Today’s ‘Fake News’ has nothing on yesterday’s Yellow Journalism

Over the past couple of years there has been increasing distrust of the media, evidenced most clearly by the tag line “Fake News” that are often appended to stories which are in reality little more than an opposing viewpoint.

Some media consumers, unfortunately, are unable to differentiate between stories which occasionally report erroneous information inadvertently and the idea that journalists are purposely misreporting information to undercut those whose politics they disagree with.

Yes, some journalists, particularly those working at high-paying positions in the nation’s media centers, tend to be insulated in a world which is far different from that of most middle- and lower-class individuals, which results in an echo chamber of sorts.

But for those who believe that today’s media is intentionally lying in what they report, one need consider the media of the past.  Among the best-known examples is the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst ginned up false articles about a plot by Spain to sink the ship in Havana Harbor, helping precipitate the Spanish-American War.

Wartime, at least in recent decades, has proven to be a breeding ground for baseless media reports, perhaps in part because censorship has been doled out with a far heavier hand as the world has become more literate.

In World War I, for example, newspapers from both Entente and Central Powers nations created stories out of whole cloth, including fictitious stories about major battles, well-known warships being sunk and key military and political figures being killed.

Consider this excerpt from Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, describing French newspapers’ preoccupation with reporting on the welfare of Wilhelm, the German crown prince, son of Kaiser Wilhelm and commander of the German 5th Army during the early months of the war:

“On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane.”

Of course, as Hastings points out, no one of these stories contained the smallest element of truth. Was it malicious, reporting on rumors, wishful thinking, or simply journalists looking to fill space? One hundred-plus years later it’s hard to say.

Despite French media reports to the contrary, Wilhelm survived not only World War I, but also World War, living until 1941.

Today, unfortunately, there are those who believe what they want to believe when it comes to the media.

For the rest of us, a healthy dose of skepticism and an understanding that no journalist wants to go hat in hand to his or her editor and tell them their outlet needs to run a correction should be of assistance in keeping one’s composure when the news rubs one the wrong way.

(Top: Wilhelm, crown prince of Germany, with cane, having survived numerous “near-death” experiences in just the first few months of World War I.)

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Louis Wigfall, Southern aristocracy gone to ‘seed’

Louis Trezevant Wigfall was, by nearly all accounts, an irascible sort, but one not unknown in South Carolina’s antebellum Edgefield District, which was a Wild West before there was a Wild West.

Born in Edgefield in 1816, Wigfall was born of into a planter family and attended South Carolina College and the University of Virginia, but breeding and education did little to mellow his countenance.

He was ardent proponent of the institution of slavery, and as a young man “he neglected his law practice for contentious politics that led him to wound a man in a duel (and be wounded himself) and to kill another during a quarrel,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Perhaps having worn out his welcome in the Palmetto State, Wigfall moved to Texas in 1846, almost instantly becoming active in Lone Star State politics, including “alerting” Texans to the dangers of abolition and the growing influence of non-slave states in the US Congress.

After several years in the Texas state legislature, Wigfall capitalized on the fear caused throughout the South by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and was elected to the US Senate that year.

He quickly gained a reputation as a leader among the “fire-eaters” – leading secessionists – taking his advocacy for slavery and against expanding the power of national government to the national stage.

Following Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, Wigfall coauthored the “Southern Manifesto,” which stated that the Union was irretrievably broken and that the only hope for the South was independence.

“Wigfall helped foil efforts for compromise to save the Union and urged all slave states to secede,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

He appears to have lacked the chivalric manners evident in other key Southern figures of the era, remaining in the US Senate after Texas seceded, spying on the Union, chiding northern senators, and raising and training troops in Maryland to send to South Carolina. Even while serving as a US senator, he took part in the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter by rowing out under fire and dictating unauthorized surrender terms to federal commander Robert Anderson.

He was finally expelled from the Senate in mid-1861. Later that year he became a Confederate officer and promoted to brigadier general  before resigning from the army to take a seat in the Confederate Senate in 1862.

