Old-time newspapers were notorious for printing articles that were long on fanciful stories but often short on verifiable facts.
As such, many curious stories that appeared in papers a century or more ago have to be read with a skeptical eye. Readers then, as today, would view information in printed form at face value, when in reality it was a fraud, whether purposeful or accidental.
In fairness to the folks of the past, researching the validity of printed information was a good bit harder.
Not only was there no Internet to employ for fact-checking, but books were much scarcer, especially among the lower classes, libraries were an anomaly outside big cities and competition among newspapers often meant that outlandish stories were run “as is” and sometimes even further embellished, to get a leg up on rivals.
So when I came across the following story in the July 26, 1899, edition of the Fairfield News and Herald, a Winnsboro, S.C., newspaper, it both caught my attention and raised my suspicions.
The death of Leonard B. Bleeker aged 72 years which recently occurred at Yates Centre, Kas., has revealed a case of self-sacrifice seldom heard of outside the domain of fiction. Three years ago Bleeker went to that country peddling cheap articles and, too old and weary to proceed farther, a kind hearted farmer took him in and cared for him until he died. To the family which befriended him he told the story of his life, reserving for the grave the specific names of persons and localities. He stated that in 1861 he left a wife and five children in Michigan and answered the first call for volunteers. The fortunes of war were against him and for months he lay a prisoner in Andersonville prison. For some reason he was led to believe that a certain other batch of prisoners would soon be exchanged. Among them was a dying man and the two comrades exchanged names and military designations. The soldier died and the death was reported as that of Leonard B. Bleeker, and is so recorded in the war department. The real Bleeker was released after a time, rejoined his regiment and served until the close of the war without communicating with his family. Then he went back and found his wife married to another man. He ascertained that his children were well cared for and then left the community without revealing his identity. Throughout his life he carefully guarded his secret and since going to Yates Centre, was often urged to apply for a pension, but stoutly refused. Even when near death he would not reveal the location of his former home or permit anyone to communicate with old associate(s). He was a man of more than ordinary education and the truth of his story or the possession of a noble purpose in his long sacrifice cannot be doubted.
Indeed, the entire story seems utterly fanciful to us today. But a few things to consider:
American Civil War aficionados marking the sesquicentennial of the conflict are gearing up to remember what was probably the bloodiest year of the 1861-65 struggle.
From Grant’s Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg to the Red River Campaign, the Atlanta Campaign and year-end battles at Franklin and Nashville, 1864 was one long year of attrition in which a seemingly endless supply of Union forces ground down their Confederate counterparts.
By year-end, the war was within a few months of being over, though that fact was hardly evident at the time.
While the War Between the States was heavily covered by journalists – both US and foreign – by the spring of 1865 reporters were as eager as soldiers to return to their homes.
Given that Southern newspapers were in short supply due to war devastation and Northern papers were busy focusing on happenings in Washington DC following the end of the conflict, there was little actually being written about what life was like in the immediate aftermath in many of the battle-ravaged areas.
Boston writer John Townsend Trowbridge was dispatched south in the fall of 1865 with an interesting mission: Travel the scenes of the recent conflict and describe battlefields, the plight of the Southern people, the mood of the region and the condition of recently freed blacks.
First published in 1866 under the title A Picture of the Desolated States and the Work of Restoration, Trowbridge’s work has been reissued under different titles, including The Desolate South: 1865-1866, and, simply, The South.
A Colonial-era tome, auctioned last week in New York, easily set a new record as the world’s most expensive printed book.
A first-edition copy of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $14.2 million, breaking the previous mark of $11.5 million, set in 2010, when a copy of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” was auctioned.
The Bay Psalm Book, one of 11 surviving examples, was sold by Boston’s famed Old South Church.
The Church sold the Bay Psalm Book from its collection to cover the cost of building repairs and to fund future endeavors after taking a vote of its congregants in 2012, according to a statement issued by its senior minister, Nancy Taylor.
The book is one of two copies owned by the church, which dates to 1669.
The Bay Psalm Book is one of the rarest books in the world and among the finest surviving copies of original 1,700 that were printed, according to Reuters.
The Bay Psalm Book was published in Cambridge, Mass., by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
As the US continues to recognize the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States it’s increasingly apparent that a significant number of Americans see the bloody four-year conflict as little more than a few key events: Fort Sumter, First Manassas, Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination.
While we sometimes recognize the terrible toll the war took in terms of lives lost, that figure has become an abstraction. With current figures of dead from the 1861-65 conflict now estimated to top more than 700,000, many today can’t or won’t attempt to comprehend the war’s impact on American society a century and a half ago.
Many History Channel historians tend to think only of the victories and of the final success of the Union army; or, in the South, of the valiant, if doomed, tenacity of the Confederacy.
But the war was, if nothing else, millions upon millions of tragedies bundled up into the form of a tremendous calamity.
For every man in uniform who was killed in action or died of disease, dozens, scores or even hundreds of others were touched, some at the front, others at home.
And the tragedies weren’t always the result of the death of men in uniform, either.
On this date, 150 years ago today, an officer in a South Carolina cavalry regiment got perhaps the worst news of his life.
General George S. Patton is rightly regarded as one of America’s greatest military leaders. A hard-charging commander, Patton led the US Seventh Army during the Invasion of Sicily, then directed the Third Army following the Allied Invasion of Normandy in 1944, where he led a highly successful, rapid drive across France, and was able to advance his army into Nazi Germany by war’s end.
Like many of the US’s top Army leaders during World War II, Patton graduated from West Point, but he didn’t begin his college education at the esteemed institution.
Patton had his mind set on a career in the military from a young age, but also struggled with reading and writing in his youth. In 1902, he wrote a letter to California Sen. Thomas R. Bard seeking an appointment to West Point.
