Romancing History

Category: U.S. History Page 3 of 5

Romance in the Mowhawk Valley

For a little Valentine’s Day treat, I thought I’d host my dear friend and fellow author, Angela Couch, on my blog today. Angela writes historical romance and her latest release, The Tory’s Daughter, is a wonderful story set in Revolutionary War New York. Angela has a lovely storytelling voice. Her stories flow beautifully and are filled with lovely descriptions, vivid action scenes, and yes, swoon-worthy heroes! Click here to read my 5 star review on Amazon.

Series Info: Hearts at War, Book #3

Publisher: Pelican Book Group

About the Book: Burying his wife is the hardest thing Joseph Garnet has ever done—until he’s called to leave his young son and baby daughter to fight Iroquois raiders. When one of the marauders tries to steal his horse, the last thing he expects is to end up tussling with a female. The girl is wounded, leaving Joseph little choice but to haul her home to heal—an act that seems all too familiar. Though Joseph doesn’t appear to remember her,

Hannah Cunningham could never forget him. He rode with the mob that forced her two brothers into the Continental Army and drove her family from their home—all because of her father’s loyalties to The Crown. After five years with her mother’s tribe, the rebels and starvation have left her nothing but the driving need to find her brothers.

Compelled by a secret he’s held for far too long, Joseph agrees to help Hannah find what remains of her family. Though she begins to steal into his aching heart, he knows the truth will forever stand between them.

Some things cannot be forgiven.

The Tory’s Daughter is on sale now for $1.99 and is available on Amazon

Happy Valentines Day!

What better time to talk about romance…especially in a historical setting? At the beginning of my latest release, The Tory’s Daughter, romance isn’t on anyone’s mind as Joseph Garnet stands over his wife’s grave with his two young children, one less than a year old. Yet, within twenty-four hours, he’ll find himself contemplating a future with the last woman he expected to re-enter his life, the daughter of his enemy.

Hannah Cunningham doesn’t have much for pleasant memories when it comes to Joseph Garnet. He rode with the mob that burned home and sent her brothers to fight for the Continental Army.

Sparks fly when these two find themselves in compelled into a marriage!

Here are some fun facts for you I discovered while researching this story set in 1781:

Mohawk women chose their husbands. In an era denoted by arranged or convenient marriages, this gave a girl much more freedom than often enjoyed by her European counterparts.

The man leaves his clan and joins his wife’s. Reminds me of a certain scripture at the beginning of the Bible that many Europeans and early Americans didn’t fully embrace.

Marriage was to be a partnership between husband and wife, with no one domineering the other.

So happy valentines. I hope you enjoy this story, on sale this week!

About the Author: Angela K Couch is an award-winning author for her short stories, and a semi-finalist in ACFW’s 2015 Genesis Contest. Her childhood was spent listening to her father read chapters from his novels, and Angela decided young to follow his path. As a passionate believer in Christ, her faith permeates the stories she tells. Her martial arts training, experience with horses, and appreciation for good romance sneak in there, as well. Angela lives in Alberta, Canada with her “hero” and three munchkins. Visit her at, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook!

The History that Inspired A Love Restored (Part 1)

As a writer of historical romance, I’m often asked questions about how I research my stories. I thought today, I’d start a blog series that would give you some insight into how real-life history inspired many of the scenes in A Love Restored.

First, let me give you a little background on the story. A Love Restored is based on my real-life romance with my husband, Mike. I just set the story in the past because I’m a HUGE history nerd. If you’re one of my faithful readers, I’m sure you can relate.

I am blessed to live in northern Virginia, an area rich in our nation’s history. I knew if I set my story in post-Civil War Loudoun County, where I’ve lived since 1972, I would have plenty of historical details to give the reader that would draw them into the period and setting of my story. I decided to use my own home town of Purcellville at the time the Washington & Ohio Railroad arrived in the “sleepy little hamlet” so that my hero, Benjamin Coulter could be a surveyor planning the railroad’s route.

Negro Schoolhouse, Ashburn, Virginia

Since the story is based on my life, it was a natural choice to make my heroine, Ruth Ann Sutton, a teacher as well. While researching the post-Civil War history of my town and the county as a whole, I wandered off track down a historical rabbit trail so to speak and began reading about the life of the freed slaves in the area and the Freedmen’s Schools to educate them.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandon Lands, commonly referred to as the The Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 to help provide for the hundreds of thousands of freed slaves in the aftermath of America’s Civil War.

