At the entrance to Blandford Cemetery at Petersburg, Virginia, is an imposing stone arch through which visitor must pass on their way into the grounds. Carved into the very top of the arch are the words, “Our Confederate Heroes,” a simple tribute to the estimated 20,000 Southern soldiers who lie buried on the grounds.
Overlooking the cemetery is Blandford Church, and inside the historic structure are 15 stained glass windows commissioned by the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Petersburg to honor the memory of the Confederate soldiers who are buried nearby. As one of these windows commemorates the Mississippi dead who lie in that sacred ground, I want to share a little history about how this memorial in glass was created.
Blandford Church was built in 1735 by the Episcopal Congregation of Blandford, Virginia,
a small town outside Petersburg. The church had a long and distinguished history, but after the Civil War the building was abandoned when the congregation built a new church in Petersburg.
On May 6, 1866, the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Petersburg was formed, and one of the projects that the group took on was the restoration of the church as a memorial to the memory of the Confederate soldiers who had died at Petersburg. In the early 1900s the association called on each Southern state to fund a memorial window in the church to honor their dead who were buried in the adjacent cemetery.
Each window placed in the church was to follow a common design: at the top the coat of arms of the state, in the center the figure of one of the apostles, and at the bottom an inscription. These windows would not be cheap – the Ladies’ Memorial Association planned to have them made by one of the Premiere glass makers in the United States: Louis Comfort Tiffany of New York. Each window cost $400 – which would be almost $10,000 in 2011 dollars.
Virginia and Missouri were the first states to fund their windows, followed quickly by Louisiana. These first three windows were unveiled on June 9, 1904, to a vast throng of citizens who turned out for the ceremonies.
It took a little longer for Mississippi to raise the money for her window, but by 1909 Mrs. Lou Clark of Vicksburg, probably a member of the local United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter, reported to the Petersburg Ladies’ Association that most of the money was in hand, and the order for the window was being placed with Tiffany’s in New York.
On June 3, 1910, the Mississippi window at Blandford Church, along with those of
Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Maryland, and Arkansas, were unveiled in a well attended ceremony. Since that time the windows have served as a striking reminder of the terrible cost of the Civil War.
In 1908, a group of Civil War veterans from Kentucky participated in a one-mile “walking contest” in Lexington to raise money for the building of a monument in honor of Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan. The contest was reported on by newspapers throughout the South, and the winner was proudly proclaimed: John A. Geary, who had served in the 11th Mississippi Infantry during the “late unpleasantness.”
News of the contest was carried in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the name of the winner immediately struck a cord with James W. Hale of Rich, Mississippi, who was himself a member of the 11th Mississippi Infantry, serving in Company A, the celebrated “University Greys,” formed from the student body of the University of Mississippi in 1861.
Geary’s name brought back such powerful memories to Hale that he was moved to write his old comrade the following letter:
“Mr. J. A. Geary: Dear Sir: – Seeing your name in the Memphis Commercial Appeal as
John T. Geary of the Eleventh Mississippi regiment, I write to know if you are John A. Geary, of Company A, of the old Eleventh. If so, I ask you to accept the thanks of myself and my good wife and my five sons and five daughters for carrying me off the battle field of Seven Pines on the 13th day of May, 1862, when I was so badly shot, for had I lain on the field that night, I would not be writing this today.”
John Geary received the letter from Hale, and after reading it penned the following response that was published in the Lexington Herald on April 15, 1908:
“Yes, I remember the incident well. Our company was on the left wing, which was repulsed, though the engagement as a whole was a Confederate victory. We had not expected McClellan to get all of his force across the Chickahominy river, and the left wing was not sufficiently strong for the surprise. At the same time I helped Captain William Lowry, of Company A, from the field. Both Hale and I were privates. I got Lowry in an ambulance and put Hale on the train for Richmond, which was only about seven miles away. I never saw or heard of him afterward, and just supposed he had died. I shall answer his letter at once.”
Being an historian, I wanted to see if the service records of Gale and Geary could verify the story as written in the Lexington Herald. I pulled up James W. Gale’s records first, and found that he enlisted in the “University Greys” on April 26, 1861, at Oxford, Mississippi. The one thing I was specifically looking for, evidence that he was wounded during the Battle of Seven Pines, I did not find. The records for the 11th Mississippi from the time period of the battle of Seven Pines are incomplete, however, so its very possible he was wounded and the injury was never recorded. If he was indeed wounded at Seven Pines in late May, it must not have been too serious, as he was back in the ranks by September, in time to fight in the Battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. In this battle Hale’s service record states that he was wounded in the arm, and was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital at Richmond, Virginia, on October 24, 1862.
I next turned to the service record of John A. Geary to see if it could shed some light on the truthfulness of the story. I found that 18 year old Geary enlisted in the University Greys on April 26, 1861, at Oxford, Mississippi. Again I was frustrated, as the records for the period of the Battle of Seven Pines were absent. I did find, however, that Geary was listed as missing at the Battle of Gaine’s Mill, Virginia, on June 27, 1862, and his service record abruptly ends at that point.
