, at Gettysburg, he ignored General Meade’s direct orders and made his own catastrophic one. He was clearly insubordinate, and should have been court martialed. In both battles his actions were grossly negligent, and, in the end, cost lives, instead of saving them. Let’s examine the details.

General George Meade

The Battle of the Wilderness took place in early May 1863, and just outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Daniel Sickles reported to General Joe Hooker, who had a reputation for aggressive fighting. Lincoln was hopeful that Hooker was the man who would avenge the Union’s humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg a few months earlier. Considering that Hooker’s army was more than twice the size of the Confederate forces, the odds of winning were easily on the side of the Union army. Hooker ordered Sickles to set up an artillery position on an elevated piece of land called Hazel Grove. Sickles XI Corp consisted of approximately 20,000 soldiers. Once he was situated on Hazel Grove his scouting reports indicated that there was Confederate movement nearby. Although his intelligence was not complete, Sickles hurriedly concluded that the Confederate army was in full retreat. That was not the case, and, instead of retreating, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was marching around the union flank and was preparing to attack Sickles. Sickles was then ordered by Hooker to fall back and withdraw from Hazel Grove, but, because he was convinced that the Confederates were retreating, he did not protect his own troops properly, leaving wide openings where his men were vulnerable to attacks, and from numerous sides. As quickly as Sickles XI Corp left the high ground of Hazel Grove, Jackson’s men took the position, and set up over 40 cannons, and began blasting away at the Union army. It was May 2, 1863 and by mid-day there were over 15,000 casualties, and many were Sickles men.

In the end, the much larger Union army was routed by the Confederates, and the Battle of the Wilderness became another success for the Confederate cause. Many historians believe that Joe Hooker lost his nerve, and thus lost the battle, because instead of taking the offensive, he waited for the Confederate army to come to them. In the book, The Battle of Chancellorsville (1896), the author, Augustus Choate Hamlin, blamed the Union loss on Daniel Sickles’ poor judgment. Hamlin “blamed Sickles because he had persuaded Hooker to allow him to make the fatal reconnaissance that isolated the XI Corps and left it without reserves.” Additionally, Hamlin felt that Sickles lack of military training attributed to his not being able to locate Jackson’s men, and most particularly, not realizing that the Confederates were not retreating, but re-directing their advance. Hamlin suggested that despite the obvious indicators that he had made a huge error in strategy, Sickles continued to advance, and his XI Corp was wide open to rebel attack, and many senseless deaths. Hamlin’s opinion of the battle is significant, and it should be considered with the highest credibility, since he was an eye witness participant to the battle. Colonel Hamlin served under General Hooker as a medical inspector during the battle.

There is no dispute among recent historians that at the Battle of Gettysburg, Daniel Sickles deliberately disobeyed his orders that he had received from General Meade. Generally regarded as the most importance battle of the Civil War, Gettysburg was, without question, the turning point of the war. If the Confederate forces had won at Gettysburg, on Union soil, it is likely that Lincoln would have been forced by an unhappy public to stop the war. Daniel Sickles argued for decades afterwards, that he won the battle, not Meade. He even convinced a number of historians of that period to go along with his tale. After a close examination of the facts, it appears that instead of contributing to the Union victory, Sickles nearly lost the battle, and possibly the war.

On July 2 1863 Union General George Meade was lining up his forces to begin the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He ordered Sickles, commander of the Third Army Corps, to occupy a position just left of the Second Army Corps. Meade’s strategy was to extend the line along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, which was also to be occupied. By mid-morning Sickles was in position, but he decided that he did not like the position. Sickles sent a message to Meade that he wanted to move his men to a different spot that offered higher ground. That spot, was known as the Peach Orchard. Sickles thought that if he did not occupy the higher ground, the rebels would take it, and then, set up their own artillery. This is what had happened to Sickles in the battle of the Wilderness, just a few weeks prior. Meade never approved his request. As the battle progressed, and Sickles became aware that Confederate forces were near Seminary Ridge, he disregarded Meade’s direct order, and relocated his men to the Peach Orchard. By doing so, he left Little Round Top unprotected, and he also deserted his position of support to the General Hancock’s Second Army Corp. Because of Sickles advancing so far forward, his left flank was completely exposed. Due to Sickles actions, Meade had to shore up Sickles flank and he sent 5th Corp, remnants of 2 divisions from the 1st Corp, 3 brigades from the 12th Corp, 5 full brigades from the 2nd Corp, and a few brigades from the 6th Corp. In other words, due to Sickles poor judgment, Meade spent additional time and resources trying to fix Sickles mistake. This undoubtedly, cost many unnecessary lives. In the ensuing battle Sickles Third Army Corps was decimated, losing nearly half his 10,000 men, and Sickles himself had his leg blown off.

Sickles ended up in a military hospital in Washington, D.C. and was visited by President Abraham Lincoln. This is where Sickles began spinning his own version of the battle of Gettysburg. Daniel Sickles argued that he, not Meade, had won the battle of Gettysburg, going as far as to tell the President that he had even picked the spot for the actual battle. He elaborated that General Meade’s order was not clear, or specific, and denied that he received any orders regarding Little Round Top. Sickles tried to persuade all who would listen that his Corps had absorbed the Confederate attack and slowed their momentum down before they reached Cemetery Ridge. According to Sickles, General Meade had planned to retreat from the battlefield, but, by Sickles moving his forces forward, it forced Meade to fight. Sickles did not feel that Meade even wanted to fight.

The historical evidence, however, does not support Sickles. In Richard Sauer’s recent work, Gettysburg: The Meade-Sickles Controversy, Sauers determines that Meade did provide clear and specific orders, which were sent several times that day to Sickles, and the orders included specifics about Little Round Top. General Meade, himself, remained silent on the subject, with the exception of his official report where he stated “Sickles had not fully apprehended the instructions in regards to the position to be occupied.” In other words, Sickles lack of experience, coupled with his overall poor judgment, created an unnecessary disaster for Meade’s army at Gettysburg. Clearly Meade was not planning on retreating, and for Sickles to state that, is absurd and suggest that Sickles motives are based solely on discrediting Meade. Sickles version of Gettysburg gained a small level of creditability when Meade did not aggressively pursue Lee’s retreating army. Even Lincoln appeared to be annoyed, “You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow it up, and give him another before he can reach the Potomac.” Meade did pursue Lee’s army, but, the end-all battle that Lincoln wanted, did not happen.

In a time of virtue, and men were praised for character and honor, Sickles frequently, as well as openly, committed adultery, was a notorious drunk, and even stole thousands of dollars from a veteran’s fund, of which he was a trustee. Despite this, he was adored by much of the public, and a popular speaker at veteran’s gatherings. He shared the stage on numerous occasions with U.S. Presidents, and many times the audience preferred Sickles, rather than the President as the speaker. It is difficult to explain, or to understand how, during his time the American public never saw Sickles for the person he was, a fraud.
His greatest skill was his ability to convince the public that despite his villainous behavior, he was a great man, and even greater American hero. At the time of his death the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote “General Sickles was a great hero, and the hero of Gettysburg.” The Greensboro Record wrote, “General Daniel Sickles is one of most picturesque and brilliant civilian officers of the Civil War.” The Philadelphia Inquirer glorified him further by stating, “ the gruff old warrior, with one leg shot away in battle, his massive head resembling Bismarck’s was a picturesque figure as he hobbled along on crutches during the last half of his turbulent life.”

A year before he died,  Sickles was arrested for embezzling funds from the New York State military monument committee, which he had been a member for years. His home had to be sold, and other items to settle the lost funds, but there were many in the public who still wanted to support Sickles. On January 28. 1913 an article was published in the Springfield Republican entitled “Southern Woman to Aid Gen. Sickles. Mrs. Helen Longstreet Will Raise Money in the South to Pay Alleged Debt.”

History, as represented a century ago, had it wrong about Daniel Sickles. He was no hero, and certainly not deserving of the Congressional Medal of Honor, or a presidential type funeral, but there was that ego. When asked why there was no monument to himself at Gettysburg, he replied that “the entire battlefield is a monument to me.”

Additional readings:

Gettysburg: The Meade-Sickles Controversy, by Richard Sauer (2003)

The Battle of Chancellorsville, by (1896) Augustus Choate Hamlin (1896)

American Scoundrel:The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles Thomas Keneally (2002)

Remembering the USS Indianapolis: The Last American Warship Sunk in WWII.

Last photo of officers of USS Indianapolis before leaving California with A bomb. L to R - front row: Commander Page Hill, Captain McVay, CDR. Joe Flynn, CDR. Glen F. DeGrave L to R - back row: LCDR. C.M Christiansen, LCDR KC Moore, LCDR. Dr. L. Haynes, LCDR. Earl Henry, LCDR. Charles Hayes -
Last photo of officers of USS Indianapolis before leaving California
with A bomb. L to R – front row: Commander Page Hill, Captain McVay, CDR. Joe Flynn, CDR. Glen F. DeGrave L to R – back row: LCDR. C.M Christiansen, LCDR KC Moore, LCDR. Dr. L. Haynes, LCDR. Earl Henry, LCDR. Charles Hayes –
USS Indianapolis
USS Indianapolis

The USS Indianapolis was the last major American warship sunk during WWII. With the loss of 883 sailors, it was the worst naval disaster in American history. Returning from completing the most important mission of the war, the one that ultimately ended the war with Japan, the Indianapolis was torpedoed,and sank in less than 12 minutes. It was midnight July 30, 1945, and just six days before the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The story about the flagship of the 5th Fleet, lovingly referred to as Indy, is fraught with tragedies at every intersection.

There were 1196 men onboard, and many considered the ship to be overloaded. Quarters were tight and there was little room on deck to perform the battle drills once out to sea. Youth reigned on the Indianapolis, and, of the crew, 250 were brand-new from boot camp. Seaman Bob Grause, from Tarpon Springs, Florida wanted to see his wife one more time before the Indy left port in San Francisco. He had been so busy working as a quartermaster that he had not had time to let his wife know that the ship was leaving. Despite the captain canceling all leave, Grause managed to slip off the ship for few hours, and was barely able to jump back onboard as it pulled away from the dock. Seaman Ed Brown of South Dakota also wanted an evening off the ship, but decided it was not worth the risk. He had joined the Navy and had left for boot camp on the same day he played his last high school basketball game. They both survived the disaster, and Grause went on to run a successful lumber business, and Brown was a salesmen for the auto industry.

On July 15, 1945, the Indy began its fateful last mission. The 610 foot heavy cruiser left its port in San Francisco for the Tiniam Island in the Philippines. It was a beautiful day and there was a slight breeze as the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Captain McVay’s orders were in a sealed envelope and locked in the ship’s safe. He had been told to open the orders once out to sea. “Gentlemen, our mission is secret and I cannot tell you the mission, but every hour we save will shorten the war by that much,” he reportedly said . The captain ordered the crew to increase the ships speed and it traveled for the remainder of the mission under radio silence.

The first atomic bomb "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima by the plane the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945.
The first atomic bomb “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima by the the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945.

The crew wondered when they would see their families and sweethearts again, what the mission was, and why the ship suddenly was going at maximum speed. In fact, as the Indy got into open water it reached 28 knots and held that, and by the end of the day the ship had covered 350 miles. The biggest chatter amongst the crew had to do with the large wooden crate that was fastened to the port hangar deck. The screws holding the box tight to the deck were counter sinked and wax was poured over the screws discouraging anyone from tampering with it. An armed guard stood watch with orders to shoot if anyone was foolish enough to get too close. The box was so big that a 30’ by 30’ area was cordoned off with red tape. Rumors suggested that it was full of gold bullion, or possibly Rita Hayworth’s underwear. Inside the box, however, were the parts needed to assemble the first atomic bomb, which was called “Little Boy.”

A short distance away, a black canister was welded to the flag lieutenant’s cabin. Inside the canister was death in the form of uranium-235. It represented half the useable uranium in America, and it was enough to ultimately kill nearly 100,000 people in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Of course, no one onboard the Indy could imagine in their wildest dreams the contents, or the blackish mushroom shaped clouds that would soon hang over Hiroshima. It was all innocent that morning on the Indy. There was only the good-humored chatter and the bantering about Rita Hayworth’s underwear. After traveling 3300 miles, the Indy docked at Tinian Island on July 26th. The crate and canister were quickly removed and taken to a remote place for assembly. The Enola Gay was waiting nearby in a secluded hangar on the island.

MARIANAS: CREWS The ground crew of the B-29 "Enola Gay" which atom-bombed Hiroshima, Japan. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot is the center. Marianas Islands.
The ground crew of the B-29 “Enola Gay” which atom-bombed Hiroshima, Japan. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot is the center.
The mushroom shaped cloud hang on Hiroshima. August 6, 1945.
The mushroom shaped cloud hung over Hiroshima. August 6, 1945.

