Finding The Very Punny Civil War Dispatches of Irving W. Carson

See more podcasts

Which stories become a part of history can be a luck-of-the-draw affair. Newspaper archives are full of stories of heroes whose tales captivated the nation once, but if no one rewrote those stories into a book later on, they were generally forgotten as generations passed. The Civil War papers are particularly replete with tales of soldiers who were national icons when they died, the namesakes of streets and towns throughout the country, but whom even the biggest Civil War buff would struggle to name today. The deaths came fast and furious in those days, and thousands of stories simply got lost in the avalanche. I have to imagine that by Autumn of 1862, the Battle of Shiloh, back in April, must have seemed like a million years ago.

But there was one name from Shiloh still being bandied about in Chicago at the time: Captain Irving W. Carson, a Chicagoan who’d become the chief scout for General Grant. In addition to his duties in the field, he was moonlighting as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. His exploits as a scout during his short career made him famous even during his lifetime, and his death made him the first American journalist to be killed in the war – or any war, as far as I can tell. And, though his friends tried to keep his story alive and lamented that he was being forgotten even in the 1870s, this blog posts is, I believe, the first time a photo of him has ever been published.

Carson was born in 1838 – most sources say in Connecticut, though a couple of sketches of his life written by friends said he was born in Scotland (based on his writings, my hunch is that he had an affinity for Scottish culture and told people he was born there because he thought it sounded more interesting than saying he was from Hartford). After coming to Chicago in 1853, he worked for a time on the railroad, first as a mechanic and then as a conductor, before becoming a law clerk. He’d just been admitted to the bar when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April, 1861.

The Carte de Vista of Carson – about the size and feel of a baseball card – donated by a friend of his to the Chicago Historical Society decades after his death. As far as I know, it’s never been published.

The carte de viste of Carson, which resembles an early baseball card. It is the only known image of him. Donated by one of his friends to the Chicago Historical Society.

He joined the army at once, enlisting first in Barker’s Chicago Dragoons, where he served alongside William Medill, brother of Tribune publisher Jospeh Medill, for a three month hitch. Upon returning to Chicago in late July, at which point the Dragoons broke up, he appears to have taken a job with the Tribune covering military activity in Cairo, IL, a hotbed of secession activity near the Missouri and Kentucky borders. There, he was quickly taken into General Grant’s staff and put to work as a scout.  

From then on, he did double duty, taking orders from Grant but largely doing his own thing; journalist Franc Wilkie recalled that Carson “wrote or fought according to the requirements of the situation.” In September, 1861,  barely a month into his career, a Missouri Democrat writer referred to him as a famous scout whose adventures could fill a book, and in November, the New York Herald wrote “Carson, the tall scout, is along (with us), and commands his usual company, of which he is exclusively general, staff, colonel, and rank and file.”

Other soldiers in units that interacted with him, like the 7th Illinois, Chicago’s Board of Trade Battery A, and the 6th Ohio, may not have even realized that he was a journalist; one soldier, T.R. Dawley, wrote that “He appeared and disappeared like a flash…. We have known him to come into the room, hastily sieze his saddle, suprs, and pistol, mount his horse, dash off in a direction no one ever thought of taking, and only a few hours after would be strolling about the St. Charles (Hotel, where he was stationed) like some awkward rustic just in from the Egyptian swamps.”

The map Carson drew after talking his way into enemy fortifications disguised as a farmer.

Carson made frequent trips behind enemy lines, often in disguise, either to get a look at enemy positions or to carry messages. In perhaps his most famous adventure, he disguised himself as a Kentucky farmer early one morning, rowed across the Ohio River to Kentucky, and stole a wagon, two mules and some corn, which he then quite deliberately let rebel General Polk confiscate. Polk, believing that the awkward man he’d encountered was just a local farmer, generously let him keep one of the mules, and even let him check out the rebel fortifications. Carson was able to draw up a full map of the the water battery near Columbus, KY, marking off all the guns, including their calibre and range, before rowing a skiff back across the river to Cairo with a the map (and a bonus mule).

In another event related by Dawley, after the Battle of Donelson one of the captured rebel soldiers was carrying a letter from his sister asking him to send her a “yankee boy” to keep as a pet. When he got the chance, Carson went to the address, told the young woman that her brother had captured him, and he was there to be her pet – and demanded to be fed. He then informed her of the truth – it was her brother who had been captured, not him – and escaped before the neighbors could catch him. 

Carson seems to have been a bit bloodthirsty. In one letter to a friend in Chicago, he wrote “I have got a natural hatred for traitors and never intend to let any chance clip when I can dispose of them in a decent way.” Dawley wrote that he’d shout out curses at traitors in his sleep, and even sleepwalk brandishing his sabre. One Tribune dispatch (likely written by him) wrote of him chasing a rebel “desperado” for a mile before shooting him; a couple of months later, a New York Times reporter who’d traveled with Carson in the Bohemian Brigade (as writers called themselves) expanded on the story, stating that Carson had chased the desperado down, shot him, then ran a sword through him and left him for dead – only to find out the man was alive and well a month later. Carson told that reporter that if he had another chance, he’d cut the man’s head off and carry it fifteen or twenty rods from his body.

However, he clearly loved the dangerous life he’d carved out for himself. An unidentified friend wrote to the Chicago Journal that “the perilous business of scouting became a passion with him, and his adventures and hair-breadth escapes would fill a volume.” But for all of his recklessness, the New York Times called him “one of the most daring and serviceable men in the service,” and Grant clearly trusted him.

