Remembering one of 10 million, 100 hundred years later

One hundred years ago today Capt. Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr. was killed in fighting on the Western Front. Sadly, he died just one day before the end of the Great War.

Even sadder, given the confusion of war, his family did not find out for some time afterward, so they initially believed he had survived the terrible conflict that claimed 10 million lives.

Ravenel was from a rural community in Sumter County, S.C. He was described as a “brave soldier” and it was noted that he “was highly esteemed by a wide circle of friends.”

That he was brave is indicated by the fact that he was killed on final full day of the war. With German allies Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire already having surrendered, rumors were rampant by early November 1918 that an armistice was imminent. Many soldiers on both sides were understandably content to do their best to just keep out of harm’s way.

Still, high-ranking officers in the rear continued to send men forward, many times only to add to their own personal accolades, resulting in needless deaths in the war’s final hours.

Ravenel, a member of the American Expeditionary Force’s 316th Machine Gun Battalion, was killed near Verdun, France. Verdun had seen some of the worst fighting of the war, and in the history of warfare, in 1916, and the area remained a hot zone throughout the remainder of the conflict.

An after-action report by 2nd Lieutenant Herbert R. Stender, who served under Ravenel, recounted the details regarding latter’s death.

According Stender’s Nov. 14, 1918, report, at about 4 p.m. on Nov. 10 he was ordered to gather a detail of two noncommissioned officers and four privates from his platoon and patrol an area up to the limit of the territory held by the 324th Infantry, then return with his information before dark.

Stender’s detail left a short while later and after about a mile came across the “dead body of Corporal Burgess of ‘B’ Company,” he wrote. “I then realized that something was wrong because Corporal Burgess’ death was caused by machine gun bullets and not by a sniper.”

Stender and his men proceeded cautiously in the same direction and was within 200 yards of Bois de Chabotte when Stender heard “cries of some distress.”

“… to my surprise and sorrow, I found Captain Ravenel of ‘B’ Company. He had been shot through the leg with machine gun bullets and his leg was broken,” Stender wrote.

“He recognized me at once and requested me to take him away before the Boche (Germans) could return and get him,” Stender continued. “I called my patrol to the spot and we fixed the Captain as comfortably as possible.

“The Captain cautioned us to keep down and to get away as soon as possible because the woods in front of us were infested with machine guns and that the Boche would open up on us right away.”

Stender’s patrol then proceeded to bring Ravenel back to the American lines, but Ravenel died en route.

Stender added that the task of recovering Ravenel’s body in was an arduous one: “… we had to go through a swamp covered with shell holes and enemy wire (and the) patrol was under heavy artillery and machine gun fire the whole time while they were returning …”

Ravenel’s body wasn’t returned to the US for nearly three years, when he was interred in the family burial plot at the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg, SC, in the summer of 1921.

Ravenel was one of several World War I casualties from South Carolina whose remains were returned to the Palmetto State on Aug. 5, 1921, according to a newspaper account.

The others included Private Williams D. Wells, of Greenville, killed on Nov. 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed; Private Oscar Camp, Gaffney; Private James M. Lynn, Rock Hill; Private Henry K. Brown, Saluda; Private Jesse J. Moore, Westminster; Private Richard Williams, Jefferson; and Private L.T. Dickson, Kings Creek.

It would be nice to be able to write that Ravenel and the tens of thousands of other U.S. troops who gave their lives in World War I died for a worthwhile cause.

Given that World War II, with all its accompanying horrors, would be spawned from the carnage of the Great War, though, it’s hard to believe much good came from the First World War.

And today, the centennial of World War I has largely gone unnoticed in the United States, from the war’s beginnings in Europe to U.S. involvement in 1917 to its last days in November 1918.

We plod merrily along, glutting ourselves with consumer goods, social media minutiae and pointless political squabbling, oblivious to the hardship and sacrifice of 1914-18. Meanwhile,

In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row

As they have for a full century now.

(Top: Gravestone of Capt. Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr., in Church of the Holy Cross Cemetery, Stateburg, SC.)

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How a Reconstruction president got his own road in the South

Laurens, S.C., is a typical small Southern town. Its mills are closed, the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad is now part of a major transportation company and the last bank with its headquarters in the community relocated nearly a decade ago.

But there’s no denying its history. Even though it has a population of around 9,000, the town can claim two South Carolina governors, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Secretary of the Navy. It also produced at least two Confederate congressmen and several signers of the S.C. Ordinance of Secession.

That latter bit is what makes the sign on a main street heading into town rather striking: “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway”.

Johnson, of course, served as the 17th president of the United States. Of particular note to denizens of Laurens and other Southerners, he was president during the first part of Reconstruction (1865-69), when Radical Republicans in Congress did their best to stick it to the South for the War Between the States.

At first glance, naming a road in the heart of South Carolina after a Reconstruction president seems akin to, oh, labeling the section of road between the German cities of Stuttgart and Munich the “Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau Memorial Autobahn”.

It should be noted that Johnson was by no means aligned with the Radical Republicans. He favored quick restoration of the seceded states to the Union. Unfortunately, his plans did not give protection to former slaves. He went so far as to veto the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to former slaves, and got crosswise with the Republican-dominated Congress.

Andrew Johnson, with a face only a mother, but not a prospective mother-in-law, could love.

He was impeached by the House of Representatives and escaped conviction and removal from office by a single vote in the Senate. Without Congressional support, he accomplished little during his four years in office.

So why does Johnson, generally considered one of the worst, if not the worst president in U.S. history, and the man in charge of the Federal government directly after it defeated the Southern Confederacy, have a highway named for him in the South Carolina Upstate?

It turns out that Johnson, a native of North Carolina, operated a tailor shop in Laurens in the mid-1820s. He even courted a local “blue-eyed beauty,” a lass named Sarah Ward.

Johnson wanted to marry Ward, but according to legend, Ward’s widowed mother didn’t think a tailor was suitable for her daughter and nixed the match.

Once Johnson realized he had no chance of winning Ward’s hand, he returned first to Raleigh, N.C., where he’d been born, then moved west to Tennessee.

It was in Tennessee that he would eventually serve in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and as governor before becoming Abraham Lincoln’s vice president for six weeks, until Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, thrusting Johnson into the presidency.

A resolution designating a stretch of road through Laurens as the “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway,” recognizing both his time in the town and his service to the people of the United States, was passed by the S.C. General Assembly in 2000.

Alas, I was unable to find any roads named for the widow Ward or any of her kin during my time in Laurens.

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.)

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.)