At this point, the Indy’s final mission had been flawless. McVay had followed his orders to the letter and the ship had come close to breaking speed records for a ship her size. His concerns about running low on fuel, and having an inexperienced crew, had vanished once the wooden box and canister were taken off her deck. He was ordered to depart immediately for the Philippines. Within a few hours of docking and refueling, the Indy was back at sea.

Some have said the Indy just had bad luck on its trip to the Philippines. That would be a colossal understatement. The list of mistakes, miscommunications, misinformation, and just being in the wrong place, put the USS Indianapolis on a collision course with doomsday. McKay’s orders routed his ship through the shipping lanes in the Leyte Sea to the Philippines. He was advised on two occasions, possibly more, that this area of the South Pacific was low risk for Japanese submarine activity. That was encouraging, but McKay played it safe by requesting a destroyer escort. The request was denied, and McKay was again reassured again that there was little enemy activity to be concerned with. If the Indy did run into trouble, his supervisors advised that McVay should, at his discretion, use the standard procedure of zig-zagging his ship. What McKay did not know was that a sub had attacked and sank a Navy ship in those waters, just four days before.

What happened next is considered by many as the most fatal error ever made by the United States Navy. The Indy cabled a message to the U.S. Navy’s Philippine port with its travel orders, which included coordinates and an expected date of arrival. The message, however, was incorrectly decoded and, to make matters worse, the base did not bother to ask for another re-transmission. McKay, fully trusting the official reports and satisfied that his coordinates and travel information had been received, proceeded on the three day trip to the Philippines. On the second day, the visibility became poor, and McVay gave the order to reduce speed and to stop zig-zagging.

As the Indy began quietly passing through the Leyte Sea, two miles away Mochitsura Hashimoto was also thinking about the poor visibility. Hashimoto was the captain of a Japanese submarine, one of the elite Temont submarine fleet. There were only four subs in this group and they had all been outfitted with the most advanced radar and torpedoes. Only the best captains were picked to skipper these subs, except Hashimoto had never proven his ability. Hashimoto was worried about his military reputation. He felt that the war was nearly over, and that he had not earned the distinction of sinking an enemy ship. His reputation would be lost. Finally, the moon peeked out from the night’s blackness for a second, and Hashimoto saw a dark spot moving through the water. He gave the order to launch two torpedoes at the moving object. Suddenly the quiet of the night was interrupted. Onboard the Indy the 12 to 4pm crew had just taken their stations, and the rest were asleep. It was midnight July 30, 1945.

Both torpedoes struck the starboard bow blowing it completely off. All communications had been destroyed making it impossible to shut the four huge Parsons turbine engines down. The ship continued to move forward – – taking on enormous amounts of water. Fire was raging below and men were screaming, desperately clinging to one another and trying to escape the inferno. Despite the abject horror, others patiently put life jackets on the wounded, and those on deck quietly waited at their stations for orders. The ship quickly began listing and the captain issued orders to abandon ship. Before half past midnight the USS Indianapolis had disappeared from sight and the survivors clung to a few life boats, life jackets, and one another.

Billy Cantrell, John Cadwallader, and Chaplain Thomas Conway were a few of the crew who died. Eighteen year old Cantrell lived with his parents in his hometown of Dallas, Texas. Prior to joining the Navy, he worked as a bicycle messenger for Western Union. Decades after the disaster Cantrell’s cousin said that Billy’s parents were never the same after their son’s death. John Cadwallader was young, married, and father of two children under four years old. He left home on the 4th of July 1945 to join the crew of the USS Indianapolis, and never saw his family again. Father Thomas Conway, was asleep in his berth when the first torpedo struck. Soon afterwards, he and hundreds of his shipmates were afloat in the shark infested water. The 37 year old swam to the aid of his shipmates and offered them comfort and prayers, and reassured them that they would be rescued. After three days, however, Father Conway succumbed to exhaustion and disappeared beneath the blackness of the Philippine Sea.

In the beginning, 900 men were afloat in the water. Sadly, the others were either directly killed by the torpedoes, or were trapped and then drowned as the ship went to the bottom of the sea. Of those in the water, many were injured from the fire that erupted from beneath the deck. There were many hero’s who were swimming around helping and encouraging the wounded and the scared, such as Captain McVay, Chaplain Thomas and others. As hours turned into days many of the survivors began to die, either from their wounds, exposure, exhaustion, or from shark attacks. “For each person as they died they took their life jackets off, and let them go. We then said the Lords Prayer. To this day I can’t say the Lord’s Prayer without crying,” recalled 85 year old Dr. Lewis Haynes, the ships doctor.

The flagship of the fleet had been forgotten. After three days the survivors were clinging on to miracles. Only half of the original survivors were still alive, and they were spread about 20 to 25 miles from each other in the sea. It wasn’t until the fourth day that the survivors of Indy were rescued — and, by accident. A Navy pilot looking for Japanese submarines spotted a 20 mile oil slick. It is unlikely that the remaining crew would have lasted another day. Out of the original 1196, then reduced to 900 after the torpedoes hit the Indy, only 316 survived the tragedy.


Some said they survived because they had closed their minds off from thinking about dying. Others held out hope that the Navy would finally discover that their ship was missing. They were all inspired by the acts of heroism and countless individual displays of courage. The tragic story of the USS Indianapolis sounds like a fictional tale, in that everything that could go wrong, did go wrong:

The ship was overloaded, and had an unusually high
number of inexperienced crew members.

Captain McVay was advised at least twice that their was
little risk of enemy submarine activity. The captain had even
requested a destroyer escort, but his request was denied.

The Indy was ordered to leave the Tinian Islands
Immediately after removing its cargo. The ship had just
finished traveling 3500 miles in ten days, and a day or two
In port was customary.

A fatal decoding error was made by the U.S. Navy in the
Philiphine port.

There were visibility issues on the night of July 30, 1945,
and because of that McVay suspended zig-zagging

Captain Hashimoto had not sunk an enemy ship in his
military career, but, despite the visibility problems he
successfully torpedoed the Indy.

Navy planes had flown over the site for days and never
noticed the survivors or the 20 mile’s of oil slick.

The story of the worst disaster in US Naval history was
over – shadowed by the Japanese surrender, and was
buried in the back pages of newspapers.

To complete the perfect storm, Captain McVay was unjustly court-martialed for failing to zig-zag in hostile waters. The charge was remitted by the Secretary of the Navy, and he was restored to duty. He retired from the Navy in 1949, and committed suicide in 1968. In 2001 Captain McVay was exonerated of any wrong doing connected with the sinking of his ship.

The tragedy of the USS Indianapolis is deepened when considering that the war was only days from being over. If the ship had been sunk before its historic rendezvous with the Enola Gay, the components of the bomb would have been on the bottom of the sea. Hiroshima would not have happened, and history would have certainly been altered.


In Harm’s Way : The Sinking of the U.S. Indianapolis, by Doug Stanton

Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis , by Dan Kurzman

Ordeal By Sea: The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis,by Thomas Helm

Terror in the Atlantic: Nazi U-boat Attacks on American Ships during World War II.

(Above image: An illustration of a U-boat attack. The steamer is sinking in the background, while the German crew on the U-boat watch. Painting by Willy Stöwer,1864–1931)

Most Americans do not realize just how close the Germans were to winning the war in Europe. In 1941, and just before the U.S. entered the fight, most of Europe had already surrendered to Hitler’s aggression, and England was hanging on by her fingernails. It was losing the battle in the Atlantic, suffering as many as 100 warships lost between June and September 1941. In addition to attacking British shipping, both military as well as non-military vessels, the U-boats even targeted ships containing innocent children, such as SS City of Benares, and the SS Voldendam, both passenger liners. The Voldenham was attacked 2 weeks prior to the Benares, and had carried 320 children; luckily it was close to shore and all survived. Both ships were torpedoed at night during a tumultuous storm. On September 18, 1940 the SS City of Benares went down with a loss of 260 people, including 77 children. It was hit by one torpedo directly in the stern and went down in less than 30 minutes.

Because of the heavy German air bombardment in England, the country had set up a program to transport children to safer places during the war. The children on The City of Benares had been on their way to Canada when attacked. Some families, such as the Grimmonds from Brixton, South London, faced an almost unimaginable loss: five of their children — Violet, Connie, Lennie, Eddie and Gussie — had perished. Despite the horrific losses the British refused to give up. The level of fear, however, continued to grow as Hitler’s own words began to resonate and haunt an entire nation, “since foreign seamen cannot be taken prisoner …the U-boats are to surface after torpedoing and shoot up the lifeboats.” The gruesome stories of German ruthlessness stirred the emotions of Americans. They anxiously read and carefully listened to the daily news reports of the war, and particularly the war in the Atlantic. An entire nation wondered what would happen next.

Children boarding a ship for a safe haven during the WW 2.

British children just before leaving Liverpool, England to a safe haven during WW 2.1940.Image: The National Archives UK @ Flickr Commons

England was all that stood in Hitler’s way of conquering Europe. Defeating her, however, required more than the German air bombardment of English cities. Adolph Hitler realized that England’s surrender would occur only when her resources to fight back were shut off. Stopping the flow of merchant ships carrying supplies, especially oil, and military equipment to English harbors was the only answer. The commander of Germany’s U-boat fleet proclaimed that if he had 300 more U-boats, “he could strangle England and win the war.” Many historians agree with that assessment. To defeat Germany, however, required the Allies to destroy their wolf pack, those submersibles which quietly operated in groups, surfaced at night and torpedoed unsuspecting ships, sometimes full of innocent passengers.

[caption id="attachment_1032" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] German U-boat 1942.

By early December 1941, Americans were acutely aware of the almost daily sinking of ships by Nazi U-boats. The war, however, was in Europe, and Americans could read and hear about the terrible atrocities from the comfort of their homes, far from the danger. That changed, however, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the United States declared war against Japan. This triggered the Axis Treaty, which was between Japan and Germany, and in return, Germany then declared war on the United States. Within two weeks, Hitler’s high command had sent three U-boats to the shores of the United States.

Striking in the dark of night, and especially during stormy weather, U-boats had proven to be the nightmare of the Atlantic. The U.S. did not anticipate German U-boats coming into U.S. ports. It was also unimaginable that a German vessel would operate in daylight, above the surface, and, in clear view of an American coastline. It was felt that because of the design of the U-boat, it was unlikely that the vessel could even cross the ocean to the American coastlines. With a crew of 44 men, a U-boat was not a pure submarine, but it was considered a submersible watercraft. When surfaced, it was powered by large diesel engines, and when submerged, the engines would shut down, and the vessel would operate off 100 tons of lead-acid batteries. Operating the boat underwater required that the ship had to surface every few hours for air, and the recharging of the batteries off the diesel engines. If spotted, the hull of the ship was easily penetrated by Allied gunfire, and once punctured it would be nearly impossible for it to re-submerge. It would be a death sentence for a U-boat to be spotted on the surface by Allied forces. America was confident that her shores were safe. The Germans, however, were also confident that America was not prepared for a coastal invasion, and they were right.

Allied oil tanker torpedoed by U-boat.

In January 1942, the British Navy officially notified the U.S. Navy that German U-boats had indeed crossed the Atlantic towards the east coast of America. The United States ignored the warnings, and left the coastline unprotected. In England most seaside towns and cities had been shutting off all lights (blackout) at night, but on the east coast of America everything, including ships in port, New York skyscrapers, and street lights, all remained lit up, silhouetted and huge targets.

Within three months, U-boats had sunk so many ships in U.S. waters that Americans thought that the Germans had sent an entire fleet of submarines, instead of only a few. On the bottom of the ocean during the day and rising to the surface at night, by the end of March 1942 bodies began to wash up on the shores from the New York harbor to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

German U-boat operated underwater by batteries, which made the vessels very slow.