However, Bard required Patton to complete an entrance exam. Patton was afraid he would perform poorly on the exam given his academic struggles, so he eventually opted to attend the Virginia Military Institute.
This was no random choice. Not only had Patton’s father graduated from VMI but his grandfather had, as well.
Patton’s grandfather, George S. Patton Sr., graduated from VMI in 1852, second in his class of 24.
Although he became a lawyer after graduation, he served as a colonel in the 22nd Virginia Infantry during the War Between the States.
The first George Patton was one of several brothers who served in the Confederate army. One, Lt. Col. Waller T. Patton, another VMI graduate, was mortally wounded at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
The original Medal of Honor awarded to one of Maine’s most famous sons, Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Infantry regiment, for his heroics at the Battle of Gettysburg has been discovered and given to a historical organization in the state.
Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor, awarded in 1893 for his actions in the famous 1863 battle, was given Monday to the Pejepscot Historical Society, which owns the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick, Maine.
The individual who donated the award requested anonymity. He had found it in the back of a book he had purchased “several years ago” at a sale held by First Parish Church in Duxbury, Mass., according to the society.
Chamberlain’s last surviving descendant, granddaughter Rosamond Allen, left her estate to that church upon her death 13 years ago, according to the Bangor Daily News.
Chamberlain was a professor at Bowdoin College when he enlisted in the Union army in 1862 and was appointed Lt. Colonel of the 20th Maine.
He saw action at Fredericksburg, where the Union suffered at a catastrophic defeat and Chamberlain was forced to spend the night of Dec. 13, 1862, on the freezing battlefield, using the bodies of the fallen for shelter while listening to bullets strike nearby corpses.
Chamberlain was promoted to colonel in June 1863, just prior to Gettysburg.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor for “daring heroism and great tenacity” in leading the 20th Maine in its crucial defense of Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, a critical stand in the Federal effort to hold back the Confederate onslaught.
Some four decades after being discovered off the coast of New Jersey, scientists have finally been able to attach a name to a ship that sank more than 150 years ago.
The Robert J. Walker, a US Coast Survey vessel, sank in 1860 after being struck by a 250-ton commercial schooner. Twenty men aboard the Robert J. Walker lost their lives.
The accident was the worst in the history of the US Coast Survey or its successor, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The wreck was discovered 10 miles off the coast in 85 feet of water by fishermen in the 1970s.
However, its identity was a mystery until June when a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship conducting surveys for navigation safety in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy made a positive identification, according to Reuters.
“It’s estimated there are 3 million shipwrecks in the waters of the world,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office of national marine sanctuaries. “You can’t go out and look for every one, but sometimes the situation arises when you have an opportunity to do that. This was a perfect convergence of opportunity.”
Scientists used the wreck’s location and unique features such as rectangular portholes and engines to make the positive identification.
The most valuable piece of marble in the United States is said to rest in the rotunda of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va.
Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture of George Washington, completed in the early 1790s, is insured for $50 million.
Carved from Carrara marble, it depicts a life-sized Washington. Standing 6-foot-2-1/2 inches, Washington’s right hand is on a cane while his left arm rests on a fasces, on which is slung his cape and sword. At Washington’s back is a plow.
He is shown wearing his military uniform; Washington wished to be depicted in contemporary attire, rather than that of antiquity popular in Neo-classical sculpture.
Chief Justice John Marshall, a contemporary of Washington, said of Houdon’s work, “Nothing in bronze or stone could be a more perfect image than this statue of the living Washington.”
The statue is so realistic that Washington’s uniform is shown missing a button toward the bottom of his waistcoat, just as his real-life uniform appeared at the time.
“Houdon’s statue alludes to the similarities between Washington and the ancient Roman General Cincinnatus who, when Rome no longer needed him, gave up his military power and returned to the simple life of a farmer,” according to the website of Virginia General Assembly. “The artist carefully balanced the military and civilian elements of Washington’s career: his sword is by his side, and he rests his left hand on a fasces (a bundle of rods, which was a Roman symbol of power), but he carries a civilian walking cane and stands next to a plow.
Prior to the War Between the States South Carolina’s Fairfield County was among the most prosperous areas in the state and the nation.
A good part of this wealth, it should be noted, was in the form of slaves.
According to U.S. Census data, Fairfield County population’s in 1860 included 15,534 slaves. A decade later not only were all those individuals freed, but the county’s population of blacks had decreased by 9 percent, to approximately 14,100.
In addition to the above loss of “property,” Union troops had done severe damage to the county seat of Winnsboro, burning much of the city in the waning days of February 1865, shortly after having laid waste Columbia, S.C., to the west.
So by the following year, with many of the county’s able-bodied white males dead or crippled from the war, a significant percentage of former slaves having moved from the area and general destitution evident throughout the region, residents were desperate.
One plan hatched was to try to create a silk industry in Fairfield County.
William Faulkner’s oft-quoted axiom – the past is never dead. It’s not even past – is often applied to the South and its deference to history, especially its own.
But occasionally come reminders of just how close to yesteryear we remain.
Thomas N. Bruce, the son of Confederate soldier, died last Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., at age 88. His father, Levi Newton Bruce, served in the 11th Virginia Battalion Reserves, enlisting less than a week after he turned 18.
If that weren’t enough of a link to the past, Bruce’s great-great grandfather, William, served as a sergeant in the Continental Army.
And Bruce himself had more than slight brush with history.
Serving in World War II as an Army Ranger in the 66th Infantry Division, Bruce was one of more than 2,200 American servicemen aboard the transport ship SS Leopoldville as it crossed the English Channel on Dec. 24, 1944.