While researching, I discovered that Fannie Wood, a white woman from Middleboro, Massachusetts, came to the area to teach in one of the newly authorized Freedmen’s Bureau schools in the nearby town of Warrenton. This was a common arrangement at the time. Many northern organizations, frequently organized by Quakers, funded Freedmen’s Bureau schools in the South and provided the teacher’s salary as well as their room and board with local families. The Richmond Times, an influential newspaper at the time, referred to such teachers as “pretty Yankee girls,” and “missionaries” in an effort to diminish their noble purpose.

But in Reconstruction Era Virginia, Miss Wood’s tenure would not be without opposition from those who did not want the freed slaves educated. A Warrenton newspaper, The True Index, printed the first paragraph of a threatening letter sent to Miss Wood:

“We the young men of this town think you are a disgrace to decent society and therefore wish you to leave this town before the first of March and if you don’t there will be violence used to make you comply to this request.”


At this point I knew that my heroine would now teach a Freedman’s School providing plenty of tension for my story. While Freedmen’s Schools existed in nearby Leesburg, Waterford and Lincoln, no school for African Americans existed in my town, Purcellville, until the 1890s. At this point I decided to change the name of Ruth Ann’s town to Catoctin Creek after the little stream that runs through Purcellville.

My research further discovered reports in The True Index that Wood had been “serenaded” by “songs and expressions not intended for ears polite.” Federal troops, used to enforce the Bureau’s efforts to educate the freed slaves, were sent to Warrenton to prevent any escalation of hostilities. This calmed the tension for a while but after the soldiers left, her classroom was pelted with stones. Union Lieutenant, William Augustus McNulty, who was the head of the Freedman’s Bureau for the Warrenton area, continued protecting Miss Wood. In fact, he and his wife, Abbie, eventually helped her teach the adult students in the evening.

Can you just imagine the sight of a white Federal officer teaching freed slaves in post-Civil War Virginia?

I knew immediately that I wanted to capture this scene in A Love Restored. When Benjamin discovers the threatening letters Ruth Ann had been receiving, letters she took great pains to hide from him, Benjamin seeks the aid of Federal officers assigned to protect the Freedmen’s Schools in the area. My secondary story line really came to life now birthing the character of Union Army Captain John Reynolds who would aid Benjamin in the protection of Ruth Ann and her students.

In A Love Restored, the danger escalates to a dramatic raid on the Freedmen’s School by hooded-vigilantes. Although inspired by many real-life accounts of violence against Freedmen’s Schools throughout the South, nothing of that magnitude happened in my county.

Thank you for joining me on this little excursion through one of history’s interesting paths. You never know what you might discover when following a rabbit trail. For me, I found the glue that tied so many smaller plot lines together as well as a way to add historical depth to my story.

This post first appeared on Connie’s History Classroom  (July 10, 2018)

Your Turn: What interesting historical fact have you learned roaming the internet?







Speak Easy Slang

In January 1920, America went dry as the 18th amendment took effect prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transport and/or  consumption of alcoholic beverages. Speakeasies, or illegal drinking establishments, derived their nickname from the practice of asking patrons to be quiet, or speak easily, about the illegal bar’s location.  Also known as a Juice Joints, they flourished in big cities like New York and Chicago between 1920-1933.

Image result for 1920s gangs

Here’s a list of phrases common during the time among those who fronted these illegal gin joints and those who frequented them.

Bootleggers is a euphemism for booze smugglers. They took they’re name from Cowboys who smuggled flat bottles of whiskey inside their boots onto Indian reservations to trade with the natives after the practice had been prohibited. Smugglers during Prohibition adopted their name.

Skid Road–A precursor to the term “Skid Row,” a skid road was the place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these “roads” became popular meeting places for bootleggers, smugglers and gangsters to meet and do business.

Sing Like a Canary–informants who blabbled or “sang” to the the cops.

Image result for Bootleggers

Gangbusters was a 1930s radio program. The broadcast began with blaring sirens so anything loud and obnoxious comes on like “gangbusters.”

Teetotaler–A person who abstains from the consumption of alcohol. The phrase is believed to have originated within the Prohibition era’s temperance societies, where members would add a “T” to their signatures to indicate total abstinence (T+total-ers).