The Dallas Morning News offered a running account of U-boat activities along the coast of the United States:

  • January 14 and 15, 1942. In New York harbor two large tanker ship carrying crude oil were torpedoed. The engine room of the SS. Coimbra was quickly engulfed in flames and spread to the entire the ship, killing 36 crewmen. It was reported in the German papers, “ twas a fantastic sight for us, and no doubt a terrifying sight for the Yankees.” Also, and destined for an English harbor, the same U-boat sank the huge tanker SS Norness with three torpedoes, and luckily, with no loss of life. From the bridge, the captain of the U-boat, Reinhardt Hardegen could see the lights of skyscrapers in Manhattan saying, “I cannot describe the feeling in words,” he said “but it was unbelievable and beautiful and great. . . We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked out on the coast of the USA.”
  • January 29, 1942. The passenger liner Lady Hawkins was torpedoed and sank so quickly that the crew was not able to signal S0S for assistance. The first torpedo struck the number 2 hold on the port side, and forward of the bridge; the second one wrecked the engine room and the ship lights and power were knocked out. There were 250 killed and 71 survivors. The survivors remained on life boats for five days until rescued, 150 miles off Cape Hatteras. The ship had left the port in Boston.
  • February 2, 1942. The W.L. Steed, an American tanker, was torpedoed off the New Jersey coast in broad daylight leaving 34 dead. As the ship went down, men were getting in the lifeboats, but, the U-boat surfaced and began shelling the ship and the lifeboats.
  • February 6, 1942. The cargo ship Major Wheeler was torpedoed and sank off the coast of Cape Cod with the loss of its entire crew of 35.
  • May 10, 1942. “U-boat Crew Watches as Torpedo Victims Drown” Out of a crew of 35, one survivor was rescued after 14 days on a raft. The survivor stated that the U-boat cruised among the “bobbing heads of the sailors until they thought they were all dead.”
  • June 1, 1942. Off the coast of New Orleans four merchant ships, three of them American, were sunk by U-boats in four days with a loss of 9 sailors.
  • October 14, 1942. On the St. Lawrence River, near Canada, a U-boat sank the railroad passenger ferry SS Caribou. Upon surfacing the U-boat capsized a large life boat, killing 44 in the boat, including a woman who was holding on to her baby. The U-boat then just watched as people drowned. In total, 137 were lost with the sinking of the Caribou.

Many consider the sinking of the Gulf-America, an oil tanker, the most spectacular, as well as outrageous of all U-boat attacks  off the coast of the United States. On April 10, 1942 hundreds of visitors, including a number of military personnel, were enjoying the roller coasters and ferris wheels at an amusement park located in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.  A U-boat slipped in close to the beach and torpedoed the anchored oil tanker. As the ship exploded into massive flames, the U-boat surfaced,  and idled there in full view of the beach, taunting the captive audience of shocked onlookers. Many of the ones along the shore jumped into small watercraft hoping to save some of the ships crews.  Years later the the U-boat captain John Hardegen said in an interview about the attack at Jacksonville Beach, “there was no blackout. I could see the big wheel in the amusement park and all the lights an motorcars and the hotel in full light. It was easy for me, I could see the ship silhouetted against the lights.”

In less than a year, German U-boats had sunk nearly 25% of the commercial tanker fleet that provided supplies to the Allies. Additionally, over 5,000 seamen and passengers were killed in these attacks during early 1942. During January U-boats sank 35 Allied ships and a British destroyer killing 1219 crew and passengers. In March alone, 48 ships were attacked by U-boats, and nearly all were sunk. During the first half of the year German U-boats sank Allied merchant ships, tankers, passenger liners, and of course warships with relatively no challenge. They were easy prey since the forces of the United States generally offered no resistance to the attacks of the German U-boats. In fact, until spring 1942, American ships continued to lie anchored at night with full lights blazing on her decks, and coastal towns and cities made no attempt to dim their lights either. As the numbers of attacks mounted, and tension grew, Americans began voicing their concerns and the military began changing its strategy.

U.S. Navy officers searching for U-boats in the Atlantic.

Initially, U.S. authorities began by laying mine fields in harbors, and installing artillery in places that protected significant ports and waterways. Light planes and shore watercraft were ordered to be ready and prepared for battle when U-boats were spotted. The American Navy was highly criticized for not taking some defensive measures sooner. After a number of attempts the British were able to finally persuade the inept U. S. Navy that a new plan had to be developed. The English had been dealing with U-boat attacks for several years and had finally found a successful method to deal with the German Wolfpack. The English began using a system of convoys. Warships would escort groups of merchant ships, with the intentions of luring the submarines into a battle. The U-boats would be forced to surface every few hours, and were then vulnerable for attack from the warships. If the submarines did not surface they would use their radar technology to detect where they were and begin dropping depth charges in those areas.

U.S. convoy fleet of ships.
Operating on the surface was a death sentence for U-boats, as evidenced in this picture. As the war progressed sea planes equipped with radar were able to spot the vessels once the surfaced.

On April 14, 1942 the United States sank its first U-boat. Off the coast of North Carolina the destroyer USS Roper used its new radar system to find U-85. After shelling the vessel it began to submerge, but the Roper finished it off with depth chargers. Unfortunately, U-85 had sunk 3 Allied ships before it was stopped. Later that month the United States developed an anti-submarine warfare plan that included 65 anti-submarine vessels, all equipped with the latest in radar technology and loaded with depth chargers. Seaplanes were equipped with seaborne radar, as well as HF/DF (high frequency direction finding) which could enable the detection of U-boats operating on the surface. As more patrol planes became equipped with the technology, the tables were finally turned on the U-boats, and many were attacked at night while operating on the surface. Other measures included not allowing oil tankers to sail unless escorted by warships, and merchant ships traveled in escorted mini-convoys known as bucket brigades. These long overdue measures reduced the effectiveness of the U-boat, and their attacks began to reduce. The most significant and strongest blow to U-boat attacks occurred when commercial shipping ceased sailing at night, and put into protected harbors. The success of U-boat attacks on Allied shipping was due to their element of surprise, and that surprise was generally because they attacked at night, and were able to easily slip away into the darkness. In the end, the cost was great. U-boats sank over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 Allied warships before the Allied Powers destroyed the U-boat fleet, and ultimately the Third Reich.

If you would like additional information please see:

The Dallas Morning News (1942)

The Defeat of the German U-boats:The Battle of the Atlantic, by David Syrett

Wolf Pack:The Story of the U-Boat in World War II, by Gordon Williamson

Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack,by Tom Nagorski

Dreams, Lies, and Flapper Girls: The Myth of the 1920’s.

Barbara Stanwyck, worked as a Ziegfeld Follies dancer in 1924, but the public identified her as a flapper girl. She later became a major Hollywood film star of the 1930’s and 40’s.

Some Americans think of the “Roaring Twenties” as an irritatingly loud party that lasted nearly a decade, and when the party finally ended, it fell, music and all, off a cliff, and into an abyss called the Great Depression. Others consider the 1920’s as a period where Americans began to develop a sense of confidence about the future, even a “swagger.” The main tenets of modern America — its new technologies, along with higher employment and better education, were being integrated into its society. With the rise in confidence, it is not surprising then, that some individuals, and groups, would begin to challenge some long-held beliefs and traditions. The division was clear between the modernists and the traditionalists in the nation. Mainstream America even began to develop a distorted impression of what success and happiness was supposed to resemble. The 1920’s was a time of many changes, both culturally and economically, but it was especially an age that was full of contradictions, as well as lies.

Alcoholism had long been associated with domestic violence, as well as workplace accidents, and political corruption. Historically, religious groups had worked for decades to keep this problem in the public conversation, through lectures, editorials, and group protests. Led by pietistic Protestants, and most particularly the grass roots efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the sale and consumption of alcohol in the nation was constitutionally shut down in 1919. A moral, but hollow,victory, Prohibition laws were widely ignored, even laughed at by much of society. In most cities organized crime took control of the beer and liquor supplies, and in many private clubs, liquor inventories had been stockpiled for decades. America was changing in many ways, but not in the consumption of alcohol. By 1933, Prohibition ended, and became a lost cause of the past.

Songs by the great Louis Armstrong:
“When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Hello Dolly.”

There were those flapper girls, smoking, drinking, and wearing short skirts, while shimmying on the dance floor to such ragtime greats as “Jelly Roll” Morton (“Black Bottom Stomp”), Duke Ellington (“Sophisticated Lady”), and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (“When the Saints Go Marching In”). Their carefree and fun-loving behavior was a stunning, and distinct role change from how women had previously been expected to behave. During the 1920’s more women entered college, and, in general, became better educated than previous generations of women. Considering, however, the behavior of the flapper girls and the advancement of women in education; by the end of the decade, most women had decided that staying at home and maintaining traditional roles was a better option for them.

The intellectuals pushed forward the modernist movement and faced off with the fundamental traditionalists in the Scopes Trial (1925). One of the core beliefs of the modernists was Darwin’s theory of evolution which suggested that science, not God, held the answers to the universe, and that human life evolved from apes, and not Adam and Eve. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, intentionally taught the theory of evolution (which was illegal at the time in Tennessee) knowing that his actions would amount to a court case. The case had little to do with the guilt or innocence of Scopes; newsreels and journalists worldwide used the occasion to put the credibility of Christianity on trial. In the end, the majority of Americans did not buy into the evolution argument, and the evangelist, appropriately named Billy Sunday, said, “If a minister believes and teaches evolution, he is a stinking skunk, a hypocrite, and a liar.” For many, attacking long-held religious beliefs was sacrilegious, and was met with an emotional response. By the end of the decade, most Americans had rejected, some vehemently, the notion of science over God, and church attendance, instead of declining, increased throughout the nation.

This California family was clearly living the dream. Well dressed and owning a new car, they represented the myth of eternal prosperity.

“Why on earth do you need to study what’s changing this country? I can tell you what’s happening in just four letters: A-U-T-O.” A resident of Muncie, Indiana, responding to questions from sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd for their book Middletown (1929).

“A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Herbert Hoover’s campaign promise of 1928. Hoover won the election, but his promise of prosperity forever was shattered when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the nation was plunged into the Great Depression for a decade.

It was the economic notion that the decade was built on – – the lie that all was well, and that everyone was a winner. Even the Republican Party’s campaign platform painted a rosy picture, “a chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage.” It was true, however, that the 1920’s was viewed by many as a period of prosperity and a growing affluence in the American society. It seemed for some that the good times had finally arrived, and the ride was going to last forever. The imagined bliss was far from the real truth. In fact, obtaining success and prosperity wasn’t true for many Americans– immigrants, farmers, and generally most non-whites, especially African-Americans, were simply excluded from the party.

The irony of the period is expressed in this historic picture.

As for those who did enjoy the roller coaster ride of success, it was short-lived. “Life is short, so live for today,” and “grab life now,” were phrases used by the younger generation. America was desperate for good times.

Not only was the economy expanding, the attitudes and ideas of Americans were also evolving, and in many directions. A type of tug-of-war developed over numerous societal changes, some new, like the artistic creativity found in African-American Harlem Renaissance, while others, especially the Ku Klux Klan, expanded their long held nativists beliefs of hate. In the 1920’s, Harlem (a borough of New York City) became the center of both artistic and literary growth of African American artists. The “renaissance” of that period was referred to as the “New Negro Movement”, and led to many minorities, not just African American artists, being able to be published and accepted in mainstream cultural and literary networks. Of more significance, the movement led to a rise in ethnic and racial pride, and was later credited with being instrumental in the development of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.

Ku Klux Klan marching in a parade near the nation’s capitol. 1925.

On the other side of the cultural spectrum white supremacy was also on the rise. A Klanswoman from Indiana, saying “Store owners, teachers, farmers, the good people, all belonged to the Klan. They were going to clean up the government, and they were going to improve the school books that were loaded with Catholicism.” Beneath the surface of smiles and good times, hate, and hate crimes, continued to grow and fester. The Ku Klux Klan grew and gained in strength, and the secret, sometimes not secret, lynchings of African Americans sent fear throughout the nation that Modern America was indeed evolving, and despite the cultural contributions of a long oppressed race, and those of immigrants, hate and prejudice continued to be deeply rooted in the core of America.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

The real poster child of the era was the legendary writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, This Side of Paradise) and his wife Zelda. Zelda, saying about women, “I think a woman gets more happiness out of being gay, light-hearted, unconventional, mistress of her own fate…. I want [my daughter] to be a flapper, because flappers are brave and gay and beautiful.” Young, attractive, and famous, the Fitzgeralds oozed the perfect image of success, and certainly happiness. The irony, however, was that F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved only limited success during his lifetime, and died a hopeless alcoholic a decade later, while Zelda tragically spent much of her later life as a ward in an insane asylum.

With the end of the Great War (World War I – 1914 to 1919) Americans were tired of war, and many were tired of their long fight for social changes. The progressive platforms of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson corrected a number of those wrongs, including the 19th Amendment (Women’s right to vote), improved safety standards in many factories, instituted worker’s compensation, made major reforms for public education, amongst others. It was felt by many that it was time to be less serious about life, and enjoy the benefits of living in a modern nation, and so they did. Americans bought everything in sight including radios, sewing machines,furniture, automobiles, and homes – and most of the expenditures were on easy credit. Americans quickly became addicted to consuming, a mother of nine saying “We’d rather do without clothes than give up the car.” Easy credit was the killer of dreams, and many families fell victim to their own over-indulgent passions, and those of unscrupulous bankers.