I was able to verify one part of Geary’s story – he mentioned helping Captain William B. Lowry, commander of the University Greys, from the field at Seven Pines. In Lowry’s service record there was a notation in September 1862 that he was “Wounded at Seven Pines, at home on furlough.”
I never found the smoking gun that would allow me to say with 100% certainty that the story of Geary carrying James W. Hale from the Battlefield of Seven Pines is true. But I can also say that I found nothing that would cast doubt on the story, and I can’t think of any reason for the two men to make up such a story.
In doing some background research on John Geary, I found that he had a very interesting
personal history. Born near Newcastle West in County Limerick, Ireland on June 24, 1841, he immigrated to the United States in 1854 at the age of 13, and eventually became a plumber living in Lexington. At some point he must have moved to Mississippi, perhaps as a student at the University of Mississippi, for he joined the University Greys at Oxford in 1861.
Geary retained strong ties to the land of his birth, and like many Irishmen he longed for the day when Ireland would be free of British rule. After the Civil War ended, he decided to take an active role in making this dream a reality. In Volume 4 of The History of Kentucky by William Connelley and Ellis Coulter, the following was written about Geary: “At the conclusion of the great American conflict Captain Geary’s first thought was to give his military experience to aid the liberating movement in the land of his birth. Through his exertions a fine circle of the Fenian Brotherhood was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, and under his direction it became one of the most efficient in the organization.”
Returning to his homeland in late 1865 or late 1866, Geary began actively working to help overthrow British rule in Ireland. Naturally his efforts were not appreciated by the English authorities, who put great efforts into capturing Geary. At one point the former soldier had to shoot an English policeman twice in the shoulder to avoid being arrested. With the British authorities hot on his trail, Geary was forced to don a disguise and slip out of the country, arriving in New York in April 1866.
Still eager to strike a blow against the British, Geary joined with a group of like-minded Irish patriots who were planning a raid into Canada. On June 1, 1866, about 1,000 Fenians, including Geary, crossed into Canada from Buffalo, New York. The next day they met a force of Canadian militia at Ridgeway and after a sharp fight lasting about an hour, the Canadian’s withdrew from the field. The victorious Fenians then crossed back into the United States, where they were promptly arrested by United States authorities.
Eventually released on bond, Geary returned to Lexington, and he was never prosecuted for his part in the raid on Canada. He turned his considerable talents to business, and was one of the early oil pioneers in Kentucky. An article in the Lexington Morning Herald, January 26, 1902, noted that the Somerset Oil Company, which was controlled by Geary, “Has the largest oil production of any company in the state. The company’s No. 5 well is now increasing production and is making 150 barrels a day.”
As he grew older, Geary retained his strong commitment to seeing Ireland free. In the January 5, 1921 edition of the Lexington Herald, the old soldier was listed as the president of the “Friends of Ireland,” which was a group consisting of persons “Interested in the movement for the independence of Ireland.” At a meeting of the group in April, Geary addressed the group and proclaimed “Though I have already seen four score years I hope and believe that I will live to see Ireland free.”
Geary may have lived to see his dream of an independent Ireland come true – the last
trace I have been able to find of him was an article in the Lexington Herald on June 27, 1922, which stated that he was planning a trip to Ireland for late in the year. On December 6, 1922, the Irish Free State was established as a dominion by a treaty between British and Irish authorities. I don’t know for certain what became of Geary, but if I can find any more information about him, I will update this post.
This article was inspired by a photo album I picked up on Ebay some time back that was filled with photographs taken in Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the filming of the silent movie The Crisis. This was the first feature-length film to be shot in Mississippi, a Civil War epic that was released in 1916. But before I tell you about The Crisis, I need give just just a little bit of information about the history of the Civil War on film.
The first Civil War movies dated back to the very beginnings of American cinema – one of the earliest was The Guerrilla from 1908, directed by D. W. Griffith. The plot concerned a heroic Union soldier who broke through enemy lines to rescue his Southern girlfriend from the advances of a dastardly Confederate renegade. It seems an unlikely vehicle for Griffith, who father, Colonel Jacob Griffith, had commanded the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, C.S.A.
Another early film, and one related to the war in Mississippi, was The Girl Spy Before Vicksburg, which was released in 1910. It was one in a series of films about the exploits of “Nan, the Girl Spy,” In this film Nan played a Confederate agent who went on a dangerous mission to blow up a bridge and destroy a federal ammunition train.
There were many other Civil War themed films such as these in the early 1900s, and it’s not hard to see why they were popular with audiences. The conflict was less than fifty years in the past, and many Veterans of the war were still living. The children of those veterans, having grown up hearing tales of the war were also very interested in films about the conflict.
Without a doubt the most important Civil War film of the silent era was D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which was released in 1915. Based on the book The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., it was the story of Civil War, Reconstruction, and the restoration of white supremacy in the South through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
Birth of a Nation cost $110,000 to make, which was a huge sum for a film at the time – Griffith’s four proceeding films had only cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each. In filming the movie Griffith pioneered many of the techniques that are still used today. Movie historian Jack Spears wrote that Griffith’s “superb use of visual imagery, movement, stunning photography (including innovations such as irising, close-ups, and the use of stills), intelligent and refined editing, and even music, established the artistic supremacy of the director.”