Image result for 1920s stills


Bathtub Gin–Homemade gin, usually of poor quality, that would be mixed with flavorings to improve the taste. Because the bottles were too tall to be mixed with water from a sink tap, metal or ceramic bathtubs would be used.  Though the phrase references gin specifically, it came to be used as a general term for any type of cheap homemade booze.


Hooch–any low-quality liquor, usually whiskey. The term originated in the late 1800s as a shortened version of “Hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. The phrase came back into heavy use in the 1920s.


White Lightening–The whiskey equivalent of bathtub gin; a highly potent, illegally made, and poor-quality spirit.

Dry–A  man or woman who is opposed to the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. Bureau of Prohibition agents were often referred to as Dry Agents. It also is used to reference places where alcohol is not served, i.e. a “dry country”.

Jake Walk–A paralysis or loss of muscle control in the hands and feet, due to an overconsumption of Jamaican ginger, a.k.a. Jake, a patent medicine with a high alcohol content. The numbness led sufferers to walk with a distinct gait that was also known as Jake leg or Jake foot. Jamaican ginger, a patent medicine with a high alcohol content – so high that authorities insisted manufacturers up the ginger content so that it became bitter and unpalatable. Bootleggers responded by adding a plasticizer, tricresyl phospate, that would fool government tests and keep it drinkable for those who used it recreationally. Unfortunately, the additive turned out to be a neurotoxin and some 50,000 people fell victim to jake-walk or jake-foot which often led to  permanent paralysis.

Image result for Bootleggers

A Blind Pig–low class drinking establishments often located in counties or municipalities that had voted themselves “dry.”  They often charged admission to view some kind of attraction like a pig painted in stripes or other such “exotic” creatures. Admission, surely by coincidence, included a free glass of whisky. Also known as blind tigers, the owner’s identities were often concealed, even from its patrons.

Here’s more terms from the Gangsters and Speakeasies of the 1920s

  • Babe, Bim, Broad, Doll or Dame – A woman
  • Moll – A gangster’s girlfriend
  • Bearcat – A fiery woman
  • Dumb Dora -A stupid woman
  • Sheba -A woman with sex appeal
  • Stool-pigeon – A person who informs the police
  • Peaching – Informing
  • Finger – Identify
  • Bulls – Plainclothes police
  • Gum-shoe – Detective
  • Copper – Policeman
  • Bracelets – Handcuffs
  • Big House or Can – Jail or prison
  • In Stir – In jail
  • Blow – Leave
  • Bop, Bump or Clip – To kill
  • Chopper Squad – Guys with machine guns
  • Pack Heat – Carry a gun
  • Goon – Thug
  • Grifter – Con man
  • Boozehound – a drunk
  • Meat Wagon – Ambulance
  • Chicago Overcoat – A coffin
  • Big Sleep – Death
  • Bean-shooter or Gat – A gun
  • Packing Heat – Carrying a gun
  • Can-opener – Safecracker
  • Glomming – Stealing
  • Bent – Stolen
  • Cabbage or Scratch – Money
  • Ice – Diamonds
  • Boiler or Bucket – A car
  • Cake-eater – A lady’s man
  • Dewdropper – Unemployed man who spends his days sleeping
  • Shylock – A loanshark
  • Sheik – An attractive man
  • Giggle Water – liquor
  • Bangtail – Racehorse

Prohibition ended in 1933, but the colorful colloquialisms it brought about continue to add character to American language today.


What Your History Teacher Didn’t Teach About Our Presidents

When people discover what a huge history geek I am, they usually wrinkle their noses and tell me how boring they think history is. Boring? That was one thing I never understood. History is full of some pretty colorful characters.

Weird Facts About US Presidesnts

To prove my point, I’m highlighting of some of the interesting, unique and just plain strange facts about some of the men who occupied the hallowed halls of the White House.  Did you know one of our presidents liked to skinny dip in the Potomac River? Or that another vandalized Shakespeare’s property? Or that one President trained his parrot to swear?


Things Your History Teacher Never Taught You

Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

…had a bit of a stealing problem. While visiting William Shakespeare’s birthplace in England in 1786, he and John Adams cut off a piece of Shakespeare’s chair to take home as a souvenir. Later, while in France, Jefferson smuggled rice out of the country by stuffing his pockets.