For some the fantasy was real, but for others, grasping true prosperity was only a dream. The dream became entangled with the reality of time payments; even 80% of radios purchased were acquired on time payments. During the decade, income grew only slightly, but individual debt more than doubled. Home ownership exploded,and mortgages increased by 8 times from 1920 to 1929. Living the dream was also about living beyond one’s means.

With the crash of the stock market in 1929, and the widespread loss of jobs, the ensuing depression caused real estate values to plummet an average of 25%, and in some locations much more. In many situations homes were worth less than the mortgages held by the consumers. By the early 1930’s half all mortgage borrowers were behind on their payments. That was understandable, since nearly 40% of Americans had no regular income at all.

By the end of 1929, and throughout the following decade, the Great Depression erased much of the nations’ wealth, and many of the issues that had previously divided the country no longer seemed important. Bread lines were not reserved for any one class, race, gender, believers or non-believers, intellectuals, artists, or nativists. Any notion of perpetual prosperity seemed unattainable. As quickly as the nation had both over-consumed and over-borrowed against its own future, even faster, bankruptcies, foreclosures, business closures, and for some – homelessness, and starvation, became the new life narratives.

A bread and soup line in New York City in 1929.

By the early 1930’s the promise of the previous decade was exposed as a lie. With the collapse of the economy, President Herbert Hoover and the Republican party “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” were easily routed in the 1932 Presidential election by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Flapper girls, and the good times that they represented, were also gone. Women in the 1920’s were better educated, but despite education and opportunities, most women chose to stay at home. Despite the efforts of Darwinists, and others, church attendance continued to grow, and there was an increase in church building throughout the nation.

A farm worker and her children.

The second rising of the Ku Klux Klan was also short-lived – – people were more concerned with eating than hating. The many social divisions that had surfaced in the 1920’s were still there, but were hidden beneath the surface of human despair. In time, the music of life and good times would return, and those divisions, both good and bad, would reappear again.

Allen Cornwell

Spiritualism – Believers and Fraudsters: Talking to the Dead in Post-Civil War America.

House seance in the early 20th century.

After the Civil War many in our nation were emotionally vulnerable. In some communities, as many as twenty-five per cent, or more, of the men under thirty had been killed in the war. Many of the survivors returned home with missing limbs, or other physical problems, and they all carried their own dark memories of the war. Post-Civil War America was, in many ways, a nation still in torment, and deeply mourning the tremendous number of deaths (650,000 plus) in which nearly all families suffered. Many historians believed that spiritualism, which had been a somewhat stagnant movement in previous decades, convinced its followers that mere mortals were able to communicate with the dead.

Lizzie Keyser had the rare talent of making people, especially large groups of people, that they at least for a moment, could cross over and communicate with deceased loved ones. This, of course, was not a free service, and according to an article in the May 13, 1869 Cincinnati Times Ms. Keyser conducted an evening seance in an assembly hall in the city which drew over 900 people. Lizzie Keyser, who was described as frail and sickly, proceeded to slowly walk around the room and “spot the spirits of the lost dead.” She would stand next, or near where the supposed apperition appeared, and seen only by her. Before the evening was over she named 41 spirits in the room, all of various ages and gender, and including a number of deceased Civil War soldiers. Lizzie would take a moment and offer a brief vignette of the individuals, sometimes including color of hair, and eyes, and short summary of their life and how they died. When describing a departed soldier she said, “the spirit of the soldier was wearing a blue coat, and his name was Daniel , and, he said to give a kiss Ada for him and give his love to Kate.” Several in the audience began to weep when they heard this. Another spirit said her name was Louisa Bassett, and a family member spoke up and said that she had died four years prior, and the family missed her. The biggest gasp from the audience came when Lizzie mentioned that the late Clarkson Fogg was one of the spirits in the room. Fogg, who had been killed in the battle of Vicksburg, had a number of his family members, including his mother, in attendance. The article listed each of the 41 spirits contacted, who they were , and if anyone in the audience acknowledged the spirits existence that evening. The dead were all acknowledged, and the large crowd was overwhelming pleased, as well as, astonished by the results of the evening. It is unlikely, however, if anyone noticed the two people who had arrived with Lizzie that evening. Unlike Lizzie Keyser, they were familiar with the city and its people, and probably provided the personal background data that she used in the seance.

Many seances included special effects, sometimes the levitation.

In the late 19th and early 20th century spiritualism was a movement as real as any experienced by our nation. It was defined as both a science and a philosophy, but predominantly seen as new religion. Some sources suggest that as many as twenty-five percent of adult Americans claimed to have experienced an apparition and, or, even participated in a séance. Hollywood has gone to great efforts to spin séances in many of their horror — thriller type movies, all including a dark room, table and all the seated participants touching each other’s fingers to form a circle. A medium is usually seated at a table, and after reading a biblical scripture calls for the dead person to come forward, and be heard. This manifests itself through an actual voice, or knockings, or an undetermined sound in the room or building. and then. In addition to the séances, there are numerous accounts of the dead supposedly communicating with their loved ones through letters, dreams, telegraphs, strange images in photographs, and even telephone calls. Most people would come away thinking that a séance is pure fictional entertainment, and the perpetrators tricksters and criminals. There were, however, many hard core followers, and, in many cases these followers had suffered their own personal losses, and desperately wanted to believe that they could talk to their loved one, once more.

Willie Lincoln died in February 1862 of typhoid fever. He was the subject of multiple seances performed for his mother Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mary Todd Lincoln tried numerous times through séances to speak with her dead son Willie. Her husband, President Abraham Lincoln even accompanied her to at least one séance in the White House. Apparently these were not successful. Mrs. Lincoln claimed, however, that Willie appeared before her at night and stood silently at the foot of her bed.It is easy to dismiss the mediums and physics that were spinning their tricks to make a buck, but not as easy to dismiss the believers.

Sometimes even a trusting audience could lose its patience, especially when a seance is poorly executed. In an article in the Duluth News Tribune, February 24, 1896, “ Fraud Exposed,” a Professor Gilmore had a large crowd fooled that they were communicating with the dead. In a dimly lit room, the charade was going well. After hearing a number of knockings, and garbled voices, the audience was gripped in anxiety, when someone turned the lights on exposing the Professor Gilmore standing with a white sheet covering himself. The angry crowd turned into a mob and they chased the trickster out of the building demanding their money back.

There are other stories, however, that are not so easily dismissed:

Sarah received visits in her dreams from her dead daughter. The six year old had died of tuberculosis the previous year. (1916)

Joseph claimed that his son appeared before him when he was walking through the woods. Seventeen-year-old Luther had been killed at Flanders in World War I. (1919)

Rose woke up to see her dead sister sitting at the end of her bed. Her sister’s husband and their three small children were also standing close by. “We are all right” the dead sister said. They had all been killed in a horrible house fire a few weeks before. (1905)

Many experienced their life changing moments independently, and without coercion or influence from mediums or mystics. Grief crossed all social-economic lines, and surprisingly, many prominent and well-educated citizens were believers, and some became leaders in the movement.

Here is a brief list of prominent citizens who supported the notion of spiritualism:
Oliver Lodge was a British physicist and developed some of the most important patents concerning wireless technology.
Arthur Conan Doyle was the author of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories. Both Lodge and Doyle’s sons were killed on the battlefields during World War I. Each publicly admitted that they had communicated with their dead sons and even lectured before large crowds trying to convince the populace that it was possible to communicate with the dead.
Some others who supported the movement were: the author Charles Dickens, world renowned scientist Dr. William Crooks and two Nobel laureates, physiologist Charles Richet, and physicist Pierre Curie.

Arthur Conan Doyle was the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes series. Doyle was a fervent believer in spiritualism. His son was killed in WWI and Doyle believed he was able to contact him.

Men, especially notable men of the time, were thought to be the ones in charge of the movement, but they were not. They gave the movement what it needed … credibility, but the women, many nameless and now forgotten, did the majority of the work. They led discussions in lecture halls,and portrayed themselves as mystics, or organizers, and most importantly, they were the mediums found at most of the séances. A good medium could make a decent living. Many supported their families with the funds made by convincing others that they could speak with the dead. Tragic events, such as wars, famines, diseases, fires, and even the sinking of ships spiked the need and the usefulness of mediums and séances.

Eusapia Pallidino was considered the leading psychic of the period. She admitted later in life that she had indeed cheated and deceived people into believing the unbelievable.
Eusapia Pallidino performing a seance.

In January 1910, the Boston Journal reported that two prominent Harvard professors held very different views about spiritualism, and especially about Eusapia Pallidino, who was considered the country’s leading psychic. Professor Hugo Munsterberg, a psychologist, said that Pallindino was a “complete fraud and humbug.” Professor William James, however, considered Pallidino’s talent as “probably genuine.” Eusapia Pallidino’s performances sometimes turned into seance circus feat, that included voices, moving objects, and the sudden chill of a cool breeze blowing through a darkened room. Munsterberg, with the help of an assistant who was hidden under a table, caught Pallidino levitating the table with her foot. It was also observed that Palladino kicked her shoe off the other foot and used her toes to move a guitar in the séance cabinet. Münsterberg also claimed that Palladino moved the curtains from a distance in the room by releasing a jet of air from a rubber bulb that she had in her hand. In the end, Munsterberg’s efforts did not matter, since he charges of fraud did not seem to phase Pallidino and the public continued to attend, and seemingly believe in her seances. Later, Eusapia Pallidino told a reporter that she indeed cheated and that her “sitters had willed her to do so.” In other words, she gave the customers what they wanted. Eric Dingwall, a journalist investigating spiritualism at that time, came to this conclusion about Pallidino , saying she was a “ “vital, vulgar, amorous and a cheat.”

Professor Hugo Munsterberg considered Eusapia Pallidino a complete fraud.

Tragedy created opportunity for mediums. W. T. Snead, a leading spiritualist of his time, drowned on the Titanic in 1912. Soon after his death, mediums on both sides of the ocean claimed that the apparition of Dr. Snead appeared and communicated in their séances. Snead brought them greetings from the other side, and according to the mediums, described the Titanic’s final minutes. The desperate passengers were confused and scared, so said the apparition through the medium mouths. This type of hysteria gave momentum to the movement, and also enriched the bank accounts of those encouraging the charade.

There is little doubt that of the many séance organizers – the mediums and psychics were the worst type of criminal trickster. They preyed upon the emotions of desperate individuals who were dealing with the deep grief of losing a loved one. It is likely that most of the victims probably realized that their experience was a hoax, and that they had been taken advantage of, both emotionally, as well as financially. When possible a number of the mediums and their associates were prosecuted. Others did not see themselves as victims. Despite knowing that they had been duped, they were still able to find a strange type of peace from their personal experience. As mentioned, the individuals who experienced the dead without séances or third party assistance remained content with their memories. Many went to their own graves believing that they had connected with their loved ones.

The notion of “talking to the dead” was an answer for many, but others viewed it as a despicable fraud, and, a fraud that took emotional, as well as financial advantage of those already suffering. Spiritualism is grounded in deep sadness, and an overwhelming need to say goodbye to those already deceased.The Civil War brought about the end of slavery and the re-emergence of the Union. Soon after the war ended, however, the collective memory of millions longed to capture a glimpse, or have one last moment,with a cherished loved one who had been killed in the war.

The Yanks are Coming: Hopes, Dreams and Blue Death.

“Over There”
Poster displayed in 1917

“Over There”
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware –
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.
Songwriter, George M. Cohan, 1917

“If I have got to be a soldier, I must be a good one, anything else is unthinkable.” Wilfred Owen

The reluctant entry of the United States into World War I immediately ignited an enormous amount of national spirit which supported the war in Europe. Great orators rallied public support by their speeches, journalist and advertisers propagated the cause of war in print, and song writers were busy putting tunes together that praised the heroics of battle. The famous song writer George M. Cohan created the hit “Over There” which inspired young men to join up. One line in the song became a favorite of an entire generation “the Yanks are coming.“ The songs melody helped the raw recruits, and even the naive soldier wannabes, to imagine themselves literally “over there” and on the battlefield.

Young American Solider in training camp.
World War i. 1917-1918.

During the Great War over 10 million men lost their lives on the battlefields of Europe, and another 13 million civilians also perished due to war related issues. The United States entered the war in its final stages, and incurred considerably less in casualties and deaths than the other nations involved. Of the 117,000 U.S. military deaths more than half died from what the troops referred to as “blue death.” The official name of blue death was the Spanish influenza, and it killed more American and Allied soldiers than the deaths attributed to enemy fire. Within hours of becoming ill, their skin turned blue and their lungs filled with fluid that caused them to suffocate. An attending physician stated about his patients, “died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth.