The film was a huge hit, making over $10,000,000 on its initial release. You would think that this would inspire other film companies to make their own high-budget Civil War films, but this was not the case. Many studios were intimidated by the huge risk involved in making a very expensive film that would inevitably be compared to Birth of a Nation, and probably be found lacking.
One studio however was willing to take up the challenge – the Selig Polyscope Company
of Chicago, Illinois. William N. Selig, a native of Chicago born during the Civil War on March 14, 1864, founded the studio. The future studio executive got his start in the entertainment industry as a magician in 1894, billing himself as “Selig, Conjurer.” From this humble beginning he expanded and developed his act into a minstrel show attraction, and picked up the rank of “Colonel.”
Selig saw his first movie in 1895, on a Kinetoscope, which had been invented by Thomas Edison. It did not project the movie on a screen – it was contained in a cabinet, and the movie was viewed by looking through a small peephole. Crude as it was, Selig was inspired by the commercial possibilities of the new medium, and he decided to enter the movie industry. He began making movies in 1896, and over the next decade his studio prospered. By 1909 he had full-time movie facilities in California, Louisiana, and Illinois. Selig also had a stable of silent film stars under contract to act in his movies, including Paul W. “Tom” Santschi, who would star in The Crisis, and movie cowboy Tom Mix, who would do stunts for the film.
After seeing the success of Birth of a Nation, Selig began searching for a Civil War novel that he could turn into a major motion picture. He quickly acquired the rights to the novel The Crisis, written by American novelist Winston Churchill and published in 1901. The novel had been a best-seller, going through 34 editions, with 750,000 copies sold from 1901 – 1909.
In writing the book, Churchill had gone out of his way to make it as historically accurate as possible. He consulted with noted historians of the day, and read numerous letters and diaries from actual civil war participants to get the correct feel for the period. As Abraham Lincoln was a major character in the novel, Churchill contacted people who had known the president, including Congressman R. R. Hitt, who had attended the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
The plot of The Crisis revolves around the coming of the Civil War and how these events affected the people of St. Louis, Missouri. The hero of the story is Stephen Brice, a young New Englander who moves to St. Louis with his widowed mother in the 1850s. Brice is given a job clerking for Judge Silas Whipple, a staunch abolitionist. The judge tries to win the boy over to the Republican Party by sending him to listen to up-and-coming politician Abraham Lincoln as he debates Stephen Douglas.
Another major character was Colonel Comyn Carvel, a staunch Southern Democrat and slave owner who is also a friend of Judge Whipple. The friends spar constantly over politics, in particular the issues of secession and slavery.
Colonel Carvel’s daughter, Virginia Carvel, is the love interest of Stephen Brice, and the conflict of the movie centers on their differences on the issue of slavery. When the war begins Brice joins the Union army and eventually fights at Vicksburg. The couple is only reunited at the end of the war through the personal intervention of Abraham Lincoln.
The thing that really makes Churchill’s novel stand out in my mind is his descriptions of the siege of Vicksburg – he did his homework, and it clearly shows, as he really makes the Civil War come to life. For example, here is his description of the mining of the 3rd Louisiana Redan and Union attack that followed the explosion:
“Not an officer or private in the Vicksburg armies who does not remember the 25th of June, and the hour of three in an afternoon of pitiless heat. Silently the long blue files wound into position behind the earth barriers which hid them from the enemy, coiled and ready to strike when the towering redoubt on the Jackson road should rise heavenwards. By common consent the rifle crack of day and night was hushed, and even the Parrotts were silent. Stillness closed around the white house of Shirley once more, but not the stillness it had known in its peaceful homestead days. This was the stillness of the death-prayer. Eyes staring at the big redoubt were dimmed. At last, to those near, a little wisp of blue smoke crept out. Then the earth opened with a quake. The sun was darkened, and a hot blast fanned the upturned faces. In the sky, through the film of shattered clay, little black dots scurried, poised, and fell again as arms and legs and head-less trunks and shapeless bits of wood and iron. Scarcely had the dust settled when the sun caught the light of fifty thousand bayonets, and a hundred shells were shrieking across the crater’s edge. Earth to earth, alas, and dust to dust! Men who ran across that rim of a summer’s afternoon died in torture under tier upon tier of their comrades, – and so the hole was filled.”
William Selig was known for being very frugal with his money, and most of his pictures were made on very tight budgets. But for The Crisis he pulled out all the stops and spared no expense. The film would be the longest and most expensive that the company had undertaken up until that time. The film was directed by Colin Campbell, who was described by film historian Jack Spears as “In some respects an early but much less competent John Ford.”
Selig had a stable of stars under contract from which to choose for the movie, and he selected some of the best that he had for The Crisis. One of the most interesting was Matt B. Snyder, who played Colonel Comyn Carvel. At over 80 years old, he was the oldest member of the cast, and he was an actual veteran of the Union navy and had served at Vicksburg as a gunner on the USS Essex. The old veteran would not live to see the movie; he died in February 1917.