James Madison (1809-1817)

…our smallest president, Madison stood at 5’4″ and weighed around 100 pounds.

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

….was known for skinny dipping in the Potomac River every morning. A reporter took advantage of this information and sat on his clothes until the president would grant him an interview.

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

…taught his pet parrot to swear. It was all fun and games, until the parrot had to allegedly be removed from Jackson’s funeral because it wouldn’t stop cursing.

Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

…was an indentured servant to a tailor. While in the White House, Johnson preferred to make made his own suits.

James A. Garfield (1881)

…was ambidextrous and could write in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other—at the same time!

Grover Cleveland (1885-1889)

…became the legal guardian to his friend’s 11-year-old orphaned daughter. Ten years later, they were married at the White House, making her the youngest First Lady ever at the age of 21. I’m a big fan of the Happily-Ever-After but that’s just plain creepy.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

…had electric lighting installed in the White House. He was so scared of being electrocuted that he refused to touch the light switches and was known to go to bed with all the lights on.

William McKinley (1897-1901)

…considered carnations his good luck charm and wore them everywhere. On September 6, 1901, his luck ran out when he gave a little girl the carnation from his lapel and was shot by an assassin a short time later. He died the following week.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)

…was triskaidekaphobic (try saying that three times real fast). Terrified of the number 13, FDR and refused to have dinner with 13 guests or leave for a trip on the 13th of any month.

Image result for number thirteen

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

…had a toy named after him following a 1902 hunting trip when friends clubbed a black bear and tied it to a tree. Roosevelt declined to kill the bear stating it was unsportsmanlike. When the Washington Post printed a cartoon depicting the event, a toy maker created “Teddy Bears” in his honor.

Harry S Truman (1945-1953)

…doesn’t have a middle name. His parents chose the initial because they had a lot of relatives whose names started with that letter.

Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977)

…is the only president to never be elected by the American people. He was appointed to the vice-presidency when Spiro Agnew resigned and then later ascended to the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Image result for jar of jelly beansRonald Reagan (1981-1989)

…loved jelly beans so much that he had a standing order of 720 (yes, you read that right–seven-hundred twenty) bags be delivered to the White House each month. Reagan shared his favorite candy with colleagues and visitors. Jelly Belly created a blueberry-flavored jelly bean just for him so he could have jars full of red, white, and blue beans.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

…has two Grammy Awards,  one for spoken word and one for audiobook projects.

George W. Bush (2001-2009)

…was his high school’s head cheerleader.

Barack Obama (2009-2017)

…had a pet ape called Tata when he lived in Indonesia.

Hopefully you now agree, behind every page in the history textbook lurks interesting and strange facts you never learned in school.

Forgotten History: America’s Swedish Colony

As Americans, we grew up hearing about the British, Spanish and French colonial influence on our nation. If you were a history nerd like me, you’d even remember that Holland got into the action in New York.

But did you know that Sweden also had colonial ambitions in the New World as well?

Painting of the Kalmar Nyckel, a Dutch-built armed merchant ship famed for carrying Swedish settlers to North America in 1638 to establish the colony of New Sweden. (Credit: Jacob Hägg/Wikimedia Commons/PD-US)

Undoubtedly inspired by the growing wealth of other colonial powers, Swedish, Dutch and German stockholders formed the New Sweden Company in 1637 to trade for furs and tobacco in North America. In March 1638, the first settlers arrived in the Delaware Bay and began to build a fort at the site of present-day Wilmington, Delaware. Fort Christina, named in honor of Sweden’s twelve-year-old queen, was the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley.

“New Sweden” once spanned parts of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In fact, it may well be one of the oddest events of the Age of Discovery. “New Sweden was the last of the European colonial empires to be founded in North America,” says historian Hildor Arnold Barton, “as well as the smallest, least populous, and shortest-lived.”

Thomas Campanius Holm, frontpiece to Swedes and Indians in New Sweden, 1702.

Over a period of seventeen years, twelve more Swedish expeditions left Europe for New Sweden bringing with them approximately 600 Swedes and Finns to populate the fledgling colony. The colonists established farms and were considered to be fair and honest traders with the local Lenape Indians.

Unfortunately, the New Sweden colony never became as prosperous as its Dutch and English competitors to the north and south. The colony’s population was often less than 200, and interest in immigrating was almost nonexistent back in Sweden. Settlers were so hard to come by that the Swedish crown eventually resorted to forcing petty criminals and military deserters to populate the colony, but New Sweden was still largely neglected and eventually conquered by the Dutch in 1655.