Influenza patient, U.S. Naval hospital, New Orleans, La. 1918

At the time (April 1917), that the United States joined the allies in the fight, France ,England, Russia, and other nations, had been battling the German Huns since 1914. Despite the years of misery and millions of loss lives, Germany’s aggression was still alive and well, and there was no clear victor in sight. America’s involvement was considered a game changer. America’s allies rejoiced at the news, and back home young men began lining up to enter the military service. The Sunday edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette (April 29, 1917,) carried the headline “U.S. is at War, So Let’s Fight.” In the article former President Theodore Roosevelt instructed American soldiers in combat by saying “when you hit a man hit him hard.” Roosevelt had long been a supporter of U.S. involvement in the war and his words inspired many young men to enlist. In the early twentieth century our nation experienced a large influx of immigrants, and they too joined, and, thousands of recently naturalized former aliens enthusiastically signed up. “I feel that America is fighting for a good cause, and was it not my duty to aid in this crisis,” said a recent Swiss immigrant. By the end of 1917 so many had volunteered for the regular army that U.S. newspapers were singing their praises “patriotic effort” and the “numbers had far exceeded” the quota set by the army.

The war effort in 1917, and early 1918, seemed to tap into a spirit of nationalism that had been building up in America. By early 1918 excited American troops wanted to see action, because it was clear that the war would soon be over. Veteran French allies viewed newly minted American troops as almost “too eager to get at grips with the enemy.” There is little doubt that the average American doughboy of World War I was expecting to “fight the German Huns.” By the fall of 1917 the U.S. Army had set up 32 training camps for new recruits each housing as many as 25,000 to 55,000 soldiers. Many young recruits held strong patriotic views, and clearly wanted to serve their nation. Like all soldiers they had hopes of “battlefield glory” but for many, that hope proved to be worlds apart from the realities that were faced in the training camps during late summer and fall of 1918.

In March 1918 a mild case of influenza was reported in Kansas and within a few days it had spread to New York. The Ford Motor Company in Detroit sent 1,000 workers home with the flu, and San Quentin Prison had 500 cases of flu in a population of 1500. Those infected usually experienced such typical flu symptoms as chills, fever and fatigue, and most recovered after several days. The number of reported deaths was small. The initial stage was so mild that many did not think it was influenza at all. A July 13, 1918, article in The Lancet stated that, “the disease certainly wasn’t influenza because its symptoms were too mild, and, ‘of very short duration and so far absent of relapses or complications.” Many of the soldiers, who had recovered from the spring influenza, completed training and were shipped overseas and joined the fighting forces in France.

Army camp hospital.

Many scientists predicted a second wave of influenza, but no one could predict just how deadly it would be. It appeared with a vengeance in the fall of 1918 and initially targeted military training camps throughout the nation. The average raw recruit in a training camp I no idea of what was happening to him. The virus intensified in areas that housed masses of people in tight quarters like military camps, churches, schools, as well as the trenches of France. Victims died within hours or days of their symptoms appearing, and by the end of 1918, the average life expectancy in America had plummeted by a dozen years.

Twenty-three year old Jacob Justin, had arrived at the Camp Upton (New York) army training camp in September, 1918. Shortly after he began training, he and others, were suddenly stricken by the deadly virus.Within a day, Jacob Justin’s condition changed to very serious, and word about the growing numbers of sick began buzzing around the camp. Despite the camp lock down, love struck Naomi Barnett slipped inside the camp, to be by the bedside of her dying fiancé. The young couple had planned to be married after Jacob’s training, and before he was deployed to France. Sadly, Naomi contracted the virus and was dead within two days of her arrival, and Jacob expired 30 minutes later. The influenza outbreak in the fall of 1918 in America was defined by its speed to kill. On September 23, 1918, another training recruit, Private James Downs entered the army hospital with a temperature of 104 degrees, and died in three days. There were many stories that described individuals collapsing on their way to work, and dying within hours, or entering a hospital with a fever and expiring soon afterwards. A popular anecdotal favorite was about four healthy young women who spent the evening playing cards together, and during the night influenza stroke, and by morning only one was still alive. Soon the virus began spreading into the public areas. The headline on the front page of the Macon Telegraph (October 2, 1918), loudly announced “14,000 New Cases within 24 Hours. Spanish Influenza Epidemic is Growing Hourly. Pneumonia Also Causes 300 Deaths.”

Military hospital.

In Boston, Camp Devens reported over 7,000 cases in one day, and by September 23 the camp hospital were attending 12,604 patients with influenza. The camp hospital accommodated 2,000 and the overflow was housed on its porches, and out in the drafty wooden barracks. Nurses and doctors were quickly overwhelmed, and at Devens nearly a third of the 300 nurses came down with the virus. At a time when antibiotics did not exist, doctors and nurses were simply helpless. Devens was only one of the many army camps struck in the fall of 1918. Our Naval fleet suffered as well. The Oregonian (September 23, 1918), in the article “Death Toll Climbs” reported that the First Naval District in Boston had incurred 238 dead from influenza and another 95 dead of pneumonia. Although only one Navy nurse had died during the war to date, the virus was so devastating to sailors, that 25 of the attending nurses also died, seven of them at Great Lakes training camp. By the end of 1918 tens of thousands of American soldiers had died of influenza while in training camps.

Hospital workers during the influenza virus. 1918

The death rate by camp was as high as 40% of the infected soldiers. Many of the ones who survived took the virus with them as they were deployed overseas. The battlefield, especially the trenches, proved to be a fatal space to breed and spread the virus. As the war began to wind down troops began to deploy back to the United States and the monster virus made its return visit, and exploded once again.

In just the month of October, 1918, over 200,000 Americans died of influenza, 12,000 in Philadelphia alone. .Many physicians had joined the army or navy, and stateside medical facilities were completely overwhelmed. Deaths were so regular that horse-drawn carts made the rounds through the streets of the larger cities, the drivers yelling out, “bring out your dead.” Funeral parlors ran out of coffins and “bodies had to be rolled unceremoniously into mass graves dug by steam shovels.”

The war officially ended on November 11, 1918, and the celebrations related to Armistice Day proved to be a fatal health disaster. Parades and large parties created a perfect breeding ground for the virus to continue to spread into the public areas. The end of the war overshadowed the influenza pandemic and the mounting death toll not only in the U.S., but all over the globe. It is clear that the mass movement of armies and naval fleets probably fanned the deadliness of the virus. At the time, it was felt that the trench warfare, plus the use of mustard gases, which produced and spread “smoke and fumes,” also accelerated the disease. The transporting of military forces packed together in tight quarters proved to be an incubator of death.

Red Cross workers during the 1918 Influenza outbreak.

Our young soldiers were well aware of the possibilities of combat death, but they never imagined “blue death”. The virus was particularly cruel in that it generally bypassed the old and very young, but concentrated on those ages 20-35. One of the ironies created by the pandemic was of the lack of volunteer help. Support for the war effort was enormous, but when bodies began stacking up like cords of wood, the public became frightened by “blue death” and withdrew. The Red Cross and various facilities, including many hospitals, desperately asked for volunteer help. In one case, after failing to persuade volunteers to help, hundreds of city employees of Trenton, New Jersey, were forced into being grave diggers for the mounting numbers of bodies. Over 675,000 Americans died because of the Spanish Influenza, and the world-wide numbers range from 40 to 60 million., making it the deadliest pandemic in modern history. Thousands of American troops never made it out of training camps, or off the ships that were to transport them to Europe. Their hopes of going “over there” never happened.


Colorado Springs Gazette, April 29, 1917, “ U.S. is at War, So Let’s Fight”

America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Alfred W. Crosby

Pueblo Chieftain, March 30, 1919, “Influenza Causes is Responsible for Half War Deaths”

Kansas City Star, December 26, 1918, “War Own by Influenza. Dr. Woods Hutchinson Says the Disease Held back the Germans”

Colorado Springs Gazette, October 5, 1918, “Influenza Spreads in Camps and Cities in North and South and on both Coasts”

The Death of Abraham Lincoln Brought Mourning and Cheering.

Lincoln two months before his death. The years of war have taken its toll on the President.

Abraham Lincoln’s sudden death on April 14, 1865 created a new level of concern to an already anxious nation. Just days before, President Lincoln had strolled triumphantly through the streets of the fallen Confederate capital. Richmond’s former slaves rejoiced and one kneelt at his feet prompting Lincoln to say “kneel only to God and thank Him for the freedom you are about to enjoy.” For those peeping through windows, the moment had to be surreal – – seeing Lincoln in their city was unimaginable. General Robert E. Lee’s had surrendered his army just five days before, so, the war was essentially over, but the country was still divided. Some say, even more divided than ever. It was too late to save the South, or its “peculiar” institution. Slavery had been the wheel that kept southern whites in control of their world. The war cost the lives of over 600,000 young men, and a once robust national economy had all been crushed. As the losers, Southerners expected harsh treatment from the victors. Many felt that their defeat had meant that “God had spoken” and now free black man would seek “their revenge” and the murdering of whites would be widespread. Others thought that the same fate, if not worse, would come from the occupying Yankee army. Clearly, the subject on most Southerners minds, was not the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's funeral train.
Lincoln’s funeral train.

As the news spread about the assassination, many Rebel sympathizers wasted no time in disparaging the memory of Lincoln. Others took on a pretense of mourning for him, and possibly a few were sincere in their praise. It would not be accurate to say that the lovers and haters of Lincoln were divided evenly between the borders of the Union and Confederate states. For the pro-Union sympathizers, their tears and acts of sympathy were real. Lincoln’s funeral procession passed through various cities and small towns, ending up in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri. During the two week procession over 1 million people stood along the streets, and in line, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lincoln’s funeral train. Emotions ran high for everyone, but for different reasons. Lincoln’s death laid bare just how divided the nation was in April 1865. Part of the country sincerely mourned the loss of the President, while the other half mourned the loss of a cause, and a place that no longer existed – the Confederacy.

Lincoln’s death was a surprise, but, it was not completely unexpected, especially to the President himself. He was aware of the long list of those who had prayed for his death. Determined, Abraham Lincoln had told his family and others that he needed to be accessible to the public. Several times a day he would walk, often alone, and many times at night, from the White House to the Government Telegraph office. He could have sent a messenger to retrieve the recent battle details, but that was not his style. Lincoln placed the needs of the nation ahead of his own personal fears. He did, however, ponder his own death. A few days before his assassination Lincoln experienced a prophetic dream. The story was retold later by several who witnessed Lincoln telling the tale, that in his dream there was a coffin in the East Room of the White House. He asked who was in the coffin, and was told that it was the President.

On the morning of the assassination, John Wilkes Booth wrote a letter that was intended for the editors of the Washington, D.C. newspaper, the National Intelligencer. Booth asked fellow actor John Matthews to deliver the letter to their office. Never delivered, and supposedly destroyed, it was later reconstructed by Matthews. According to Matthews, Booth stated, “Many, I know – the vulgar herd – will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me.” Lincoln’s killer felt that in time the entire nation would be grateful for his killing the President. Many Rebel sympathizers were grateful, but most simply did not care. They were so wrapped up with worrying about themselves and their families to feel much about Lincoln. In the years after his death the South suffered greatly, and many former Lincoln haters changed their minds.

In 1865 there were more churches than schools and hospitals combined in the country. Abraham Lincoln was murdered on Good Friday, and by Easter Sunday many Northern churches were comparing him to a Christ-like savior. Some pastors told their congregations that Abraham Lincoln had died for the sins of the nation. The New York Times compared Lincoln’s legacy with that of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There was no tolerance for any disagreement about the greatness of Lincoln. Those who dared to make insults faced mobs of vigilantes, who took justice into their own hands. In one New England town a loud-mouthed Lincoln hater was tarred and feathered, others were intimidated and threatened with either death or bodily injury. A group of factory workers beat one man nearly to death when he quipped that Lincoln “had as much brain now as he ever had.” Others were shot or hanged. Emotions were so strained that Secretary Stanton ordered that all people expressing treasonable sentiments about the late President would be arrested.

As expected many of the Southern newspapers joyfully announced his death. The Chattanooga Daily Rebel stated, “Abe has gone to answer before the bar of God for the innocent blood which he permitted to be shed, and his efforts to enslave a free people.” In North Carolina, however, the Raleigh Standard, surprisingly expressed “profound grief.” In five years, however, the Southern press had accomplished a great deal in convincing their readers that Lincoln was less than human. Lincoln had been portrayed in textbooks, cartoons, verse and the theater as a devil, buffoon, ape, baboon, butcher, and above all, as an incompetent oaf.

Thomas Morris Chester was one of the few African-American war correspondents during the Civil War.
Thomas Morris Chester was one of the few African-American war correspondents during the Civil War.