In the buildup to what became the battle of Shiloh, though, Carson told one friend to hang on to his “trinkets” in case he was killed, and wrote to a woman in Chicago that he may not survive the battle. At the same time, though, in an anecdote published less than two weeks later in the Chicago Journal, he was speaking the day before the battle about how much he loved his dangerous work, and marveled that “he had been fired at so often and grazed by so many bullets that he believed he had a charmed life,” and was heard to remark “The ball has not been cast, and never will be, that can kill me.”

Stories of soldiers saying things like this just before they die are common, and that was the case with Carson. Given his affinity for dangerous missions, it would be logical to guess that he died on some reckless, Poe Dameron-like crusade, but war doesn’t always play along with the rules of drama.

On the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, Grant was having trouble holding his position, and sent Carson to find out whether General Buell’s troops could arrive soon enough to save the day. Just as he delivered the important news that help was coming, and that Grant should keep fighting, a random cannonball took his head off, killing him instantly and splattering the general with his blood. Even in death, he inspired legends: there were conflicting stories told about the exact extent of his injuries – most reports said his head was taken clean off, a later account side it was only one side of the top of it, leaving his chin. One account in the Appleton Crescent, written only days later, said “The case of of the celebrated scout, Carson, was horrifying. His face and the entire lower portion of his head were entirely gone, his brains dabbling into the little pool of blood which had gathered in the cavity below.”  One suspects that he’d enjoy the fact that people swapped gruesome stories about him; one soldier remembered that his death was talked of for weeks by Shiloh veterans.

A gruesome drawing of Carson’s death in an 1865 Grant bio.

Gruesome sketch from an 1865 bio of Grant

For a time I was skeptical that he was really a journalist, as none of the Tribune accounts of his death and funeral mentioned it. Most of the information we have about him being a reporter came from Franc Wilkie’s 1888 book Pen and Powder, which briefly named him as a Tribune correspondent. But, at length, I found a few other reports from other journalists stationed around him in 1861 and 1862 that referred to him as being among the group of “Bohemians,” and, as later accounts from his friends state that Grant took him into his staff well after he came to Cairo, it’s a good explanation for what he was doing there in the first place.

So, while I’m satisfied that he did work as a newspaper man, there remains the question of which articles in the Tribune are his – individual bylines were rare in those days. Only one writer seems to have tried to figure it out – Myron Smith, who cited several Carson articles in his book Timberclads in the War. However, I think Smith just assumed all of the dispatches that came from the right location and weren’t signed B (Albert Bodman) or GPU (George P Upton) were Carson’s. One dispatch is signed with a C, but most of the dispatches are unsigned.  

It would be wonderful, though, to bring his work back to light, and there are two that seem most obviously to be his own – the one signed “C,” and one written aboard the USS Conestoga, published on a day (Feb 25, 1862) when the Tribune also published dispatches that were credited to Bodman and Upton.  And from the articles that I was able to identify as his (more or less), I’m pleased to say that he was really an excellent writer.  From the Conestoga dispatch, in particular, we can see that Carson really, really liked puns. This is a good clue to identify his others; many of the unsigned dispatches go to great pains to work in a pun.

Most of the dispatches are fairly mundane, just lists of what was going on in the area, what the soldiers were talking about, which brigades had arrived, what the weather was like, and other such mundanities, though sometimes he’d work in something fun – often there are references to Carson’s exploits in dispatches he probably wrote himself. One early report ends with the line “Dry time in Cairo – no whisky, no excitement.” 

Here, then, are some excerpts from Tribune dispatches that are at least strongly likely to be the work of Irving W. Carson. Eventually I’ll expand and move most of these over to a dedicated page on Cemetery Mixtape

From the Nov 11, 1861 account of the Battle of Belmont, signed “C:”

“Many shots fell near us, some short, and others beyond, and not a few fearfully near us. Shells were seen to burst at great heights; others, after drinking the water. Their large shot, eighteen inches long and terminating in cones, were projected from rifled cannon. These made horrible music as they passed near us…They fought desperately, but in an incredibly short time, the work was done. The enemy had surrendered, or abandoned their artillery, and were in full flight…Their flag pole was cut down, their colors taken possession of, and their encampment enveloped in flames.”

“Our columbiads were too much for them. Several times at the flash of one of them, I observed a dozen men and horses turn somersaults together…Never did fellows fight, or try to fight, more bravely. They seemed to actually court death at the very muzzles of our heavy guns, and vast numbers of them sought it not in vain.”

Feb 20, 1862, unsigned account marked “From our own Reporter.” Just after the union took Fort Donelson.

“There was one scene that will remain in my memory forever – that of Sunday morning when the Stars and Stripes were flung to the breeze above the ramparts of the fort. I was in a position where I could see the occupation of the surrendered fortress and the works beyond. Stand with me for fifteen minutes on the deck of the New Uncle Sam, the headquarters of General Grant. It is just nine o’clock. The day is mild and a gentle breeze is blowing from the south. The sun is shining through a cloudless sky. Far away, beyond the sound of the iron lipped cannon, one ship and shore, church bells are calling worshippers to the house of God; but here, fifty thousand men are standing in breathless expectation of an event which, in its results, is to have an abiding influence upon nations and peoples, for all coming time. They stand at one of the turning points of time…. It is a glorious moment – a Sabbath morning which will live in history. You may be sure that although I believe in keeping Sunday, I kept it on this occasion with a hurrah.”