The main female lead was Bessie Eyton, who played Virginia Carvel. She was a prolific actress of the silent film era, making nearly 200 films between 1911 – 1925. The main male lead was Tom Santschi, who played Stephen Brice. Born in Missouri, Santschi was a well known leading man by the time The Crisis was made – from 1907 – 1931 he made over 300 films. He is best known for the 1914 film The Spoilers, where Santschi and co-star William Farnum fought for real to make a bar fight scene look realistic.
For the part of Abraham Lincoln, Selig looked far and wide for an actor big enough to fill those shoes. He was having trouble finding an actor for the part when he received a letter from Sam Drane of Dranesville, Virginia. An amateur historian who had been studying about Lincoln for decades, he offered to play the part. In addition to his knowledge of the president, Drane also happened to look a great deal like Abraham Lincoln. After meeting with the would-be actor, Selig cast him in the role. Drane’s performance was acclaimed by many movie critics as being very authentic, but unfortunately the actor himself would not live to see it. Like Matt Snyder, Drane died shortly before the movie was released.
Filming began on The Crisis in early 1916, and most of the interior scenes were shot in Selig’s Chicago studio. The Vicksburg battle scenes, however, were shot on location in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
When the citizens of Vicksburg received word that a movie was going to be filmed in the city, they could hardly contain their excitement. The Hill City would be the first city in the state to be the location for a major motion picture. In March 1916 Selig wrote a letter to Frank Andrews, secretary for the Vicksburg Board of Trade, stating, “I have planned to come down and look over the ground in the near future: in fact, would have been down before, but though perhaps the river was rather high and wished to wait until it had receded some. Kindly let me know if it would be a good time in the near future to come down and look over the ground as to the taking of ‘The Crisis.” Mr. Andrews quickly responded, telling Selig to come to Vicksburg within the next two weeks.
To film the battle scenes at Vicksburg, Selig needed lots of extras, and found them by contracting with the Mississippi National Guard to supply 500 soldiers for one week to play the Union and Rebel soldiers. The cost of hiring the guardsmen came to $8,000, and they were led by Brig. Gen. Eric. G. Scales, adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard.
Filming began in Vicksburg on May 20, and there was great regional interest in the proceedings. The next day headlines in the New Orleans Item read, “Work Begins on ‘Crisis’ In Vicksburg,” and the journalist noted in his article that “Vicksburg is being moving pictured today. Twenty or more actors and directors of the Selig Polyscope company arrived here Friday from Chicago and immediately started work on scenes for the ten-reel production of ‘The Crisis.”
General Scales arrived in Vicksburg on May 21, 1916, with 500 men and 15 officers, only to have to march to their camp in the middle of a terrible downpour. The Vicksburg Daily Herald noted, “General Scales said that without exaggeration some of the men were over knee deep in the terrible flood, which swept through Camp Williamson bottom, and practically all of the tents which had been pitched had to be taken down in the pouring rain and placed on the hillside.” But the article went on to state: “Not the least bit discouraged over their soaking Sunday night, the plucky Mississippi boys are all ready for their ‘picture duty.”
The first battle scenes were filmed on May 23, at South Fort, in the Vicksburg National Military Park. The Daily Herald headline stated: :Startling Realism Mark Battle Scenes,” and the article went on to note: “Beneath a blue sky, singularly clear and ideal for the wonderful setting, the Selig warriors rushed upon each other in ‘deadly conflict’ near South Fort…and for hours the raging warfare for the motion picture screen was unrelentingly kept up in all its fury. Six hundred men of the national guard; equally divided in blue and gray uniforms, some badly soiled and ragged, portrayed in most graphic realism the scenes of long ago, as the fierce charges and defense on the old hill tops were fought out to the bitter end. Bursts of gunpowder, arranged so as to resemble exploding shells, fell fast and furiously in all parts of the improvised battle fields, and the awe-stricken public, standing at a safe distance gazed in amazement at the fascinating spectacle, so perfectly made to represent war.”
Among the large crowd of onlookers watching the filming were a number of actual Confederate veterans – the Herald noted, “Yesterday afternoon Tom Santchi made a wonderful charge up South Fort Hill, carrying the flag to the breastworks, amid tongues of livid flame, followed by several hundred wounded or infuriated soldiers, charging the ‘gray lines.’ Such grand old veterans as Col. W. A. Montgomery, who was an onlooker, wearing his gray uniform, watched the mimic warfare with eager interest, and made comments upon today and the days that used to be, where such struggles were death to thousands.”
On May 25, filming of battle scenes shifted to Fort Garrott, and both the Union and Confederate extras marched through town on their way to the scene of the action. A local journalist in describing the trek through town made it very clear where his sympathies lay: “From window and doorway and down the sunny street, spectators stood and gazed – not without a curious tugging of the heart-strings at the sight of the ragged Gray – not without a fluttering and leaping of the pulse at the sound of marching feet…men from a by-gone age, whose glory still envelops the Southland, men marching to defend our own beautiful city, men whose mouldering forms sleep beneath the hills on which the play-battles are staged – it was these we watched tramping by, and not the irresponsible militia of 1916, called upon to reproduce in replica the hallowed scenes of the past.”