In occupied Richmond, Union officer Oscar Ireland wrote to his wife that he saw Richmonders “mourning and regret for the loss of the President,” and expressed “hatred and scorn for the fiendishness and utter folly of the assassins.” The African American war journalist Thomas Morris Chester held a very different opinion. After observing several Rebel officers who wore black crape in honor of Lincoln, Chester felt that they “feigned regret for the assassination.” It is doubtful that Rebel officers or other Southerners were sincere in their expressions to an officer of the occupying army. They may have been grieving, but not for Lincoln. There was a deep bitterness about Lincoln that was tied to both the Southern defeat and the great loss of so many sons, husbands and fathers. Behind closed doors some quietly said to one another that Abraham Lincoln “deserved assassination.”

Mary Chestnut
Mary Chestnut

Many Southerners were so weary of war that Lincoln’s death was nothing special. Confederate Officer John Taylor Wood wrote in his diary “Heard of Lincoln’s death. Mobile and Columbus lost.” Wood was referring to the Alabama cities that had fallen to the Union army. There were plenty of Southerners who expressed what most felt in there heart. “Pity it hadn’t been done years ago,” said one, and a Rebel coming home from Lee’s defeated army wrote in his diary, “Thus passed from earth one of the greatest monsters who ever lived.” Seventeen year old Emma LeConte wrote in her diary, “Hurrah! Old Abe Lincoln has been assassinated! My heart is mixed with gratified revenge.” Amanda Edmunds from North Carolina wrote in her diary that now Unionists “felt the suffering which they have inflicted on our Southern people.” A Tennessee woman ranted with glee at African American soldiers saying “Your father is dead.” Other Southerners, however, saw a dark future for themselves without Lincoln. One wrote “I fear it bodes no good for the south.” The well-known Southern novelist Mary Chestnut also wrote, “This foul murder will bring down worse miseries on us.” An exiled Jefferson Davis agreed with Mary Chestnut’s observation stating, “I fear it will be disastrous for our people,” despite that members of his staff had “cheered” upon hearing the news.

Abraham Lincoln was wise enough to foresee troubled times ahead for the nation, and especially the South. Just weeks before his death, and at his 2nd Inauguration ceremony, he addressed the issue of national unity when he said “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln was extending an olive branch of peace to the South, and many Southerners took comfort in his words, but many Unionist viewed his comments as not tough enough toward the so-called “secessionist’s traitors.”

The tragic death of Abraham Lincoln made an already impossibly complex situation of uniting the country post-war, much worse. Lincoln would have brought to the table a measure of trust, patience, and encouragement. Instead, neither side felt any amount of trust towards the other, and the virtues of patience and encouragement were replaced with harsh federal rules that were viewed by Southerners as punishment and revenge. White Southerners passed Black Code Laws, later called Jim Crow laws, which created an entire legal system designed to oppress African Americans. In the end, it is Lincoln’s legacy that we remember.

Arrogance, Innocence, and Greed: The Tragic Shaping of Early 20th Century America.

Lady Liberty's is facing north, Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island,NY, NY, Library of Congress, 2006
Lady Liberty’s front is looking north, Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island,NY, NY, Library of Congress, 2006

In 1900, some considered America a beacon of light to the rest of the world. Immigrants were flooding into the cities of our nation, and there was an impressive list of new innovations that had “made in U. S.” stamped on it. We were becoming defined by the opportunities and the possibilities that existed. There was a certainty that all would turn out right, and little room was left to question or doubt other possibilities. President Theodore Roosevelt expressed his own confidence in the future by saying, “I always believe in going hard at everything.” America was going hard at everything, and gave little thought about to potential dangers, or unexpected events which might be lurking about. The confidence of Americans was bubbling over, and the nation not only hoped for the best, they fully expected it. There were, however, many other factors that also bubbled, but beneath the surface, moving in many different directions, like the tide, some going forward and others backward.

Early 20th Century America has been historically referred to as the Age of Confidence, the Cocksure Era, and the Age of Innocence. There are many tragic examples of just how innocent and vulnerable Americans were during that period. The average working class Americans understood the realities of life based on what they saw, felt, and lived. It is unlikely that our young men who fought in World War I understood why they were going to war, and they probably had no idea what they would face. The same could be said about The Great Pandemic of 1918 and 1919. Many American physicians confused the influenza virus with the common cold. As millions were dying in Europe in 1918, our Public Health Service did not even recognize influenza as a reportable illness. Between March 1918 and January 1919 approximately 675,000 Americans died from the influenza virus. Worldwide, nearly 50 million perished from The Great Pandemic. In America, it was not just a time of innocence, it was a time of imbalance. On the one hand, America was driven by the brilliance of new technologies and the ambitions of industrialists, while the larger population suffered because of lack of information and knowledge.

Young American Soldier. World War i. 1917-1918.
Young American Soldier.
World War I. 1917-1918.

That time period was also remembered, as a time of arrogance, especially, when considering one catastrophic event. In 1900, Galveston had a population of 35,000, and was the largest city in Texas. Its 30 miles of low-lying beaches stretched along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The residents were used to bad storms and their streets occasionally overflowed from tidal waves. They had, however, been reassured by experts that a seawall was not needed. Dr. Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist of the National Weather Bureau, wrote an article in 1891 (Galveston Daily News) saying that it was a “crazy idea” to think that a hurricane would ever hit Galveston. He went on to state that anyone who believed otherwise was, “the victim of an absurd delusion.” He was also confident about the risk of storm surges saying, “It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a surge that would materially injure the city.” Much of the city, however, was only 9 feet above sea level, so a storm surge was a very legitimate concern. The certainty of Cline’s opinions swayed the public and the seawall was not built. He later regretted his comments.

Destroyed High School in Galveston, Texas 1900
Destroyed High School in Galveston, Texas

There was an even larger problem – – U.S. weather people were weather snobs, and systemically rejected data from non-American entities. It was felt that their data would be inferior and could not be trusted. This attitude was particularly true of one of our closest geographical neighbors, the island of Cuba. Cuba, which had experienced untold numbers of hurricanes, had an advanced hurricane tracking system in place since 1870, and by 1900 their tracking and predicting methods were extremely accurate. On August 30, 1900, the National Weather Bureau began providing daily updates to the Galveston area about a “storm of moderate intensity,” including “rain and strong winds”. The Galveston Daily News told its readers that there was a tropical storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, but the city was not in its path. Cuban meteorologists had frantically been sending the Bureau weather reports via telegraphs, which accurately predicted both the track and the huge scale of the storm. The Bureau rejected the reports citing that Cubans could not accurately predict hurricanes, let alone do it better than they could.

Galveston, Texas -1900, the aftermath - body is visible in the ruins
Galveston, Texas -1900, the aftermath – body is visible in the ruins

Saturday, September 8, 1900 businesses were open and residents were shopping; some were sitting in lunchrooms talking about the rising winds. Despite the swelling tides, and the moderate flooding in the streets, people were still enjoying the beaches. By mid- morning the winds had gained strength, and by 10:30 am there were reports that shingles were being blown from roofs, wind gauges were ripped from moorings, and small children were getting pulled into the surf. By midday, the full 145 mph winds struck the city, and the low areas were quickly swallowed by the 15’ tidal surges. By the end of the day between 8,000 and 12,000 people were killed and over 3,000 structures destroyed. The Galveston Hurricane is easily the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Dr. Isaac Cline claims in his autobiography that on the morning of the storm he personally went up and down the packed beaches of Galveston alerting people on the beach that they needed to get to higher ground. According to historian Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm) his research could not corroborate his claim, and suggests that Cline did not warn anyone, but that it did not matter. Larson’s research suggested that residents and vacationers would not have heeded the warning anyhow. Like the Bureau, they shared the same degree of arrogance that nothing bad would happen to them. Their own confidence, bursting from years of re-assurance, simply reflected what they had been led to believe.

Isaac Cline

Sadly, Isaac Cline lost his wife and unborn child in the disaster. He later said he had made a mistake in his analysis of the town’s need for a seawall. The town rebuilt and made numerous improvements including building three miles of seawall, a high impact weather bridge, and most dramatically, raising the grade of the city, in some places as high as 17 feet. Despite these enormous civic efforts the commercial promise of Galveston as a shipping and manufacturing center for the nation had been lost.

A century ago an average American had a third grade education, and only a quarter of the nation could read. We were not innocent to the many hardships of life, such as hard work, raising families, and premature death. Innocence, however, reigned in the day to day lives of people when it came to events that were completely unimaginable. The community of Galveston knew about Nor’ Easters, and even hurricanes, but unlike hurricanes, an earthquake was something that only a handful of the better-read even knew about, and they occurred in far-away places. When the earthquake hit San Francisco only a few even realized what was happening.

San Francisco was a city with great promise; it was referred to as the “beautiful city” and “gateway to the Pacific”, and life was good. The morning paper, the San Francisco Call, headlined two articles entitled “A Rich Man’s Son Lands in Jail,” and “Weds Nurse to Whom he Owes Health.” The previous day the headline dealt with two steamer ships colliding with each other in the port, and no one was injured. The world of San Francisco was a quiet and peaceful one. It was Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906 and the weather was clear and sunny, but at 5:13 am the peace and quiet suddenly ended.

San Francisco Earthquake 1906, fires have already begun to burn the city
San Francisco Earthquake 1906, fires have already begun to burn the city

The force of the earthquake was so severe it ruptured the city’s gas and water mains. There were 135 aftershocks which leveled huge buildings, buckled streets, and crushed residents to death beneath the rubble. Within hours of the initial quake, the center of San Francisco was engulfed in flames, and without water the fire departments were helpless to extinguish the inferno. After three days the fire was finally out, and four miles of the city were destroyed, 30,000 structures, 300,000 homeless and 3,000 perished in the quake or the fire that ensued. The pride of the city, San Francisco’s City Hall, which had taken 25 years to build, was lost in less than 2 minutes.

Soldiers from the Presidio stand amid the rubble of fallen buildings after the earthquake. The Hall of Records (dome) is in the background (right). 1906
Soldiers from the Presidio stand amid the rubble of fallen buildings after the earthquake. The Hall of Records (dome) is in the background (right). 1906

Before the fires had burned out, the Governor of California had appointed a panel of experts to study the earthquake. Dr. Andrew Larson, a professor from UCLA, became the chairman of the committee. Known as the Larson Report, his comprehensive study became the accepted handbook about earthquake science, and is still used today. The report identified a continental transform boundary called the San Andreas Fault. The fault was found to extend nearly the length of the entire state, and formed the tectonic boundary that connected the Pacific and North American Plates. Larson’s team of 20 scientists walked the entire distance observing and taking notes. The report also discussed how stress within the earth could build up, and at some point rupture, and propagate land movements and earthquakes. The most significant contribution of the report was a specialized method to identify rupture and earthquake zones.

Camp Funston, Kansas, 1918, rows of sick influenza patients.
Camp Funston, Kansas,
1918, rows of sick influenza patients.

The core of American life is and was driven by its economy. Prior to 1865 the majority of the nation’s economic growth was through slave labor, and this had been the case for over two hundred and fifty years. Its replacement was the Second Industrial Revolution and, while slavery itself was gone, wage slavery was not. Poorly paid workers barely existed in filthy and unsafe work conditions. In some situations, the workplaces were so terrible that owners would not go inside. It was, however, good enough for their workers. Employers were king and their workers had few, if any rights. In the early 20th Century, greed was rampant among many American industrialists, and it was allowed to flourish off the backs of their workers.

March 25, 1911 started off as a nice day In Manhattan. It was a Saturday, and Washington Park was full of picnickers and those out enjoying a walk. New York University students and other passersby’s, were all enjoying the sunshine. Around 4:40 pm the first signs of smoke began coming from the Asch Building across from the park. The Triangle Waist Company garment factory was on fire. Within a minute, the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the building were engulfed in smoke and flames, and the screams of the women were clearly heard by those in the park. By 4:45 pm women began jumping out of windows. Some became human torches, their bodies twisting in agony as they dropped to the sidewalk. The fire departments arrived quickly but their ladders were not long enough to even reach the 6th floor, and their life nets ripped from the impact of the falling bodies. By 5pm, 62 people had either jumped or fallen out of the windows, their bodies heaped together on the sidewalk, and another 19 had been killed falling down the elevator shafts. Altogether, 146 people died as a result of the fire, including two fourteen year old girls, Kate Leone and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese. In the large crowd that had gathered, many became hysterical, some screamed in disbelief, women fainted and many wept as they watched the grisly scene. According to the Daily People, the horror was witnessed by over 25,000 people.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, March 1911, on the sidewalk are coffins containing the bodies of some of the young women who died in the tragic fire.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, March 1911, on the sidewalk are coffins containing the bodies of some of the young women who died in the tragic fire.