“I was one of the first to jump on shore, and was not long in mingling with the crowd of rebels. I cannot give you a daguerrotype of the scene. Running up the bank, I came upon a squad of soldiers by a smoldering fire. They were dressed in grey pants, of negro cloth, with a strip of black cotton braid down the legs. It was not a prepossessing outfit. They showed that they had had a hard time. Some had white cotton blankets, with the smallest possible mixture of wool – white once, but painted a Spanish brown by frequent contact with the mud. There were old bed quilts, which their grandmothers had patched years ago – new bed quilts, which in mistaken patriotism had been given to the sinking cause…. I could but pity them.”

“The Tennesseans were more cheerful than the Mississippians. I conversed with them. One said he was glad it was over. He didn’t care what became of him, only he was glad he had not got to fight any more. A Mississippian wanted to know if Old Abe was an abolitionist.”

“Continuing my ramble, I came upon a rebel Kentucky regiment, which was burying its dead. There were six corpses lying in a pile, thrown together as you wold toss sticks of wood. How strange it is that man becomes indifferent to the death scenes of the battle field. The regiment paid no heed to the dead. The men who were digging the shallow graves were smoking pipes and laughing, to all appearances unconcerned as if digging post holes.”

“I counted ten dead bodies of those of our own troops which fell before the fire in front of the pit. Behind the pits were those Confederates, lying some face downwards, as if kissing their mother earth, to whose kindly embrace they had returned after life’s fitful fever* –  others with their faces towards heaven, as if looking up to the Great Father of us all. Some were lying upon their sides as if in slumber. There was one with a quiet smile upon his face – a middle aged man… There was the same unconcern among the living. Men were eating their dinners with as much unconcern as they would in their own homes, with nothing around to remind them of the solemn and untried realities beyond this life of ours. I felt the same influence, and stepped upon the pools of blood, and trod the crimson gore almost as unconcerned. Who can explain the anomaly which makes us kind, considerate and tender, moved at the sight of suffering, in times of peace, while in war we are devils.”

   * – this is a line from Macbeth, the exact passage Lincoln himself was reportedly moved by when reading outloud from the play only days before his assassination. 

Feb 25, 1862 – we can be fairly certain this is Carson, because the other two correspondents, Upton and Bodman, signed initials to dispatches published the same day. It finds him in a jovial, particularly pun-happy mood, with some indications that perhaps other writers teased him a bit about his long, literary column excerpted above, published the day this one was written. It also includes another reference to a play that takes place in Scotland, though he’s at pains to explain the quote here – perhaps the others ribbed him for not marking the Macbeth line with quotation marks!  Marked “from our own correspondent” and dated Feb 20th

“I am now lying at Clarksville. Honest confession for a newspaper correspondent. I will change it. The Conestoga is now lying here and I am writing on her gun deck by the lantern burning dimly.

First a morceau from Pillow, Gideon J Pillow, late (confederate) Generalissimo at Donelson, who took precious good pains not to be too late to get away. He is a little particular about the location of his ditches, an old trick of his, and he was careful to interpose the ditch called the Cumberland between himself and Gen Grant. Gideon, on assuming command at Fort Donelson, gave under his hand and seal the following, which I copy from the original document. The handwriting is bad. The lantern a little nearer, dear sergeant:

(Here he transcribe’s Pillow’s General Order No. 1, dated Feb 9, making himself commander of the fort and proclaiming the battle cry to be “Liberty or death.”)

Now this is well done of Gideon, who from this seems to be a very good Pillow for a military head. But the proof came later, and the valiant general in choosing between ‘liberty or death’ took excellent care that it should be the former, and of the largest pattern. 

We left Ft. Donelson on the morning of Wed the 19th, following some hours after the US gunboat Cairo. Our trip was marked with little to interest. The Conestoga is of the racer breed of boats and walked the water like a thing of life, an entirely original term I beg you to note. When Gen Foot has despatch in his eye he takes the Conestoga. I have observed it is customary to praise the boat you ride on, but this is not merited, not a puff, the Conestoga not being now in the carrying trade (though by the way I take that back, she did the other day help to carry Fort Henry).

Just above Donelson we passed the still smoking ruins of the Cumberland Iron Works which do not now cumber the land with appliances to aid the rebels… The blackness of ashes marks where they stood, as the wizard remarked to Mr. Lochiel*. Will the printer stand by, and hold hard with quotation marks? And so on to Clarksville, thirty miles from Fort Donelson.

* – (note: a reference to a short Scottish poem/play, The Wizard’s Warning, by Thomas Campbell)

At 3pm the Conestoga rounded a bend in the river called Linwood Landing, and before us loomed Fort Severe. It was severely situated for us… for the muzzles of its few cannon looked almost down our chimneys from a height two hundred feet above our heads. We counted two guns and a white flag, and that settled it. There was nothing to fear from Fort Severe.

Clarksville is now in the Union and her scared residents may come home again. They are fond of the white flag. It will be better that they float the red, white and blue. Our land forces are in possession and the way is open to Nashville. We shall hear from there soon that the Stars and Stripes are floating there, and there are many in Nashville who will welcome the day. God speed it. 

From March 3, 1862, unsigned letter dated 2/28 and marked “From our Own correspondent”

“I have it from good authority that numerous bottles with Northern newspapers enclosed have been thrown into the river for the edification of Reverend General Polk and his rebellious flock, who go bottle fishing with much regularity every morning. If the contents are half as effective as those other bottles, much in vogue Columbus-ward, the rebels will soon be in a tight place.”

From March 13, “From our own correspondent”

“All last night it rained heavy guns, accompanied by a violent gale of wind. The morning dawned dimly through thick murky clouds of vapor, as if there had been a terrible battle of the elements and the smoke of the conflict yet hanging over the turbid, swift-flowing rivers and the bottomless marshes and lowlands. By noon, however, the sun had shot its arrows through the mists and dispelled them, and, as I write, the sky is cerulean, the atmosphere crystelline, and the soft, balmy air proclaims that spring comes slowly up this way.”