In addition to the filming done in the park on May 25, other scenes were shot at the courthouse and down on the levee. These scenes allowed many of Vicksburg’s citizens to become part of the film, as many extras were needed.
On May 31, the production suffered its first casualty when Ford Dickson, a member of the Warren Light Artillery, was wounded during filming at Fort Garrott. According to the newspaper account the soldier “happened to be on the spot when a mine with several pounds of powder was touched off. His eye lashes were burned and his eyes are inflamed. His left ear was also burned.” Fortunately that was the extent of Dickson’s injuries.
Filming of the major battle scenes in the military park wrapped on May 31st, but Selig still needed one last major scene before the company was ready to leave Vicksburg – a naval battle scene. The company had seven barges mocked up to look like ironclads so that they could film the naval bombardment of Vicksburg during the siege. This scene was filmed on the night of June 2, 1916, and was watched by a crowd that one journalist estimated numbered in the thousands.
The Vicksburg Daily Herald said of the scene, “The seven gunboats were lined up in the middle of the lake north of the city, and the camera men, three in all, took the vivid picture from a barge which was stationed on this side of the canal, near the National Cemetery road. The fire from the gunboats came hastily, shots being sent up from first one and then another of the battery of seven in line, and occasionally volleys would roar out of the sides of all seven boats at the same time. The bursting shells, while of the fireworks type, made but little noise [but] will appear like the real thing in the picture.”
With the naval scenes in the can, filming at Vicksburg was complete, and the Selig Company left the city on June 3, 1916, much to the sadness of the local citizens. A local journalist wrote, “The Crisis’ twelve reels with a thirty piece orchestra will not get here before fall, but when it comes, there will indeed be an ovation awaiting our good friends, the Selig Company.”
One Vicksburg citizen ended up with a wonderful souvenir to remember the filming of The Crisis– a wife. Vicksburg lawyer Clark B. Coffey met the female lead of the film, Bessie Eyton, at a costume ball held by the city to honor the members of the Selig cast and crew. The two immediately fell in love, and in September he traveled to California where the happy couple were immediately married. I wish I could say that they lived happily ever after, but that’s not the case – the pair divorced in 1923.
By today’s standards movies were edited impossibly quick, and the finished film had its first showing at the Strand Theatre in New York on September 29, 1916, for a private audience. A second private showing was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on December 22, 1916, followed by public performances two days later. Reviews of the film were very good: one article stated: “The acting is superb. The battle scenes are spectacular and finely executed. The story of Winston Churchill’s novel has been scenarioized so capably that the excellence of the original has been retained.”
The first record I can find of The Crisis being shown in Mississippi is an article from the Biloxi Daily Herald dated March 1, 1917, which stated, “The Crisis will be shown at Dukate’s Theater, Biloxi, and Gulfport Opera House soon. So tremendous has been the clamor of the Mississippi public to see the big Civil War screen drama that the management has found it expedient to send the picture to a few of the better towns, even before the forthcoming engagement at the fashionable Tulane Theatre in New Orleans. The fact that the state militia were employed in filming the spectacular battle scenes, depicting ‘The Siege of Vicksburg,’ has aroused an unprecedented interest in every locality in this territory. All over the state The Crisis has created a sensation. House records in Vicksburg, Jackson and other towns were smashed, necessitating return engagements. The Governor, Adjutant General and other prominent officials are loud in their praise of the picture.”
The Crisis gained good reviews from newspapers across the nation, and it did well at the box office, but it was not the blockbuster that Birth of a Nation was. There are probably a couple of reasons for this. First is the race issue – unlike Birth of a Nation that reinforced prevailing white notions of the inferiority of blacks and fitted comfortably into the “Lost Cause” interpretation of Southern History, The Crisis made slavery a centerpiece of its story – For example, here is how Churchill described in his novel character Stephen Brice’s exposure to a slave auction for the first time: “There, in the bright November sunlight, a sight met his eyes which turned him sick and dizzy. Against the walls and pillars of the building, already grimy with soot, crouched a score of miserable human beings waiting to be sold as auction. Mr. Lynch’s slave pen had been disgorged that morning. Old and young, husband and wife, – the moment was come for all and each. How hard the stones! And what more pitiless than the gaze of their fellow-creatures in the crowd below! O friends, we who live in peace and plenty amongst our families, how little do we realize the terror and the misery and dumb heart-aches of those days!” Statements such as these had to make southerners uncomfortable, and probably kept many from going to see the film.
Another factor that probably hurt the film was the increasing preoccupation with WW I by the American public leading up to the entry of the United States into the conflict on April 6, 1917. In advertising Selig actually tried to use WW I as a selling point – in one ad for the movie pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson were included along with the following text: “What would Lincoln have done had he been President now? What would Wilson have done had he been President then? Regardless of how clever their advertising was, the war had to be a big distraction to the movie going public.