Initially, Wigfall supported Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but, perhaps not surprisingly, he quarreled with Davis before long.

During the last two years of the Confederacy Wigfall carried on public and private efforts to strip Davis of all influence.

He also blocked the creation of a Confederate Supreme Court, fearing Davis’ justices would interfere with states’ rights, according to the National Park Service.

Far from being a pragmatist, he opposed the arming of slaves and was willing to lose the war rather than admit that blacks were worthy of being soldiers.

Among his post-war activities was spending time in the United Kingdom, “where he tried to foment war between Britain and the United States, hoping to give the South an opportunity to rise again.”

As the small clipping from the Sept. 20, 1866, edition of Columbia Daily Phoenix makes clear, he had lost most, if not all of the stature may have once possessed.

Beneath an extract of a speech by Gen. William S. Hillyer about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and next to a copy of a letter by Emperor Napoleon III of France to King Victor Emanuel of Italy is a tiny blurb that reads, “Ex-Senator Wigfall is in London, looking seedy.”

Wigfall, who returned to US in 1872, returned to Texas in 1874 and died in Galveston on Feb. 18, 1874.

Ex-slave was among final Revolutionary War participants

Determining the last survivor of pre-20th century conflicts has long been an iffy proposition.

Birth registration in some US states, for example, did not begin until the 1920s, and a number of individuals who claimed to be the last surviving Confederate soldiers in their respective Southern states were nearly all later shown by census records to almost certainly have been born too late to have actually served in the 1861-65 conflict.

Even more problematic is determining the last veterans of the Revolutionary War. The US didn’t begin its national census until 1790 and it was a far leaner affair than that of today, with questioners seeking little more than the name of the head of household, their address and the number of other residents broken down by a handful of categories (free white males over 16, free white females, slaves, etc.). Not exactly a wealth of knowledge.

If one wanted to try to game the system to secure a veteran’s pension, there were no Social Security numbers, birth certificates or computerized records to overcome. One suspects a good story and a couple of willing accomplices willing to verify said story was all that was needed.

That said, the last generally accepted veteran of the American Revolution is Daniel Bakeman, who claimed to have served for a New York militia unit. Born in 1759, Bakeman died in 1869, at age 109.

Bakeman had no tangible proof of his service, stating that he had lost it in a fire earlier in his life. Of course, fires were a regular occurrence in pre-20th century America, so it’s quite possible that Bakeman was so victimized.

It appears that the last 10 or so men accepted as final surviving American veterans of the American Revolution came from northern states and/or died in northern states.

This is not surprising giving that when the final Revolutionary War vets were enjoying their last hurrah, the US Civil War was either taking place or the South was under Reconstruction, making it unlikely that historians or US government officials would be searching for Revolutionary War veterans in the South, or that Southern veterans would be applying for pensions.

Because a considerable part of the war was fought in the South, particularly in the latter years of the Revolution, and the war in the South often was a more informal affair, with an emphasis on guerilla fighting, meaning there was proportionately higher participation among the population, albeit not always on the American side, it’s almost certain that some War of Independence veterans in the south were overlooked.

One of these last survivors was Bob Wheeler, a former slave who died on Sept. 16, 1866, at age 107.

According to an Oct. 9, 1866, story in the Columbia Phoenix, “During the Revolution, Bob was a boy between sixteen and eighteen years of age, and as his memory and mind remained unimpaired, he delighted to tell of his recollections of the old Revolution when the red coats were the terror of every neighborhood. He was for some time a waiting boy for Gen. Wade Hampton.”

That would be Wade Hampton I (1752-1835), grandfather of Wade Hampton III, the Confederate cavalry commander and later SC governor and US senator.

Hampton served in the American Revolution as a lieutenant colonel in an SC cavalry regiment, and he later led US troops in the War of 1812.