Carson’s grave at Rosehill

 These are just a few excerpts from the many dispatches in the Tribune that might be Carson’s work – again, it’s hard to be sure. And is hard to believe that some of these could be the work of a rookie writer in his early 20s, but Franc Wilkie later remarked that, if he’d only lived, Carson would have gone on to become a major general, or the editor of a great metropolitan newspaper.

When later memoirs and reports, particularly about Shiloh, left Carson out, or barely mentioned him, his friends objected. Two wrote to the Tribune in the 1870s that Carson should be considered one of the heroes of Shiloh. Others were annoyed that people (mostly political rivals) were claiming that Grant wasn’t really under fire or in any personal danger at Shiloh, and pointed out Carson’s death, only a few feet away from the general, as evidence to the contrary.  In 1881, lamenting that history was already forgetting Captain Carson, Ebenezer Hannaford wrote “ Byron’s famous satire on military glory defined it as being killed in battle and having one’s name misspelled in the official gazette. But what shall we say of this case, where a brave man met the most tragic of deaths, and his name – nay, even his fate – was not so much as hinted? “

But in the months after his death, before it became just one of so many other lost stories, Carson briefly remained famous – his name WAS in the papers, and spelled correctly. His funeral and burial were covered by all of the major Chicago papers, and he was spoken of as one of Chicago’s two great heroes, along with Ellsworth (who is now equally unjustly obscure, though in the days after his death he was among the most famous in the country).

But that’s simply life in war – great lives are snuffed out in an instant, and the stories get lost just like so much mud and mire. 

Though it seems to have been common in 1861-2 to say that stories of Carson’s adventures would fill a whole book,  not enough of the stories were ever written down. This article is, I believe, the first time a photograph of him has been published. It was taken from a carte de viste that was donated by one of his friends to the Chicago Historical Society in the early 20th century. The image is tiny, but the only one known.  Perhaps more letters and diary excerpts dealing with his exploits will one day come to life; I’ve certainly found quite a few tidbits about him published by reporters during his lifetime. Being one of the “Band of Bohemians,” he of course had access to lots of ears to tell his stories to!

Carson appears to have lived in what is now the loop for the whole of his time in Chicago, including one apartment that was right where the Harold Washington library is now. He is buried at Rosehill Cemetery, where I’ve started featuring his grave on tours. He was only twenty-three years old. 

Kathryn Evans: Witness to History at Rosehill Cemetery

On a recent walk through Rosehill Cemetery, looking for new stories to tell on tours, I came upon the gravestone of Albert H. Dainty, whose epitaph read “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee.” This was a line from The Song of Solomon in the Bible. Translations vary, but the full line is something like “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn to me, my beloved, and be like a wild elk among the rugged hills.” Go, Albert H. Dainty, go!

Some research showed that this epitaph would have certainly been chosen by his second wife; his first, Laura, left him to go on the stage, ignoring his pleas to come home for a decade before he finally obtained a divorce. She was a fairly well-known elocutionist in her day, and turned out to have connections to any number of other people in Rosehill (though she herself is in Forest Home). Later in life, she was very active in the Hull House theater, where she directed a performance of a play called Hazel Kirk in 1917 as benefit to raise money to get a retired actress named Kathryn Evans into the Episcopalian Home.

Kathryn M. Evans

I was delighted to find the connection to Evans, whose nondescript gravestone on the north side of the cemetery is one of Rosehill’s many little-known treasures.

Evans was an actress, and a fairly popular one in her day, though what earned her a place in history was her role as Mrs. Sharpe, a housekeeper, who had the first line in a comedy she later said “Wouldn’t be considered very funny today.” That comedy was Our American Cousin, and Ms. Evans appeared in it at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was assassinated there in 1865.

The details in the story she told of that night – over and over for the rest of her life – seem to change a bit in the telling, but she gave a particularly vivid description to a Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean reporter in 1914. “I was in the green room,’ she recalled, “chatting with Maggie Gourlay, the ‘Skillet’ of the play, and waiting for my cue, when I heard the shot ring out…. I knew when I heard the shot that it couldn’t be a part of the play…. A moment before young Booth had leaped to the stage. I heard someone shout ‘Stop that man!'”… I looked up and saw Lincoln unconscious, his head drooping on his breast, his eyes closed, but with a smile still on his face.

“After the tragedy I ran upstairs to the dressing-room. The stage was filled with secret service men, who seemed to have gone crazy. They had arrested ‘Peanut Johnnie’ (the peanut vendor who held Booth’s horse) as an accomplice – poor ‘Peanut,’ who did nothing more than hold Booth’s horse. They were looking for Ned Spangler, our stage carpenter, who had innocently held the door open for the assassin. My husband was also under suspicion, as he had had a drink with Booth in George Harry’s cafe next door before the play began.”

Evans went to a dressing room, where she wiped the makeup off her face, certain that any second a detective would knock on the door to arrest her, too. Eventually the property manager assured her that she was safe, and she walked into the empty theatre, which wouldn’t see another audience in her lifetime. Her husband was arrested, but released. The property manager was held in the federal jail in the capitol building for a time, and his frantic wife lived with Evans for a bit. In the heady hours after the assassination and Booth’s seemingly easy escape, everyone in the theater was under suspicion.