Log Cabin at Fort Christina in Wilmington, the site of first European settlement in Delaware. (Credit: Visions of America, LLC/Alamy Stock Photo)

Although New Sweden has faded into the pages of forgotten history, its short-lived presence on American soil left behind two important testaments to its existence–Lutheran Christianity and the most iconic of American buildings–the log cabin. While Swedish immigration slowed to a mere trickle during the 18th century, it experienced a resurgence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when nearly 1.3 million Swedish immigrants arrived on American Shores. This time, Swedish settlers bypassed the Delaware Valley and headed west where today large numbers of Swedish-Americans call Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, California and Washington, home.

I’ll have to put a trip to Fort Christina on my list of places to visit. If you’ve visited this site or already new about the Swedish colony’s presence, please leave a comment below.

5 Little Known Facts About the Civil War

The Civil War remains the defining moment in America’s history. While the Revolution gave birth to the United States, the Civil War  determined what kind of nation it would be.

According to the Library of Congress, over 70,000 books have been written on the civil war and that doesn’t include books that may contain Civil War related material but are catalogued separately.

Here are 5 little known, yet interesting facts about the Civil War that you may not be aware of:

1. One-third of the soldiers who fought for the Union Army were immigrants
I was surprised to learn the number of immigrants among the ranks of Civil War soldiers was that high. As it turns out, the Union Army was a diverse, multicultural fighting force. We often hear about Irish soldiers (7.5 percent of the army), but the Union’s ranks included even more Germans (10 percent), who marched off in regiments such as the Steuben Guard. Other immigrant soldiers were French, Italian, Polish, English and Scottish. In fact, one in four regiments contained a majority of foreigners.

At right is a recruitment broadside aimed at  New York’s German immigrants to fight for “your country”: Bürger, Euer Land ist in Gefahr! Zu den Waffen! Zu den Waffen! (Citizens, your country is in danger! To arms! To arms!)


Sketch of the John Adams, which carried Tubman, firing upon the Combahee Ferry

2. Harriet Tubman led a raid to free slaves during the Civil War
Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who led others to freedom on the Underground Railroad before the war, arrived at the Union camp at Port Royal, South Carolina, in the spring of 1862 to support the Union cause. On the night of June 2nd three federal gunboats set sail from Beaufort, South Carolina up the Combahee River. Tubman had gained vital information about the location of Rebel torpedoes planted along the river from slaves who were willing to trade information for freedom.

Because of this information Tubman was able to steer the Union ships away from any danger. She led the ships to specific spots along the shore where fugitive slaves were hiding and waiting to be rescued. More than 720 slaves were shuttled to freedom during the mission reminding Tubman of  “the children of Israel coming out of Egypt.” On the ferry mission, Tubman liberated ten times the number of slaves she had freed in ten years operating the Underground Railroad.

3. More men died from disease than bullets during the Civil War
Approximately 625,000 men died in the Civil War, more Americans than in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. Although rifles were by far the war’s deadliest weapons, deadlier still was disease. For every three soldiers killed in battle, five more died from disease. In 1861, as armies massed, men once protected from disease by isolation now lived, marched and fought side by side in close proximity to one another. Camps became breeding grounds for childhood diseases such as mumps, chicken pox and measles. Soldiers on both sides contracted malaria and dysentery, and epidemics were common.

Image Courtesy Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

4. Some bullets fired during the Civil War actually fused together
The two Minie balls pictured at left collided in midair on “Bloody Hill” during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, August 10, 1861. One is .69 caliber, the other .58 caliber; they were recovered in the early 1950s. Two bullets colliding in midair is a relatively rare occurrence, and bears witness to the heavy fighting that took place on “Bloody Hill.” Sergeant George W. Hutt, of the 1st Kansas Infantry, described the fight as “a perfect hurricane of bullets.”



Photo taken on November 17, 1865, depicting Company E, 4th US Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln, North Dakota

5. The Emancipation Proclamation did not ban slavery
Prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 obligated non-slave states to return escaped slaves back to their owners. Lincoln’s Proclamation was meant to punish the Confederate States, not make slavery illegal. Since Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri didn’t rebel against the Union, they were allowed to keep their slaves. Slaves who managed to escape the Confederate States into Union territory could join the military in return for a salary, but could not become Union citizens. Black soldiers eventually made up one-tenth of the Union Army. Some historians believe that this influx helped to turn the tide of the war in favor of the Union.