The Crisis holds a place in Mississippi history, as it was the first feature film to be shot in the state. Unfortunately, the film is not in commercial release at this time, but it does still exist – the Library of Congress has a copy of the film, and I think several other film archives have copies of it as well. Perhaps one day The Crisis will once again be seen on the silver screen in Mississippi. I, for one, will be there if it does.
Since Halloween will soon be on us, I wanted to share a halloween themed poem that has a Civil War connection. The poem is entitled “The Spectral Army,” and it was written by Samuel Newton Berryhill. Berryhill was born in Choctaw (Now Webster) County Mississippi, on October 22, 1832. As a child he was afflicted with what was termed a “serious spinal affection,” which left him unable to walk. Because of this Berryhill was unable to participate in the Civil War as a soldier, but he was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. His first book of poetry, a modest volume entitled “The Vision of Blood,” was published by John N. Bowen at the Southern Motive office in Grenada in 1864.
Berryhill’s best known work is “Backwood Poems,” which was published in 1878. The following poem was but one of the many excellent verses that were published in this volume. The brother that the author alludes to in the poem was Lieutenant William Harvey Berryhill, who served in Company D, 43rd Mississippi Infantry. He was killed at the Battle of Nashville on December 15, 1864.
I thought I would try something different with this post, and reach out to the readership to assist me with my next article. I want to write about the personal stories of Mississippi Confederates, but I need your help. If you have a photograph of a Mississippi Confederate – it can be pre-war, wartime, or post-war, and don’t mind having it posted on my blog for the world to see, please email me a copy, along with a brief write-up about the person. I plan to build an article for the blog out of whatever pictures I receive, so please, if you have photos, I would love to see them!
On April 26, 1894, the Clarion Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, published the poem “Decoration Day,” by Ellen E. Hebron of Warren County, Mississippi. Written in honor of the day on which Mississippi remembered her Confederate dead, Hebron had good cause to memorialize the day: she had lost a brother and brother in law to the war. She poured out her feelings of loss and remembrance in these loving verses:
They are firing the cannon now,will it bring me back my dead? Will it raise my soldier-brothers form, and restore his spirit fled?
In far Virginia’s soil, he sleeps the ‘last long sleep,’ While I, his sister so bereft, his memory e’er shall keep.
Fair was his youthful brow, tender his loving eye, loyal his heart to his native South, when he bade his home good-bye!
High were his hopes of life, noble his soul sincere, O! mocking dream of the ‘long ago,’ so sudden his early bier!
They are strewing the flowers now, O! my darling brave and true! Can they crown with joy your pallid brow as we fondly used to do.
When your voice like a bugle-call, to patriot duty came; and your laugh like a rippling summer stream intensified the flame.
Of love three sisters bore, for an only brother’s form, Alas! Alas! that he should die so early ‘mid the storm.
I shall meet you yet again! Bright in my soul your worth, shall blossom and blossom on though years, ‘Till I bid adieu to earth.
Sweet be thy soldier-rest; happy thy christian bed; loyal and true thy manly breast, my brother is not dead!
The author of those lines, Ellen Ellington, was born at Amsterdam, Mississippi, near the modern town of Edwards in Hinds County, in 1839. Her father, Jeremiah Ellington, died when she was only four years old, and she and her siblings were raised by her mother, Sarah MacPherson Ellington. Ellen had a great affection for her mother – in a letter she wrote of her: “She was left a widow with 4 small children when I was 4 years old – and never did [a] patriotic mother try harder to rear her children aright.” Eventually Sarah remarried, and in the 1850 Census Ellen was listed as living in the household of her step-father, John Simmons, in Hinds County, Mississippi.
Described as “being a lady with a very strong and active mind, Ellen attended Memphis
Female College in the mid-1850s. After returning home she met a handsome young doctor from Warren County, John L. Hebron, and the couple were married on January 23, 1861. Ellen had married well; her father-in-law was Colonel John Hebron, who owned LaGrange Plantation in Warren County, which was one of the largest fruit orchards in the South.
The newly weds did not have long to celebrate, however, Mississippi had broken away from the Union on January 9, 1861, and very soon the state had joined the Confederate States of America. Young men from throughout Mississippi flocked to join the military for the fighting that was sure to come, and Ellen’s husband John was no different. He enlisted as an assistant surgeon with the 2nd Arkansas Infantry and left his young bride to serve his country.
Ellen’s brother Jeremiah also responded to the call of duty, and joined the “Burt Rifles,” that became Company K of the 18th Mississippi Infantry. But his service to the Southland was short and tragic: he enlisted on May 24, 1861, at Corinth, Mississippi. He traveled with his unit to Virginia, where he was almost immediately taken sick. Sent to a hospital at Culpeper Court House, he died on July 16 having never heard a shot fired in anger.
The death of her brother was only the beginning of Ellen’s travails; in 1862 her father-in-law, Colonel John Hebron, died of natural causes, and her brother-in-law, Captain George B. Hebron, was mortally wounded while leading his company at the battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The next year she witnessed firsthand the destruction of her father-in-law’s beautiful orchards by Union soldiers during the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863.