She had worked with Booth a little bit before, and thought him the perfect gentleman. She had even seen him that day, and said that he betrayed no nervousness regarding what he was about to do. “My last glimpse of him,” she said, “was as he stood with his arms outstretched at the entrance to the theater, facing the stage. We all liked him.”

“It was an unhappy season for us,” she recalled. “The theater was closed, and we, who had been favorites a week before, were out of work. We were all more or less under suspicion because Booth was an actor… my husband died shortly after. It was a sad year for me.”

Years later, visiting Washington for the first time since 1865, she visited the federal prison and was appalled to see a guard prodding an elderly prisoner with a bayonet. She loudly protested, until the guard said the prisoner, was “Still a rebel at heart; he told me he was glad the blankety-blank old rail splitter had been killed. “Give him an extra prod for me, then,” Evans said.

Evans remained an actress for years, eventually retiring in Chicago. In 1920, a play about Lincoln was performed at the Blackstone Theatre (now the Merle Norman), and Evans viewed the play from a box, where she sat alongside Sgt. A.W. Boggs, who’d been in the audience at Ford’s Theatre that night, and W.J. Ferguson, who’d been in the cast with her that night. They hadn’t seen each other since, though Ferguson was still a working actor; he was currently appearing in the The Little Whopper at the Studebaker, and had recently played Lincoln in a silent film.


I’m indebted to Dave Taylor and Kate Ramirez, Booth family scholars who told me about Evans; we located her grave at Rosehill over the summer when they came through town on their “Boothie Road Trip.” Check out his site!

“Rigged!” The Chicago Times and the Election of 1864

The Democratic National Convention of 1864 was by most accounts a disaster. Meeting in Chicago to nominate General McClellan to oppose Lincoln,  the party struggled with an unhealed rift between delegats who wanted to crush the Confederacy in one big blow and those who wanted to quit fighting and just let the South go. The Tribune’s coverage made the convention look like a regular amateur hour.

But one man was more impressed: Wilbur F. Storey, arch-conservative editor of the Lincoln-hating Chicago Times. A year before, when he described Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg as “silly, flat and dishwatery utterances,” he was being relatively subdued in his criticism. Months before, he had said that “history does not acquaint us with so deplorable a failure as this administration,” and held up the coming Emancipation Proclamation as proof of what he’d said all along: that Lincoln was coming to take people’s slaves. This was no war to preserve the union, he said, but a contest to free  “the debased and irredeemably barbarous negro.” (1) The proclamation itself, he said “Will be known in all history as the most wicked, atrocious and revolting deed recorded in the annals of civilization.”(2) (That the war was something to do with states’ rights would not become a conservative talking point for decades).

Even this was not Storey at his worst. Though far more loquacious than most modern cable news loudmouths, some of his racial ramblings would fit in fine among alt-right commenters on youtube. In 1862 he complained that rather than caring about the rights of white men, congress had “n—r on the brain, n—r in the bowels, n—r in the eyes, n—r, n—r everywhere….all powers have found their superior in the great n—r power that moves the huge, unwieldy, reeking and stewing mess of rottenness which makes up this administration and its party.” (3) Though it’s common now for detractors to claim that Lincoln didn’t do enough for the slaves, or that he was really just as big of a racist as any slave-holder, Storey’s rants (and his paper’s popularity) can be useful in showing just what Lincoln was up against.

Naturally, Storey supported McClellan in 1864, and covered the Democrat Convention as though it was the Second Coming (it’s useful to note that the parties of 1864 were very different; Storey referred to his party as both “The democrats” and “conservatives,” while referring to republicans as “the abolitionist party.”)

Wilbur F. Storey.

Wilbur F. Storey.

Its in his election coverage that Storey’s rants and language seem most strikingly modern in 2016. Months before the convention, he’d suggested that Lincoln was going to rig the election and refuse to allow conservatives to vote. In an August 31, 1864 editorial, “Plots of Old Abe,” he doubled down on the claim. “The machinery for carrying out the… plot is in readiness,” he wrote. “It will certainly be applied unless, in the interim, the people of Illinois assume such an attitude as will convince the tyrant that there is one step that he cannot with safety take. Let it be understood that… any attempt on the part of the despot to do otherwise (than conduct a fair election) will surely lead to bloodshed, and, perhaps, even at the last moment, the attempt to coerce Illinois may be abandoned.” (5)

Throughout the autumn, as the fall of Atlanta made Lincoln’s re-election seem assured to most observers, Storey continued to claim that McClellan’s victory was certain, seizing on any rumor of fraud in Lincoln’s favor while angrily brushing off any rumors of fraud going the other way. He saw “evidence” of the conspiracy everywhere, from reports that a local judge was seen voting in Indiana (he had his residence there) to seeing people who looked like confederates coming to town and attempting to hold a meeting with Perkins Bass, a man pinpointed by Storey as one of the major players in Lincoln’s plot. His front pages reprinted  speeches from far-flung corners about the reasons that even if Lincoln won, his inauguration should be resisted, perhaps by force.