What interesting facts do you know about the Civil War? Please share in the comments below.



The Civil War’s Biggest Debacle You Probably Never Heard Of

Baker’s Crossing at Ball’s Bluff

As a lover of history, I’m blessed to make my home in the northwestern corner of Virginia anywhere from a few miles to a few hours drive from many of our nation’s richest historical treasures. Places like Jamestown, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Antietam, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Harper’s Ferry, Fort McHenry and of course, our nation’s capital, just to name a few.

Nestled behind a residential neighborhood in Leesburg, Virginia, the small town where I grew up, is the site where one of the first major debacles of the Civil War took place–the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Compared to places like Gettysburg, Franklin and Antietam, Ball’s Bluff is merely a skirmish in the opening days of our nation’s Civil War. Like most civil war battlefields, quiet cannons inform visitors that this hidden spot at the end of a gravel road once roared with the sound of artillery shells, the whistle of minie balls and most likely the deafening sound of the rebel yell.

Today, you can hike down the footpath past a national cemetery and eventually come to a precipice about 120 feet above the Potomac River. A ridge that proved quite deadly for Union forces on October 21, 1861.

Potomac overlook at Ball’s Bluff National Military Cemetery

The Potomac was not only a vital waterway for the transportation of troops and supplies but it held significant symbolism as the boundary between northern and southern states. “As soon as secession happened, the Potomac became the most important river in the Civil War,” said Jonathan Earle, an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas. “The Potomac was a psychological border as well as a physical one.”

In the fall of 1861, with Confederate troops camped in Manassas, Virginia, only 25 miles from the U.S. capital, control of the river was imperative for Federal troops. General McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, didn’t want to cede control of the upper Potomac and lose access to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Point of Rocks, Maryland and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Learning that Rebels were positioned at the bluff in Leesburg, McClellan wired General Charles P. Stone, stationed in Poolesville, Maryland, across the Potomac from Leesburg, suggesting that “perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”

High ground claimed by Confederate forces at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff

General Stone sent three regiments across the river, one at Ball’s Bluff and two at Edwards Ferry a few miles downriver. There wasn’t a bridge anywhere along that stretch of the river, and it was too deep to ford, so they had to rely on boats. Only three were available at Harrison’s Island, a two-mile strip of land occupying a bend in the Potomac facing Ball’s Bluff. Stone informed McClellan, “We are a little short of boats.”

They were also short on military strategy. The man who quickly took command of the operation was the U.S. Senator from Oregon, Colonel Edward Baker. Baker was an advocate of “bold and determined” action and a close friend of President Lincoln’s. Although gifted in oratory, the colonel was deficient in military strategy allowing Union forces to be cornered against a bluff overlooking the river, with only a few skiffs available if retreat became necessary.

It was the perfect recipe for a military tragedy: sketchy information, a river too deep to ford, not enough boats and soldiers who couldn’t swim.

Confederate and Union fores engage in hand-to-hand combat as federal forces attempt to rescue the body of Colonel Edward Baker.

Unbeknownst to Baker, the Confederate commander, General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, had sent his men from Edwards Ferry to Ball’s Bluff. The rebels had superior position in the woods, picking off Baker’s men as they struggled to ascend the ridge. Baker himself began working artillery pieces. The rebels charged, whooping, and the fighting turned hand to hand.

The New York World reported what happened next: “One huge red-haired ruffian drew a revolver, came close to Baker, and fired four balls at the general’s head, every one of which took effect, and a glorious soul fled through their ghastly openings.” The Battle of Ball’s Bluff still remains the only military engagement where a sitting U.S. senator was killed in action.

Hundreds of Union soldiers scrambled and stumbled down the steep bluff. So many boarded a flatboat that it foundered. Soon all three skiffs had sunk. Rebels stood atop the bluff and fired at the men below. It was, the rebels would say later, like a “turkey shoot.” Whom the bullets didn’t kill, the water did. Dozens of men drowned burdened by wool uniforms, boots and heavy weapons.