The fire was caused by a lit cigarette that was dropped on the 8th floor. Months of upswept fabric cuttings quickly turned into a raging blaze. The owners were alerted by a phone call and they and some others escaped off the roof. The building only had one fire escape, and it quickly became overloaded with frantic workers, and crashed to the ground. The one exit door was locked, and the key was with the male supervisor who had already saved himself. Half of the dead were teenage girls, and their pay envelopes were found in their clothing. The next morning one of the newspaper’s headlines read, “Died for $6 a Week,” and another stated “Workers Sacrificed in Deadly Fire Trap. Ghastly Remains on Street.” Another article noted that the door was locked to keep workers out who arrived late for work, and it also prevented strikers from interrupting the owners’ business.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on fire, March 25, 1911
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on fire, March 25, 1911

Several newspapers capitalized on the irony of the disaster. In 1909, many of the women who were killed in the fire were the same ones who had marched in the protests at the Triangle factory. They were simply demanding shorter hours, better wages and safer working conditions. In 1909 everything had been against the workers – the courts, the police, and most importantly the laws had all been designed to protect the employers. Employers needed profits to stay in business, and that was based on speed, long hours, and no breaks. Many of the women who had marched in the protest lines, had been beaten by thugs and prostitutes, who had been hired by their employers. They were determined to keep the unions out, and maintain the status quo with regards to wages and unsafe work conditions. The police had looked the other way, but in the aftermath of the fire, they were like the rest of the community, and grieved in disbelief. Within days of the fire the public began demanding the rights that the women had died for. In one article entitled, “It Took Women to Burn” fueled the anger for the national debate that took place. By 1914, 30 new labor laws came out of the disaster, including improved safety standards, shorter work days and better pay. The fact that the tragic loss was witnessed by so many helped convince an entire nation that workplace changes were more important than greed.

In 1900, Americans were excited about what lay ahead. The Industrial Revolution had brought jobs, and because of that, millions of Americans were migrating into industrialized areas, and creating cities throughout the nation. Inventors, investors, industrial owners, and government leaders all expressed, or implied, great faith in the future of our nation. Along the way, at least during those first two decades, our nation stumbled many times. The challenges described, were horrific back steps, but helped redefine us, and encouraged a nation to strive for a better society.


Time Magazine, September 8, 2008 , Amanda Riply “The 1900 Galveston Hurricane.”

Isaac’s Storm, Erik Larsen

The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906, Philip Fradkin

San Francisco Earthquake, 1906, Kathleen Duey

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Jacqueline Green

The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919, United States Department of Health and Human Services

A Brief History of Conspiracy Theories in America: The Ones We Remember and Those We Should Know About.

JFK, Dallas, November 22, 1963. Minutes before the assassination.
JFK, Dallas, November 22, 1963. Minutes before the assassination.

America loves a good story. Some stories, however, inspire us so much that fiction is accepted as the truth. Have you seen Elvis lately? Sadly, there are some who still report that they have spotted him. The government DID NOT create the Aids problem, and we DID land a man on the moon! A lot of energy has gone into spinning sometimes ridiculous conspiracy theories that ultimately taint a true history. Conspiracies are alternative stories about a real events. These stories develop because a part of our society refuses to accept the official explanation. The beloved iconic Elvis could not possibly be dead, and walking on the moon was unimaginable, many thought. As far as the Aids conspiracy, many citizens historically don’t trust the government anyhow. It is not a giant stretch to see how an angry tale of blame was spun. Some conspiracy theories stay in the public’s mind, and others fade away. The problem is that the ones that fade away are the conspiracies that we need to remember.

The conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Marilyn Monroe’s death are examples of alternative stories that are possibly plausible. Perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald was not alone in the murder of Kennedy, and could there also be a widespread network of conspirators involved? Did Marilyn Monroe die of an overdose as officially reported, or was she murdered by people close to JFK? Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared over the Pacific in 1942, and officially, that was the end of the story. In 1942, however, we were at war with Japan, and Earhart’s plane was flying over enemy territory. It is not difficult to imagine a conspiracy theory connecting her disappearance with the Japanese. In fact, the strongest Earhart theory is that the Japanese either shot her plane down or it crashed, and she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, were captured by the Japanese, tortured and eventually executed. These conspiracy stories, and others, are in our recent memory and are still in the public discourse. As far as our American history, they have not been resolved.

Amelia Earhart  1937
Amelia Earhart

Conspiracy theories thrive on being unresolved. Here are a few that have surfaced in the last 150 years, and they range from pure fantasy to believable, and somewhere in between:

Roswell – In July 1947 Roswell, New Mexico was the scene of a bizarre incident. The military claimed that a crash involved a high altitude balloon, but eyewitnesses said something else. Within a few hours the news media were announcing that the Roswell crash was a legitimate UFO, and some of the bodies recovered were definitely not human. Three so-called creatures resembled humans but smaller, and with larger heads and spindly limbs. The conspiracy blames the federal government with covering up the true facts, and not releasing the bodies to be independently examined. The evidence here is thin, at best.

James Earl Ray,

Martin Luther King – In April 1968 Martin Luther King was murdered and James Earl Ray was quickly arrested and admitted to killing him. Within three days, Ray recanted his confession. Later, civil cases agreed that Ray had not murdered King, but instead pointed the finger at Lloyd Jowers, a local bar owner. King’s family also believed Ray’s story, but the government did not. The official report said that Ray was not only the killer, but he most likely had been stalking King. The King family believed that the government was involved in his murder. Other researchers suggest that a larger network of conspirators had been planning to murder King, and Ray was just the hit man. There’s not enough evidence to support that Martin Luther King’s murderer was anyone other than James Earl Ray. Ray was never released from jail and he passed away in 1994.

U.S.S. Eldridge
U.S.S. Eldridge

Philadelphia Experiment – This conspiracy is difficult to imagine, but in 1943 it was claimed that the U.S. Naval ship the USS Eldridge, became invisible. In the previous year over 1,000 Allied ships had been sunk by German U-boats, and some have argued that the U.S. Navy was trying to come up with a counter-measure to the U-boat attacks. At the time, Albert Einstein was employed by the Navy, and had been working on his Unified Field Theory. His theory had to do with the science of warping space and time, and it may have included the science of making objects invisible through an electro-magnetic field. According to the story, this field was created on the Eldridge, and it surrounded the entire ship. Witnesses’ claim that a greenish fog appeared and covered the vessel. The Eldridge then completely vanished and reappeared at the Norfolk Naval base, which was 300 miles away. It vanished again and then reappeared back at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. The ship sustained no damage, but according to eyewitnesses, some sailors caught fire and others were partially embedded in the steel of the ship. The U.S. Navy denied both the existence of the experiment, or any details related to the so-called incident on the Eldridge. This story sounds far-fetched and possibly because of its fictional nature, it has not resonated with support from this generation.

General George Patton (raising his hand); March 1945; General's Eisenhower, Bradley.
General George Patton (raising his hand); March 1945; General’s Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges.

General George Patton – The flamboyant general of World War II was mysteriously killed in a vehicle accident shortly after the war ended. Patton had demonstrated his careless streak many times, but in this situation, he was not even driving. Some suggest that the outspoken general was silenced because of his Anti-Soviet views, or because he might publicly divulge war secrets. He had loudly suggested that the U.S. should continue the war and invade the Soviet Union. Official reports about the accident have disappeared. Patton’s driver said the Army truck that slammed into them had been waiting. Patton suffered a broken neck and later died of a blood clot in the hospital. The three other passengers were not injured, and an autopsy was never performed on his body. There are a number of interesting facts surrounding Patton’s death, but no clear definitive proof that his death was anything other than an accident. However,the conspiracy theory continues to persist.

Civil War – The claim that England started the war is another theory with thin, or no, credible evidence. Apparently, since the Revolutionary War, England had been plotting to take their colony back. By starting a Civil War the North and South would each shatter the other physically and economically. Once this was done the English military would easily invade the nation and take over.

Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution – It is widely accepted that the government takeover, and the execution of Tsar Nicholas and his family, was done by radical Bolshevik revolutionaries. The alternate theory is that the Russian revolution was planned and financed by American and British banks, and that Lenin and Trotsky were front men used by the two nations. The two countries wanted communism, which was known as an economic loser, to be installed. The theory is difficult to grasp, but there is growing research to support this theory.

Attack on Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941
Attack on Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941

Pearl Harbor – Sunday, December 7, 1941 is the day the Japanese attacked an unsuspecting U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet which was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation later that day, saying about the attack “a date which will live in infamy,” and then asked Congress to declare war with Japan. The alternative story is that FDR and others in his administration were well aware of the Japanese intent to bomb Pearl Harbor, and did nothing. According to the conspiracy, the Roosevelt administration wanted war, and the American public was not ready to support our involvement. The Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor would assure that the American public would support our involvement in the war.

There is some proof to support this conspiracy. Our military had cracked the Japanese code two months prior to Pearl Harbor; they had deciphered a number of Japanese messages suggesting the attack. Based on research obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, researchers also suggest that FDR’s administration had intentionally provoked the Japanese to attack by freezing her assets in the United States, closing the Panama Canal to Japanese ships, and halting important exports to Japan. Research also suggests that America had entered into a secret alliance with Great Britain to defeat Germany, and this alliance was made before we had even entered the war. This makes for an interesting story, but it seems unlikely that FDR’s administration wanted to go to war, especially since the nation was unprepared militarily.

The interesting thing about conspiracy theories is that they balance between fiction and non-fiction, and just simply leave us wondering. There are two conspiracies, one in the 19th, and the other in the 20th century, that are probably factual, at least in part. Their stories are far more sinister than the death of Marilyn, or the whereabouts of Elvis, or even the murder of JFK. They present believable plots about the takeover of our nation’s government.

In April and May 1865 our nation’s capital was gripped by fear surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Just weeks before the war officially ended Lincoln was murdered and his Secretary of State was nearly beaten to death. Nine conspirators were caught and tried. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth was hunted down and shot to death in a barn in Caroline County, Virginia. Four of the conspirators, including a female, were hanged in July 1865. The rest of the gang quickly spilled the beans that the plan had included murdering Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses Grant. That is the official story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and then there is the conspiracy of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

The execution of four of Lincoln's conspirators. August 1865
The execution of four of Lincoln’s conspirators.
August 1865

The KGC began before the Civil War began and was initially established to support and expand slavery and slave territories. The confederation of slave’s states would include the Southern states, Cuba and Nicaragua. According to the conspiracy, hundreds of thousands of Americans, not just Southerners, were members of the KGC. Some reports suggest that in addition to John Wilkes Booth, and all of the conspirators, several of Lincoln’s own cabinet and Jefferson Davis himself were members of the organization. The initial plan of the group was to push the South to secede from the Union, intentionally starting the war. The KGC was convinced of the invincibility of the South. In the election of 1860 the KGC placed their bets on Lincoln, simply because they thought that he was incompetent and illiterate. Lincoln, as President of the Union, would pose no problem to the South’s plans of seceding from the Union, they thought.

When the war went sour, the KGC decided that it was worth a last ditch effort to take out the Union leadership. There is a growing amount of work that supports that John Wilkes Booth was not the man killed in the Caroline County barn. It is also difficult to ignore the legitimacy of the KGC network, and its relationship to the Confederacy. Some researchers have argued that the KGC was also well financed, but offered little credible evidence. It is plausible, however, that the KGC was involved in both Lincoln’s death, and a larger conspiracy to develop a new nation based on a slave economy.

There are numerous Lincoln conspiracies. The most logical one was that the Confederacy, in some fashion, was behind his death. Another theory suggested that Edwin Stanton was the mastermind. Stanton was in Lincoln’s Cabinet and served as Secretary of War, and disagreed with the President over many issues, but particularly Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans. As a lawyer he had lost a major case when he represented the Catholic Church. Some felt that the church was so troubled by Lincoln’s poor handling of the case that they could have conspired to murder him. Lincoln’s own Vice President, Andrew Johnson has even been the focus of some conspirator researchers. Johnson and Booth were friendly, even sharing the same mistresses. Booth had even visited Johnson on several occasions just prior to Lincoln’s death. These theories all make for good stories, but fall short in evidence.

Gen. Smedley Butler

Major General Smedley Butler was the highest ranking U.S. Marine Corps officer in the service, and, at his death, was the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the United States. So, when Butler testified before Congress that a group of businessmen had approached him about leading a military coup to overthrow FDR’s administration, that got the attention of the entire nation.