There was, in fact, a plot to disrupt the election in Chicago, but not in the way Storey imagined. Later known as the Northwest Conspiracy,  Confederate operatives and supporters were sneaking into the city throughout October, plotting to liberate the southern prisoners of war held in Camp Douglas, arm them, and take over the city the night before the election. Though it’s highly unlikely that the starving, sickly prisoners could have been victorious, later reminisces of those involved make it clear that the conspiracy was at least real plot. Word of it leaked to General B.J. Sweet, who ordered in reinforcements and arrested several of the plotters before it could be brought into action.chicago_times_election_rigged

Though most Chicago papers spoke breathlessly of how narrowly the city had escaped destruction, Storey reacted just the way a modern spin doctor would: claiming that the conspiracy was a false flag. “Every day accumulates evidence of a gigantic and widespread conspiracy on the part of the administration to… control the presidential election at all hazards,” he railed. “If they abolitionists did not actually bring these men here, they conceived the idea of permitting them to come, and of charging their coming upon the democratic party! The alarm and terror, then, into which the city has been thrown is chargeable directly upon the republican party… the value of such revelations today every voter will understand. They will be part and parcel of the grand abolitionist plot to carry the election by force and fraud.” (6) He warned that “vigilance committees” should be set up at the ballots in every ward – “especially republican wards.”

Lincoln, though, won the election with 55% of the popular vote, and a landslide in the electoral college. Storey acknowledged the defeat, but didn’t entirely accept it, and continued to insist that it must have been rigged. “Messrs abolitionists,” he wrote, “you have won the election. We shall not now inquire by what agencies. A few days will reveal them, and disclose also the appropriate action to be taken by your opponents in relation thereto.” (7)

He didn’t say “I’ll keep you in suspense,” but he came awfully close.

1864-11-05_chi_times_abolition_election_plots_pdfSeven years later, Storey was one of the prime pushers of the tale that Mrs. O’Leary, whom he called an “Irish hag,” had started the Great Chicago Fire (he wasn’t wild about the Irish, either). But though his impact on Chicago history, and his influence on Victorian politics, were vast, he’s mostly forgotten today. Though his large headstone is near the entrance, no one in the Rosehill cemetery office knew who he was when I first asked about him while putting together my tour route there.

Perhaps it would be better if I just let his rambles and raves stay in the trash bin of history, locked up in microfilm reels held in just a few libraries. But I just can’t resist giving people the chance to stomp on the old jerk’s grave.

A chapter on Storey’s strange marble mansion, his descent into (further) madness, and the battle over his bizarre will is featured in the new Mysterious Chicago book.


Chicago Times articles cited:

(1) “Impending Dissolution” Dec 31, 1862
(2) “Deed is Done,” Jan 3, 1863
(3) “The Negrophobia Epidemic in Congress” May 14, 1862
(4) “The Democratic National Convention” Sept 1, 1864
(5) “Plots of Old Abe” Aug 31, 1864
(6) “An Impending Fraud” Nov 7, 1864
(7) “Their Victory” Nov 10, 1864

My New Favorite Vintage Ad

So, last month I was finishing up a book on Abraham Lincoln ghostlore, and found myself in the old familiar microfilm room at the Harold Washington library, digging through old issues of the Chicago Times, the Copperhead anti-Lincoln paper whose editor, Wilbur F. Storey, would have made a great cable news loudmouth.  While combing through the April, 1865 issues from the time when Richmond was taken back from the rebels, I found this fantastic ad for a clothing store. It’s like something you’d see on The Simpsons.

Also of note above the ad is a bit of song lyrics – the Times liked to publish song lyrics, some of which were just horrific – after General Burnside briefly shut the paper down and Lincoln himself canceled the order, Storey put out a triumphant song about “white rights.” 
In this one, up above the ad is a song called “Now That Richmond Has Fallen.” Here, Storey (of whoever was working for him) tries to see the upside: now that the war is about to end, the USA and CSA armies can be combined into one big super-army. He had always insisted that the war was unwinnable, was a big hawk for slavery, and said that the Emancipation proclamation would go down in history as one of the vilest of all acts. But in early April of 1865, he was calming down, saying nice things about Lincoln now and then, and glad that the war was over. The last verse goes:
Here’s peace to the country, and union at last
more firmly entrenched by the fire of the past
Here’s to the continent, God’s gift to the free!
here’s defiance to tyrants across the blue sea!
They shall quake at the names of Grant, Sherman and Lee!
now that Richmond has fallen!

Lincoln’s Phantom Funeral Train described in 1872

I’m finishing up the draft of my new book on Lincoln ghostlore for Llewellyn Worldwide – it’s been fun tracing all the stories back to their origins! Here’s one find that I should really wait on, but I got so excited by it that I just had to post it. The Lincoln Funeral Train is sometimes said to haunt Chicago (it pulled in around where Michigan and Roosevelt intersect today on May Day, 1865), so it’s relevant to this blog as well as the book.

Many books that mention the “phantom train” have quoted from an Albany newspaper that described the ghost train. Lloyd Lewis quoted about 200 words of it in his seminal Myths After Lincoln, and other sources since have been paraphrasing Lewis’s excerpt. None of them ever seemed to give the actual title or date of the article, so it took a little bit of searching, but I eventually did track it down. It turns out that the story was published in the Albany Daily Evening Times on March 23rd, 1872. 1872! Not quite seven years after the actual train had rolled through. This makes it a very early source for Lincoln lore, most of which wouldn’t start to be published for a couple more decades.

Anyway, the article was entitled “Waiting for the Train,” and is a story in which a reporter talks to night watchmen who work on the railroads. The relevant section is worth reprinting in full here – the books that mention it only contain about half of it, and the whole thing is really quite incredible:

There is a supernatural side to this kind of labor, which is as wild as its excitement to the superstitious is intense. Said the leader, “I believe in spirits and ghosts. I know such things exist, and if you will come up in April I will convince you.” 

He then told of the phantom train that every year comes up the road, with the body of Abraham Lincoln. Regularly in the month of April about midnight, the air on the track becomes very keen and cutting. On either side it is warm and still; every watchman when he feels this air steps off the track and sits down to watch. 