Wheeler considered the first Wade Hampton “the next greatest man to Geo. Washington, and during his whole life had a great veneration and respect for the Hampton family,” the Phoenix reported. “When he heard of the promotion and success of our worthy and beloved (Confederate) Gen. Wade Hampton, the old man’s eyes would kindle, and he would stand almost on tiptoe, rejoicing at his achievements, saying that ‘the true old blood would show itself.’”

When the first Wade Hampton died, he was “left by his master’s will to help to support his three daughters,” the paper stated. “This duty he discharged faithfully and honestly.”

Wheeler died near Pomaria, SC, in today’s Newberry County. His burial site is unknown.

(Top: Hampton-Preston Mansion, Columbia, SC, owned by Wade Hampton I from 1823 until his death in 1835. In later years it hosted such luminaries as presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, and Senator Daniel Webster.)

Pocket watch of Civil War veteran on the auction block

Heritage Auctions, one the nation’s largest auction houses, has an array of pocket watches for sale this week. One, a silver Newark Watch Works timepiece, in engraved with the initials “O.W. Brackett” and the dates “Jan. 13th 1841 / Feb. 4th 1900”.

A quick bit of poking around on the Internet turned up this bit of information: O.W. Brackett was Orrin W. Brackett, a native of Freeport, Maine, who later moved to the coastal town of Yarmouth and served as private in Co. G of the 25th Maine Infantry Regiment. He was indeed born in 1841 and died in 1900.

It’s likely that good ol’ O.W. had his name engraved on the watch while he was alive, and a family member added his birth and death dates afterward.

Brackett’s Civil War duty was relatively uneventful: He signed up for a nine-month tour of duty, being mustered into service Sept. 5, 1862 in Yarmouth, along the Maine coast, and mustered out with the rest of his company on May 7, 1863, in Chantilly, Va.

The 25th Maine spent a majority of its service around Washington, DC, guarding the “Long Bridge” across the Potomac River, and constructing fortifications. It moved out of Washington onto Chantilly, Va, to serve picket duty before returning to Arlington Heights in 1863.

The 25th Maine didn’t participate in any battles but still lost 25 men to disease.

Brackett apparently felt his nine months of service were sufficient; he did not re-enlist after his tour ended. He likely bought the watch shortly after the war ended; the Newark Watch Co. was only in operation from 1863 until 1870.

O.W. Brackett’s Civil War powder horn, auctioned last year.

Brackett’s brother, Alvin M. Brackett, served as a private in Co. F of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment and was killed during Dahlgren’s Raid on Richmond on March 4, 1864, at age 21.

Another Orrin W. Brackett, a private in the 6th Maine Battery and likely a cousin of the aforementioned O.W., hailed from Waterville, Maine. He died of disease at home in March 1863.

Like many men of earlier generations, O.W. Bartlett seemed to be pretty handy with a pocketknife. Last July, Cowan’s Auctions sold a powder horn with the carving “O.W. Brackett / Co. G. 25 Maine Vols / Chantilly, VA / May 7, 1863. / Enlisted in / The Town of / Yarmouth / Sept. 5, 1862”. The 6-1/2 inch powder horn fetched $216.

Despite knowing O.W. Brackett’s full name and likely place of death, I have been unable to locate, at least online, his final place of rest. If nothing else, his memory lives on through his pocket watch.

Update: Thanks to a reader named Maxwell, O.W. Brackett’s final resting place has been located, in Riverside Cemetery in Yarmouth, Maine. 

Wreck of Australia’s first sub, lost in 1914, discovered

Australia’s most-enduring naval mystery was solved this week with the discovery of its first submarine, which went missing off the coast of Papua New Guinea in the opening weeks of World War I.

HMAS AE1 disappeared on Sept. 14, 1914, after a successful mission to help capture the territory then known as German New Guinea. It had been in service just seven months.

The submarine went down with 35 men onboard. AE1 was the first Allied submarine lost in the First World War and the first ship lost by the Royal Australian Navy.

AE1, which had a crew made up of men from Australians, New Zealand and Great Britain on board, was found in nearly 1,000 feet of water, off the coast of the Duke of York Islands, in east Papua New Guinea.