This long string of sorrows must have been very hard on Ellen, and perhaps she took solace in the poetry that she wrote. She must have wanted others to see her work, for the Vicksburg Daily Herald published her poem “The Heart’s Mecca,” on December 8, 1864:
The Heart’s Mecca
Away from the haunts of busy men, away from the idle crowd, away from the scenes where pleasure dwells is the spot where my heart hath bowed.
Away from all that tells of earth, and near by the gates of heaven, is the place to me, of priceless worth, is the shrine to my spirit given.
The sunshine’s chirp has a mellow tone, that tells of joys replete, and the twilight and the starlight come with a meaning soft and sweet.
Tis there that the farm we once so loved, the first-born slumbering lies, ’till the angels trump at the end of time shall summon it to the skies.
He was as bright, as fair a child, as e’er to mortals given, but the angels loved our gentle boy, and bore him back to heaven.
Then walk with a calm and quiet tread, bid worldly thoughts depart, as ye linger near his narrow bed, the Mecca of my heart.
After the war Ellen continued writing poetry, and many of her verses were published in the Vicksburg and Jackson newspapers. In 1875 she compiled many of her verses into a book of poetry entitled Songs from the South. Many themes are evident in this book: Ellen’s love of home and family, her strong Christian faith, and her bright outlook on life. She dedicated the book “To the good and the true, wherever they may be found, irrespective of age, sex, or nationality; and to that spirit of song, which has, from my early childhood, whispered its sweet messages of peace and joy to my heart, these pages are dedicated, by the writer.”
One of the poems in Songs from the South was “In Memory of Captain G. B. H.,” written by Ellen in honor of her brother-in-law George B. Hebron:
A tear and a song to the young and brave, who fell on glory’s plain, a heart and a harp with cypress wreathed, to sound the sad refrain.
For one who noble, gifted, true, amid a patriot band, the sword of freedom lightly drew to save his native land.
Hear Freemen! Hear the vow he made, ere yet his country’s call, had summoned half her gallant sons from out her peaceful halls.
I’ll go! though an aged father look with sorrow on his son, though brothers sigh, and sisters weep, our freedom must be won.
And while there’s life within this heart, or war within this land, mine is a glad, a willing part in freedom’s sacred band!
He went. ‘Twas his to cheer the sick, afar from friends and home, and his to lead his comrades when the battle-hour had come.
‘Twas his to meet the invading foe that ‘On to Richmond!’ came; and ‘Malvern Hill’ can testify his prowess and his fame.
But Sharpsburg! Ah! the eye grows dim! And sad the spirits’ lay, broken the sound and low it breathes at mention of that day.
He dies! And no kind parent stands beside his dying bed; no sister clasps his clammy hands, no brother’s tears are shed.
But he to whom he early looked for succor and for care, God of the good and fatherless, his steadfast friend, was there!
My brothers! Oh, they sweetly sleep on old Virginia’s breast, where war and war’s alarms no more shall break their quiet rest.
While to the Patriot Band on high another pair is given – For love and liberty they died – Sweet be their rest in Heaven!
While Ellen Hebron was very much a Southern girl, and a stalwart supporter of the Confederacy, she did show sympathy for the Federal soldiers who fought and died in the Vicksburg Campaign. In the December 28, 1877, edition of the Vicksburg Weekly Herald there was a poem by Hebron entitled “Our Federal Dead,” and she prefaced the verses with a brief statement: “While walking through the cemetery at Jackson, Miss, my attention was arrested by many rude, low headboards in a group; and upon inquiry I was told they were ‘soldiers graves.’ Running eagerly up the mound I began to read when my informant added ‘they are Yankee soldiers.’ Being pressed for time, and also considerably disappointed, I turned away; yet could but reflect, while slowly retracing my steps, how bitterly sad it must be to ‘sleep the last sleep’ in a land where one is scarcely welcome to a grave.”
Our Federal Dead
Ye came in the strength of martial might to a far-off goodly land, with costly armor burnished bright, ye were a valiant band! Your reveille so quick and glad awoke each glistening glade, while your sunset-drum more sweetly sad was Southland’s serenade.
Your warriors walked amid our homes In all the pomp and pride that ever with the victor comes, his loved ones by his side; while our poor starving heroes wept for country and for home, or wrapped in honor’s colors slept where sad defeats ne’er come.
Great battles raged, brave warriors waged their strength in deadly blows, while earth’s deep wounds somewhat assuaged grew pure ‘neath Winter’s snows – Spring came; and o’er each soldier’s grave, the Southron’s, Northman’s too, her fairest flowers began to wave beneath her skies so blue.
While ‘mid them all the songster’s plaint came nestling low and sad as though he feared ‘neath such restraint to echo notes so glad – Peace sounded o’er a prostrate land, and armies passed afar – But ye left the noblest of your band Beneath our evening star!
And shall we pass them coldly by while nestling at our feet? Shall we refuse a heart-felt sigh for lives so grand, so fleet? O God! Thou know’st all things; what parts man from his fellow-men; Butearth, and Heav’n and human hearts all plead for love again.