Soon after, the pilot engine with long black streams, and a band with black instruments playing dirges, and grinning skeletons sitting all about, will pass up noiselessly, and the very air grows black. If it is moonlight, clouds always come over the moon, and the music seems to linger as if frozen with horror. 

A few moments after the phantom train glides by. Flags and streamers hang about. The track ahead seems covered with a black carpet, and the wheels are draped with the same. The coffin of the murdered Lincoln is seen lying on the center of a car, and all about it, in the air, and on the train behind are vast numbers of blue coated men, some with coffins on their backs, others leaning upon them. It seems that all the vast armies of men who died during the war are escorting the phantom train of the President. 

The wind, if blowing, dies away at once, and over all the air a solemn hush, almost stifling, prevails. If a train were passing, its noise would be drowned in this silence, and the phantom train would rise over it. 

Clocks and watches always stop, and when looked at are found to be from five to eight minutes behind. Everywhere on the road about the 20th of April the time of watches and trains is found suddenly behind. This, said the leading watchman, was from the passage of the phantom train. 

One informant had commenced with another story of the “death engine” which preceded every train to which an accident would happen, when the stationman called out “train coming!” and we reluctantly came away from this garrulous watchman, whose life-work, both physical and spiritual, seemed a perpetual romance.

Just about every “Lincoln Ghost Train” story descends from this article. It’s hard to take it completely seriously (surely they don’t expect us to believe that ALL of the soldiers who died were carrying coffins on the train, but that it could go by in five minutes, right?) Still, the  prose here is just terrific – it would do any horror writer proud.  Look for the Lincoln ghostlore book next year!

Are Bodies Buried Beneath Comiskey Park?

An 1886 map of the area

It’s commonly said around the south side that Comiskey Park (either the old one or the new one, depending on who you ask) was built over an old cemetery, and that the bodies are still there. Sometimes it’s specifically specified that it’s the bodies of Civil War soldiers.

I’ve been on the trail of this one for a while, and coming up blank. Maps of the area from a decade or two before first Comiskey was built show a blank space where the old park was, and a bunch of smaller buildings where the new one is (plus some more blank space – see clip from the map on the right). Lakeside Directories from the 1870s and 1880s that list all of the cemeteries in town don’t say anything about a cemetery anywhere near there.

But such directories aren’t necessarily comprehensive lists of burial grounds; they leave out some major ones (such as the Potter’s Field at Dunning) and all of the smaller family plots. There are literally dozens of “lost” cemeteries in the city, so it’s not impossible that some bodies were in that spot at one point.

However, the story almost certainly grew out of the park’s proximity to the site of Camp Douglas, the Civil War prison camp, which was a straight shot down 35th street (then known as Douglas Street, in fact). Roughly 6000 confederate prisoners of war died there, and it’s actually close enough that people surely used the former grounds as parking for Sox games at various times.

How many bodies were buried on the prison grounds, though, is sort of unknown – most of the bodies were turned over to CH Jordan to be buried at City Cemetery (about where the baseball fields in Lincoln Park are now), though it was widely believed that in many cases, the staff at CH Jordan often just pocketed the $4.75 they got per burial and either sold the body to a medical school (saving the grave robbers some digging) or simply dumped them in the Lake.  (CH Jordan is a topic for a whole other post).  There was a small cemetery someplace on or near the prison grounds that was used to bury prisoners who died of cholera. How many of those bodies were eventually moved is probably anyone’s guess.

So, as near as I can tell, there are no bodies underneath Comiskey, or the new US Cellular Field, but I’d love it if anyone can chime in with more data here!

“The Battle Cry of Freedom” Premieres in Chicago, 7/27/1862

In my process of researching a book on Abe Lincoln ghostlore, I’ve dug up lots of fun Civil War stuff. While watching the drama unfolding in Texas on June 25-6, which left me just a few hours of sleep before watching the Supreme Court’s gay marriage rulings, I kept getting “The Battle Cry of Freedom” stuck in my head.

The old courthouse

Something told me that was a Chicago song, and a brief look confirmed that the author, George F Root, was working for his brother’s firm, Root and Cody, in Chicago when he wrote it. Root and Cody’s office was in the Larmon Block, 95 N Clark, on the NE corner of Clark and Washington, facing the court house square. They wrote a LOT of great, rousing war songs (many of which contain language that fly  in the face of the notion that no one thought of it as a war about slavery in the 1860s – it’s hard to read anything from the 1860s without it seeming blindingly obvious that it was well understood as a slavery war on both sides, even before ending slavery was a formal goal on the Union side).

“Battle Cry of Freedom” was one of the most popular recruiting songs of the war:

We’ll rally round the flag, boys, rally once again
shouting the battle cry of freedom
we’ll rally from the hill side, we’ll gather from the plain
shouting the battle cry of freedom

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitors and up with the star
while we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again
shouting the battle cry of freedom!.
The song was both written and premiered in Chicago on July 27, 1862. President Lincoln had just issued a new call for recruits, and a massive rally was held at courthouse square (just east of where City Hall stands now). Businesses were closed all over the city, and the content of the speeches sure seems rousing. “The suicide of slavery is being enacted before our eyes!” roared Dr. I.N. Arnold. “Let the cursed, barbarous, traitor-breeding institution die. The slave holder has himself given to it the mortal wound; let no timid Northern dough face attempt to staunch the blood. The end of slavery will prove the regeneration of the nation…. let us quarter on the enemy, confiscate the property and free the slaves of rebels.” 
Following Arnold’s speech, Root and Cady provided a chorus of their new tune, “The Battle Cry of Freedom”), led by tenor J.G. Lumbard, and a band to furnish accompaniment. It was a big enough hit that the Tribune published the lyrics in full and noted “the music of this stirring song was capitally rendered, and was received with the utmost enthusiasm and applause.”