“After 103 years, Australia’s oldest naval mystery has been solved,” Defense Minister Marise Payne told reporters in Sydney. “This is one of the most significant discoveries in Australia’s naval maritime history… The loss of AE1 in 1914 was a tragedy for our then fledgling nation.”

The expedition that discovered the sub was the 13th search for the craft since 1976. AE1 was found by the search vessel Fugro Equator, which was also used by Australia to hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

The official cause behind the loss of AE1 has yet to be determined. However, retired Rear Admiral Peter Briggs, who worked on the search, told The Australian that he believed the cause was most likely “a diving accident,” according to a story in The Guardian.

“The submarine appears to have struck the bottom with sufficient force to dislodge the fin from its footing, forcing it to hinge forward on its leading edge, impacting the casing,” he said.

A small commemorative service was held upon the discovery of AE1 by those aboard the search vessel, and descendants of the crew will be notified of the finding.

“For Navy, it demonstrates the persistence of a view that fellow mariners always have – that is, we always seek to find those who have sacrificed so much for our country [so they can] actually lay to rest,” said Royal Australian Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett.

(Top: AE1, foreground, with other Australian ships off Rabaul on Sept. 9, 1914, less than a week before it sank.)

Combined research effort turns up identity of long-dead soldier

After more than 150 years, the identity of an Alabama soldier who died in the waning days of the War Between the States has been uncovered.

Lt. Josiah M. Brown perished on April 4, 1865, from pneumonia at a hotel in Newberry, SC, while passing through the community en route home to Greene County, Ala. All that was known about the officer’s identity was what appeared in the Newberry Weekly Herald on April 6, 1865: “Lieut. Brown of Greene Co. Ala. died from pneumonia on April 4, 1865 at the hotel in Newberry. He was buried with Masonic Honors.”

The late Edith Greisser of the Newberry Historical and Museum Society spent many hours tracking down information about the 14 Confederate soldiers who had died while passing through Newberry on their way home in 1865 and were buried in the Old Newberry Village Cemetery.

Five have never been identified, but Brown was the only one with a partial identity.

Greisser, who died in 2013, tried the Alabama State Archives and found there were more than 400 Confederate soldiers with the surname Brown. However, there were only three “Lieutenant Browns”; an A.J. Brown, an F.A. Brown and a J.M. Brown. Curiously, all were members of the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment, though of different companies.

Veterans Administration gravestone for Josiah M. Brown, issued before his full identity was known.

Greisser contacted the Chamber of Commerce in Greene County, and a representative went to the Confederate monument in town, but the only Brown listed was one who had died after 1907.

Chapters of Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Freemasons were no longer active in the county, a reflection of the hard times that have fallen on the area in the decades since the war’s end.

Greene County, located in the western half of the state, is the least populated county in Alabama, with fewer than 9,000 residents. By comparison, it had more than 30,000 residents in 1860. Its population fell by more than 40 percent between the 1860 and 1870 censuses, reflecting the heavy toll the war took on its populace.

A Masonic funeral service was conducted for Brown, at his request, but the Masonic records of the Newberry lodge were lost in a fire in 1866. The South Carolina State Masonic Lodge did not have the duplicate record of 1865 for Newberry Lodge in its collection.

Members of the Amity Lodge in Newberry recently picked up the ball and got in contact with the Alabama State Masonic Lodge. Gene Wicker, a member of the Amity Lodge, was able to discover that a Josiah M. Brown, who had served as an officer in Company D of the 5th Alabama, had been a member of the Beacon Lodge in Greene County, Ala., joining before the war, thereby solving the mystery.

The 5th Alabama saw its share of severe action, fighting at Seven Pines, Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Boonsboro, Antietam, Chancellorsville,  Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and around Petersburg in the last months of the war. Brown was wounded at least once, at Gettysburg.