In 1933 the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression. Germany was also facing severe economic hardship and their unemployment rate was at 33%. In that same year Hitler’s Fascist regime came into power and made many promises about improving the lives of its citizens. These promises impressed certain people and groups. Hitler pledged that he would quickly reduce the numbers of unemployed, and he kept that promise. His government, however, was also rounding up Jews, closing their businesses, and confiscating their personal possessions. These actions may have also impressed the elite group of American businessman. All of those accused denied the charges and the media called Butler’s accusations a colossal joke, fantasy and “no truth in the story at all.” The New York Times went further and in an editorial characterized it as a “gigantic hoax.”

The House of Representatives, however, did not agree. After two months of investigating, the House Committee admitted that much of what General Butler had said was alarmingly true. There was even proof that a military march on Washington had been planned. Despite this, no one was prosecuted and no one’s reputation was destroyed, or even damaged, including General Butler. The entire matter, referred to as the Business Plot, was simply forgotten and allowed to go away. World War II was on the horizon and Americans began to focus on the war, and probably never looked back.

The American public is fascinated with conspiracies. Many of us are driven to find the truth, while others simply enjoy being entertained by a new twist in an old tale. A constant spinning of an interesting story will do that. There are certain conspiracy theories from our past, whose larger meaning we need to reconsider and analyze. If the North had lost the Civil War and the KGC and its mission were real, the result would have been unimaginable. Equally, it is difficult to imagine World War II America without Franklin D. Roosevelt. There is much that we can learn from the past, and some conspiracy theories may provide valuable insight into our society.


Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War, by David C. Keehn

The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking TRUE Story of the Conspiracy, by Jules Archer

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart,
by Candace Fleming

Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisiblity, by
William L. Moore, Charles Berlitz

Civil War Vets and Mental Illness: The Tragedy After the War.

National Home for Disabled Veterans, Ft. Monroe , Virginia , 1870-1880
National Home for Disabled Veterans, Ft. Monroe , Virginia , 1870-1880

During the Civil War (1860-1865) nearly 700,000 Americans lost their lives. Another 1 million were seriously wounded, and at least 100,000 or more veterans suffered from what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some families began noticing the changes in behavior shortly after their loved ones returned home from the war. For others, it took months, and even years, before the festering emotional wounds began to reveal themselves, and in many ways.

Although the war was over, reminders of the war were everywhere. In the South the cities and the economy were devastated, and poverty was widespread. More disturbing, however, was the significant absence of young men, and the large number of widows. In some communities as many as 20% to 40% of the men between the ages of 16 and 24 had been killed in the war. When considering the battles and the men killed in different regiments, the numbers are staggering:

1st Texas (CSA) – Battle of Antietam – 82% killed
1st Minnesota (US)-Battle of Gettysburg – 82% killed
6th Mississippi (CSA) Battle of Shiloh – 70.5% killed
25th Massachusetts (US) Battle of Cold Harbor – 70% killed

Killed in battle, 
Spotsylvania, Virginia 1863
Killed in battle, Spotsylvania, Virginia 1863
Private George W. Warner of Co. B, 20th Connecticut Infantry Regiment lost both arms in combat.
Private George W. Warner of Co. B, 20th Connecticut Infantry Regiment lost both arms in combat.

There were the tens of thousands of wounded veterans who were without arms or legs. Antibiotics had not been discovered, so an infected limb was a likely death sentence, and amputation was the only answer. Union surgeon, Dr. Daniel Holt described the gruesome scene:

“Every house, for miles around is a hospital, and I have seen arms, legs, feet, and hands lying in piles rotting in the blazing heat of the Southern sky, unburied and uncared for, and still the knife went steadily in its work to the putrid mess.” Holt’s words are troubling but he offered a small window into history as it was happening. From the moment the war began, the battlefields produced not only death, but a multitude of severe and life-changing injuries, both physical and emotional.

A wounded soldier being prepared for amputation.
A wounded soldier being prepared for amputation.

Michael Schwenk was a young man who wanted to go home. He served in the 56th New York infantry and participated in a number of high risk raids and night attacks. His war experience had worn him down and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He threatened to kill several of his regiment with an axe, and later he chased others with a gun into the woods, shouting that he was going to kill them. He was captured by his own men and sent to a hospital for observation. He was committed to an insane asylum, where he died thirty years later. His war experience had traumatized him so badly that he never lost his desire to kill.

Farm boys as young as 12 years old were tossed into the middle of hell.The battlefield was a nightmarish scene. The cannon roar was so loud it could shake horses to the ground. It was the sounds of bullets zipping close by, however,that made the moment crystal clear that life and death hung in a precarious balance. The smoke and the smells created a vision of horror. Death was all around them. Without narcotics to dull the pain, the wounded suffered in unbearable agony. The natural elements of weather added to their misery. Many soldiers, especially Southern ones, were without footwear, and others lacked clothing or even tents in which to sleep. The scarcity of food was a problem for both armies. Many were away from their families for the first time, and the loneliness and the fear of the battle contributed to bouts of depression. It is not difficult to understand how a normally healthy person could slowly become unhinged.

“I went over the field of battle as soon as possible after the surrender. At some points it was terrible. My eyes never beheld such a sight before. I hope they may never again. In some places the dead lay very thick, not more than 3-5-10 feet apart; some were shot in the head, others in the breast and lungs, some through the neck, and I saw 3 or 4 torn all to pieces by cannon balls; their innards lying by their side, ….. It is indeed a sickening sight ….. I had often wished that I could be in one battle and go over a battle field. My curiosity has been gratified. I never wish to see another.”
Calvin Ainsworth of the 25th Iowa Infantry, USA 1862

Illustration of deserters being executed during Civil War.1864
Illustration of deserters being executed during Civil War.1864

Desertion was much higher than in any other American conflict before, or since. If caught, the deserter was publicly executed. On one occasion, the Charleston Mercury described how an entire division formed three sides around ten deserters who were to be executed by a firing squad. The condemned sat on their own coffins waiting their turn. The article said that many of those watching were “seized” by an “uncontrollable emotion.” By witnessing the executions, it served as a reminder that death was a likely outcome, regardless of which path a soldier took.

In 1873, Logan P. Herod killed himself by slitting his throat with a butcher knife. He had tried several times since the war. He had been shot in his left thigh and testicle during the battle of Richmond, Kentucky in 1862 and suffered from intense pain, swelling and depression. Like many other suicidal veterans, Herod had discussed his pain and a desire to die for a number of years prior to his suicide.

The same happened to Newell Gleason of Indiana. Gleason had been a successful engineer before the war and a colonel in the 87th Indiana regiment. He was recognized for his calm demeanor and good judgment in battle. After two years of intense fighting, he started to fall apart. At times Gleason behaved normally, but, without warning or provocation, he would burst into tears, or into hysterical laughter. He was mustered out of the military in 1865, and spent the next years in and out mental hospitals. By 1880, Gleason ended his torment by jumping head first into a cellar.

Colonel Gleason
Colonel Gleason

Before the war mental illness was mostly left untreated. Those exhibiting mild and non-aggressive behavior would stay at home with their families. The others would be sent to the handful of state or federal insane asylums.The patients with violent tendencies were placed in prisons with the general population. The prevailing belief was that most mental illness was only temporary. It was thought to be like a bad cold or ‘flu, and that the patient would recover and return home. Few were confined indefinitely, and most were released within weeks. The treatment consisted of simply talking to the patient in soothing tones, and with an attitude of respect and caring. The moral approach sought to discover the root of the patient’s problems through a series of well-structured conversations. Many believed that “plenty of fresh air out in the country would take care of the problem” and “lots of peace and quiet,” would be the ultimate cure. Due in part to this belief, the new asylums were largely built in the rural areas. Although these methods certainly reflected sensitivity, they were ineffective. After the war, the nation faced a huge and ever-growing number of veterans who had suffered an unthinkable amount of trauma, and who desperately needed help. Families, and the handful of existing asylums, were quickly overwhelmed.

Milledgeville Lunatic Asylum, Georgia
Milledgeville Lunatic Asylum, Georgia

In 1860 there were approximately 40 mental asylums in America, but by 1880 that number had exploded to 140. There is little doubt that this incredible increase was a result of the trauma suffered by Civil War soldiers.

Shortly after the war the nation went to work building the asylums throughout the country. The design of architect Thomas Kirkbride was the most popular. The structures were massive, and some extended over several acres. They were initially designed to house 250 patients, but quickly were straining with as many as 1000 patients. At some other asylums, such as the Athens Asylum in Ohio, the numbers climbed to 2000. In some cases, the patient’s to doctor ratio grew to as high as 140 patients to one doctor.

New York State Lunatic Asylum
New York State Lunatic Asylum

It is interesting to note that Kirkbride sold his design based on the “moral approach” towards caring for the patient. Patients living quarters resembled homes, and the less disturbed the patient, the closer he would be housed to the center of the facility. This center was near the administrative area, activities section, and most of the medical offices. Patients with more severe problems were pushed farther away from both the center and other patients. The idea was to keep the aggressive and violent patients from disrupting the lower risk ones. In reality, the massive overcrowding created a different reality. Kirkbride’s “moral approach” structures provided a human warehouse for disturbed patients,in many cases,for the rest of their lives.

Management did not have time to continue with the niceties of the “moral treatment” and even reinstituted the use of cage internment for the most aggressive patients. That helped to control the chaos, but it did nothing to address the patients’ problems. Sadly, two -thirds of the patients stored in these structures were Civil War veterans. In many cases the big dollars had been spent for the bricks and mortar, with little or no funds left for training and staffing.

An illustration of dinner in the asylum.
An illustration of dinner in the asylum.

It was not unusual for families to simply drop their family members off at an asylum, and never see them again. Some viewed their mentally sick relatives as an embarrassment, and others saw them as an additional burden. The attitude towards mental illness was to deny, ignore, and behave as if the person were dead.

“They refused to come and get the body….. And asked the superintendent not to write them again.”
Dixmont Asylum, Pennsylvania – 1887

Millegeville Lunatic Asylum Cemetery - over 25,000 unmarked graves behind the facility.
Millegeville Lunatic Asylum Cemetery – over 25,000 unmarked graves behind the facility.

Most Americans do not realize that tens of thousands of Civil War veterans are buried behind now-defunct mental hospitals throughout the country—and, most without names on their stones, only numbers. The Dixmont Asylum cemetery is just one of the reminders of how families pretended their disabled relatives did not exist. It houses over 1300 graves, many belonging to Civil War veterans. In Ohio, the Athens Asylum has over 2000 graves, the Danvers Mental Hospital in Boston has in excess of 10,000, and the Milledgeville Mental Asylum cemetery in Georgia has well over 30,000, all quietly hidden in the distance behind their massive sprawling structures. These veterans were not only forgotten, their lives were dismissed by both their families and society.

There are literally tens of thousands of monuments scattered throughout America honoring the deceased veterans of the Civil War. In the Gettysburg National Battlefield, there are over 1300 monuments and markers. For decades following the war, thousands of parades, dedications, and public assemblies took place – – all for the purpose of honoring the veterans of the Civil War. The acclamation went on, while the sadness in the insane asylums continued. How could a nation that embraced and loved their war veterans so easily erase the memory of the ones who became mentally disturbed?

1915, Grand Army of the Republic parade, Pennsylvania  veterans
1915, Grand Army of the Republic parade, Pennsylvania veterans

It could be argued that post-Civil War Americans did not want to accept another burden left from the war. During the conflict and afterwards, the nation struggled with an overwhelming sense of mourning for the dead. No family was spared the grief. The Civil War produced more widows and orphans than all other American wars. Thousands returned home from war with serious disabilities, their lives and families changed forever. The economic devastation in the South not only shattered dreams, but left many families financially destitute. The end of the war created a different type of nightmare for many. The entire family structure had been fractured from the fallout of the war. The problems were numerous and the solutions were complex. Relatives suffering from mental illness were a problem that few had the patience or strength to face. By increasing the number of asylums from 40 to 140, Americans believed that this was the only answer to mental illness. By leaving their mentally ill relative at the asylum the problem, for many, went away. Families generally never visited, or even claimed the body, once the patient passed away.

To forget about one person is sad, but to forget about an entire group – – thousands of Americans, who sacrificed their all -is shocking and appalling.


Steve DeGenaro, “Murdered Children,” Military Images, (September/October 2000).
Eric T. Dean, Jr., Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War, (Harvard University Press, 1997).
Kimberly Leupo, The Ridges: The History of Mental Illness, (Ohio University History Department, 2001).
Kristen Anderberg, American “Insane Asylum” History: Giving Names to Numbered Graves, (Boston: The Boston Independent Media Center, 2004).
David J. Rothman ,The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic,(New York: Little Brown, 1971).
Gerald N. Grob ,Mental Illness and American Society 1875-1945, (Princeton University Press, 1983).
Drew Gilpin Faust, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (New York: Random House, Inc. 2008).
Drew Gilpin Faust, “Death and Dying,” National Park Service, (United States Government Publication, 2009).