Not long after, flush with cash from the sheet music to the song selling hundreds of thousands of copies, Root and Cady offered to buy the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation for $2100.00. It’s mentioned as being a crowd-pleaser in accounts of several similar Chicago rallies. 

Of course, like absolutely ANYTHING to do with the Civil War, there’s some question as to whether this is exactly right; some doubt that this was really the premiere of the song. In 1888, The Record, a magazine printed some reminisces of ne Richard Wentworth Browne, who quoted a confederate soldier (sometimes said to be a major, though he’s never named in the article), saying “I shall never forget the first time I heard ‘Rally ‘Rond the Flag.’ It was a nasty night during the Seven Days Fight (in Richmond, VA, 1862), and, if I remember rightly, it was raining. I was on picket, when, just before ‘Taps,’ some fellow on the other side struck up that song, and others joined in the chorus, until it seemed to me the whole Yankee army was singing.  Tom B—, who was with me, sung out ‘Good heavens, Cap. What are those fellows made of, anyway? Here we’ve licked ’em six days running, and now, on the eve of the sevenh, they  are singing ‘Rally Round the Flag.’ I am not naturally superstitious, but I tell you that song sound to me like the ‘knell of doom,’ and my heart went down into my boots, and though I’ve tried to do my duty, it has been an up-hil fight with me ever since.” If the date was right, this would have been around June 30 or July 1 of 1862, a few weeks before the Chicago rally.

As a historian, given the vague sources, I’m not convinced by the account of the song being sung at the Seven Days Battle – it’s an account from an unnamed source a quarter of a century later, with no witness to corraborate (though, from the sound of it, there should have been several), and that keeps me thinking that the sung first cut through the air in Chicago, near the present site of city hall, and in front of the very building where Lincoln would lie in state a few years later as the war wound to a close.

Root wrote many other songs – “Tramp Tramp Tramp” is mostly forgotten now, but hugely successful during the war. Same with “Just Before The Battle Mother,” which shows up on a lot of “Songs of the Civil War” compilations (though it’s probably better known by now as the melody to Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby”). Around the time of Lincoln’s funeral, the Trib predicted that a new Root song, “Starved in Prison,” would become just as popular as “Battle Cry of Freedom.” The chorus went:

Yes! They starved in pens and prisons
helpless, friendless and alone
and their woe can ne’er be spoken
nor their agony be known.

Maybe it’s just that it didn’t have three years of wartime to pick up speed, but this number (which must have been all KINDS of rousing) never quite caught on.

Trivia: Another worker at the firm (who one day knocked on the door with a song he’d written) was Henry Clay Work, who wrote “Marching Through Georgia,” “My Grandfather’s Clock” (which was so popular that we started calling all large upright clocks Grandfather clocks) and “Come Home, Dear Father,” which is about a girl singing to her dad, who is too busy drinking to notice that his son is dying. Par-tay!

Abraham Lincoln in Chicago: Ebenezer Peck’s House

In 1860, just after the election, President-elect Abraham Lincoln came to Chicago, where he’d been a regular visitor for years, to meet Hannibal Hamlin, his running mate, for the first time. They met up at the Tremont House, the hotel at Dearborn and Lake where, a couple of years before, Lincoln had made a version of his “house divided” speech from the balcony. Now, a public reception was held for well-wishers to greet the president elect at the same hotel.

But perhaps the most momentous event of that Chicago stop was the day the party met at “Lake View,” the mansion of Judge Ebenezer Peck, and had a long discussion about who would be in Lincoln’s cabinet. Here’s the mansion:

The house stood at the northeast corner of Clark and Fullerton. It survived the fire, being just a couple of blocks north of where it ended, and was still there as of the early 20th century, but seems to have been torn down some time before 1920. When it was built, it stood on seven acres, through Judge Peck’s daughter noted in 1900 that it was now surrounded by so many buildings that it would be hard to see from the road; this would put it around the spot where the fullerton plaza hotel stood as of 1923.

“They had hardly become seated in the parlor,” Peck’s daughter recalled, “before a curious crowd gathered before the low windows, which reached to the floor. Mr. Lincoln was greatly upset by the people peering at him. He never could beat to keep people waiting…to get out of the difficulty Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Hamlin went to a bedroom in the southeast part of the house on the second floor and there they secured at last a chance for uninterrupted conversation. They were together many hours, and there the first cast of the Cabinet was made up.”

Peck’s daughter saw Lincoln off and on in Washington, where her father moved during Lincoln’s term to be a judge in the U.S. Claims court. One particular night, she said he saw Lincoln at the White House, where he found him walking up and down in the deepest agony, lit by a single gas jet. “This is Friday, hangman’s day,” he said. “I had to sign the death warrants by which five poor boys were shot today.” He paced about, saying “Shoot a farmer’s boy for going to sleep!”  He remarked that the generals said these executions were necessary for military discipline, but “he had and idea that it was a good thing for military discipline to have his own way once in a while about shooting farmer boys for going to sleep.”

I believe that this is as close as Lincoln ever was to what is now Lincoln Park; he probably would have passed by it on Clark en route to Peck house. In 1860, the tower window would have quite likely given you a  view of the green area that would soon bear Lincoln’s name, but which was, at the time, the  City Cemetery. It’s tempting to imagine Lincoln standing in the tower, looking out at the graves and contemplating the Civil War that was looming ahead of him.