This past Sunday, a granite stone identifying Josiah M. Brown by his full name was unveiled at the Old Newberry County Cemetery, next to a Veterans Administration marker that reads “Lieut. Brown of Greene Co. Ala.” It was paid for by Amity Lodge member Huger Caughman Sr.

“As Masons, we take a vow to take care of our brothers, and that vow extends to the grave,” said Jason Moore, the Worshipful Master of the Amity Lodge, during a brief ceremony.

(Top: New gravestone for Lt. Josiah M. Brown, paid for by the Amity Masonic Lodge of Newberry, SC, at the Old Newberry Cemetery.)

An old veteran, or a very, very old veteran?

Most of the graves at the Marietta Confederate Cemetery, just outside Atlanta, are unmarked, holding the remains of Southern soldiers who died during the Atlanta campaign, including many killed at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga.

There are, however, several dozen graves of men who died decades after the war, living out their lives in the nearby Georgia Confederate Soldiers Home.

Among these was Lorenzo Dow Grace, who, according to his gravestone, lived to the ripe old age of 115 before dying in 1928.

The September 1926 issue of Confederate Veteran magazine, then the publication of the United Confederate Veterans, devoted several inches of space to Grace, who served in Capt. Sisson’s Company of Georgia State Troops during the last seven months of the war:

“Lorenzo Dow Grace, who was admitted to the Georgia Home early in 1923, at which time he was long past the century mark, (is) still a lively specimen. The Secretary of the Home, Mr. Sam J. Bell, writes of him:

‘From the best information obtainable, which seems to be fairly authentic and, to say the least of it, is indisputable, Lorenzo Dow Grace was born on October 29, 1813, in Buncombe County, N.C. From this it will be seen that he will be one hundred and thirteen years of age on the 29th of October, next. He is in splendid health and as ‘lively as a cricket.’ He walks a great deal (without the use of a cane, by the way), and runs errands for the other old men at the Home.

‘Moving from Buncombe County, N. C., to Ellijay, Gilmer County, Ga., while yet a young man, he engaged in the occupations of wood chopping and gardening for the public, therefore spending almost his entire time in the open air of the mountains of North Georgia, which, no doubt, accounts in no small way for his longevity.

Confederate pension application for Lorenzo Dow Grace from 1903, showing Dow’s date of birth as 1828, rather than 1813, as was later stated, making him at least 15 years younger than later stories indicated. Click to embiggen.

‘When the first guns were fired at Fort Sumter, he tendered his services to the Confederacy, but was refused, as he was over age; and it was not until the last call was made for men from sixteen to sixty that he was finally accepted as a private in Captain Sisson’s Company, of Ralston’s Battalion, with which outfit he remained until honorably discharged at Kingston, Ga., at the close of the war.”

He attributes his longevity to his life in the open and to his simple habits. Most of his life was spent on a farm, and when that work became too much for him, he went to chopping wood for a living, and he made it until his third wife died and he was left alone, his children of an earlier marriage having died of ‘old age.’ So he decided to lay down his ax and live for the next ‘forty years at least’ on the bounty of his State as a reward for his services to the Confederacy. He also served in the Mexican War, and even then was not a youth. He says that he never had much time to waste in his life, and he never expects to get too old to learn. He eats an apple every day and drinks in the sunshine of the out of doors, and thus stores away strength and energy far beyond the time of the average life.

However, Grace’s Georgia’s pension application, filed in 1903, states that he was born in 1828, meaning that the aging Confederate was approximately 100 when he died. No mean feat, particularly 90 years ago, but definitely more common than making it to 115.

Of course, it’s quite possible that information such as that found in pension applications was inaccessible while applicants were still alive and, given Grace’s age, he could well have lost track of his own age. On the other hand, he might have been looking for some late-in-life publicity.

Grace, of course, didn’t make it too much longer past his bit of fame in the Confederate Veteran. And whoever was tasked with making his gravestone was apparently none the wiser regarding the aged veteran’s actual birth year.

(Lorenzo Dow Grace’s gravestone at the Marietta Confederate Cemetery, Marietta, Ga.)