Ellen Hebron had a long and fruitful life: she raised three children to adulthood, one of whom became a state senator, she was a tireless worker for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and she was an honorary member of the Mississippi Press Association. In 1890 she published a second book of poems, Faith or Earthly Paradise.
Ellen Hebron died in the early 1900s, but her spirit lives on through the verses she so lovingly crafted.
Sometimes you run across a story that makes you laugh; or in this case two stories involving a haughty South Carolina chaplain, a stolen buffalo robe, and a naughty member of the 16th Mississippi Infantry with an above-average writing ability and great sense of humor.
Our tale begins with an article in the Richmond Enguirer (Richmond, VA), on June 10, 1863:
An Appeal to Conscience
We received a curious document, on yesterday, from the Rev. T. D. Gwin, Chaplain of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, dated Greenville, S.C., July 8, 1863. It makes an appeal to rather a doubtful sinner. We give the following extract:
‘To the Man who Stole my Buffalo Robe!’
Sir: The Holy God, our Judge, amid the thunderings of Sinai, gave this command: ‘Thou shalt not steal!’ On or about the first of April last, you stole my buffalo robe, with four or five blankets, a plush shawl, a pillow, and a pair of gray pants, from one of the hotels at Weldon, N.C.
On my arrival in camp near Franklin, Va, I found the ground covered with snow. For the want of my robe, I slept uncomfortably on the cold ground, caught a severe cold, and was, in consequence, sick and unable to do any work for more than a week. From that time to the present my health has been feeble and I have not been able to endure the hardships and privations of the camp life, as I did before, when I slept comfortably. I have been in the S.C. Hospital, at Petersburg, Va., suffering from a settled cold and bronchitis.
I am now, through the kindness of the surgeon and commanders of Jenkins’ Brigade, at home on sick furlough, endeavoring to regain my former health. You, by this act of theft, are the cause of my disability to discharge the sacred duties of my office.
Return the robe and contents to the hotel whence you stole them, and leave them in the care of the proprietor. The robe is marked on the flesh side thus: ‘Capt. T. D. Gwin, 1st S.C.V.’
Do this and steal no more, and you will have a better conscience, and oblige
T. D. Gwin
Chaplain 1st S.C.V.
Greenville, S.C. July 8, 1863
If the good Reverend Gwin was expecting his letter to cause a crisis of conscience in the thief of his buffalo robe, he was sorely mistaken. What it did was inspire the miscreant to compose his own letter in reply and send it to the Richmond paper. His writing was so good, in fact, that it was reprinted in newspapers near and far for years after the war, and this version I found in the Jamestown Journal (Jamestown, VA) from May 14, 1869:
A Good Joke on the Chaplain
During the war there was published in one of the Richmond papers a humorous letter from Rev. T. D. Gwin, Chaplain of the First South Carolina Regiment, calling upon ‘the man who stole his buffalo robe’ and sundry other baggage, to return the same, if he valued at all the blessings of a clear conscience and an improved prospect of future salvation. The response to the reverend gentleman will show that the appeal was not altogether unproductive;
Sixteenth Mississippi Regiment, Posey’s Brigade, Camp near Bunker Hill, Va, July 16, 1863 – My Dear Gwin: I was inexpressibly shocked to learn from your letter in the Enguirer of the 4th inst., that the temporary loss of your ‘buffalo robe’ blankets, pillow and shawl should have given you such inconvenience, and even suspend your arduous duties in the field for a week.
But supposing, from the mark, ‘Captain’ that it belonged to some poor officer of the line, and knowing that it was more baggage than he was entitled to carry, I relieved him of it from motives that will be appreciated by any officer of the line in the field.
On my arrival in camp I divided the blankets, among my mess, and in a sudden fit of generosity I retained the buffalo robe, shawl and pillow for my own use.
The other members now join me in returning thanks, and feel that to your warm and gushing heart these thanks will be the richest recompense.
We are all of us exceedingly anxious for you to change your field of labor to this army, where the duties of chaplains are much higher than they could possibly be any where else. Here they devote themselves to trading horses and collecting table delicacies with a zeal that eminently entitles them to the appellation of birds of prey.
I am now waiting patiently for your coat and boots, which I presume you will send me in accordance with the following instructions: ‘If any man takeaway thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.’ – Matt. chap. 5, verse 40.
For the regulation of the amount of baggage which a chaplain in the army should carry we refer you to the following: ‘Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purse. Nor scrip for your journey, neither shoes, nor yet staves; for the workman is worthy of his meat.’ – Matt. chap. 10, verses 9 and 10.
Anything you may have in excess of the above allowance will be most respectfully received by me.
I remain, my dear Gwinney, with sentiments of gratitude,
THE MAN WHO STOLE YOUR BUFFALO ROBE
Note: I looked up the service record of Reverend Gwin, and found that Thomas D. Gwin began his military career as captain of Company F, 1st South Carolina Infantry, on March 16, 1862. He served in that capacity until January 7, 1863, when he resigned to take the position of regimental chaplain for the 1st South Carolina. He served as the regiments chaplain until February 15, 1864, when he resigned from the service.