Retreating Union soldiers weigh down a skiff in the Potomac River

No one could claim the Federals lacked courage however a case could be made for incompetent leadership. Ball’s Bluff inspired Congress to create the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. It’s first victim was Gen. Charles P. Stone, accused unjustly and irrationally of treason and thrown without formal charges into a prison cell in New York harbor. Stone was eventually released and returned to the Union cause, but his reputation never fully recovered from the Ball’s Bluff calamity.

The Battle of Ball’s Bluff taught the Union an important lesson about the importance of military principles, of logistics, of avenues of retreat. Coming after the Union defeat in Manassas, Ball’s Bluff foreshadowed what history has taught us–the suppression of the Confederacy would be a long and bloody endeavor. Anyone in Washington who remained unclear about the challenge facing the Union needed merely to visit the banks of the Potomac where the bodies of Union soldiers were washing up as far down river as Mount Vernon.

This modern image of the Potomac River below Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery is serene now compared to the day she swallowed so many Union soldiers in 1861.

I’m curious how many readers have heard of this tragic encounter at Ball’s Bluff before reading today’s post.



Take a Peek Inside a 19th Century Physician’s Kit

Are you familiar with the 1960s TV game show, Let’s Make a Deal? The host, Monty Hall, would ask costumed contestants, known as trades, for an item and if they could divulge it, they had they had the  opportunity to trade it for hidden prizes. Requested items could range from a safety pin to a plunger or yardstick. Contestants would bring everything they could think of, including the kitchen sink because they new knew what Monty might ask them to produce.

19th century medical bag, photo courtesy of Melnick Medical Museum

During the 19th century, rural doctors were general practitioners by necessity. They delivered babies, set broken limbs, pulled teeth, and tended to all sorts of wounds and diseases. Except in large metropolitan areas, few doctors had medical specialties. Similar to contestants on Let’s Make a Deal, rural physicians needed a variety of tools to be prepared for any situation.

Doctors traveled long distances on foot, on horseback, in wagons, buggies, ferries, canoes and boats. Traveling to a settlement might be a cross country journey on nothing more than an unmarked trail. The doctor’s bag was designed to carry the tools of the trade and withstand travel in all sorts of weather. Bags of durable oiled canvas or leather stood up to extended travel, whatever the season and terrain.

What might you find in the 19th century doctor’s bag?

Midwifery Kit, United Kingdom, 1866-1900, courtesy of

A variety of tools for everything from pulling teeth to delivering a baby to amputate a limb might be found inside. A basic medical kit would include scalpels, tweezers, razors, and scissors. They would have carried catgut for suturing and gauze bandaging as well. If they were desperate, human or horse hair, or even fiddle strings would suffice when stitching up an injured patient.

Bullet probes and extractors were very important items. They looked like bent tongs or forceps. They came in various lengths to extract a bullet, depending where it was located in the body.

Other items in the bag might include a stethoscope, glass thermometer (3 inch mercury ones started around 1867; up until then they were longer at 6 inches, sometimes 12), splints for broken bones, vaginal specula, forceps for labor and delivery, and bloodletting instruments.


A frontier doctor would have also needed tools for general surgical procedures of the time.

19th century general surgical kit

This would include items such as tourniquets, knives and scalpels, and saws for amputation.

The use of antiseptics would not have been on the mind of these pioneer doctors. Although Louis Pasteur’s research provided solid evidence in support of the germ theory of disease, American physician’s clung to the older view that germs were spontaneously generated. The American Medical community also opposed Joseph Lister’s research indicating that the use of carbolic acid to clean medical and surgical instruments significantly decreased the  rate of infection and mortality from surgery. Therefore American doctors took no care to clean their instruments, wear gloves, or fully seal wounds. In fact, drainage of “laudable pus” and inflammation were considered signs that a wound was healing properly.

Because the antiseptic technique was slow to be adopted in American hospitals, medical instruments continued to be manufactured with decorative etching, wooden or grooved handles, and velvet cases, like those pictured above, reflecting that hesitancy.

19th century chloroform inhaler

Doctors would have had a variety of painkillers at their disposal including laudanum, morphine and cocaine. For more on 19th century painkillers, see my post “Got Anything for the Pain, Doc?”

By 1850, most frontier doctors carried some basic anesthetics for use in extreme cases. Nitrous oxide, called Laughing Gas because of its euphoria inducing qualities, was first used as a dental anesthetic in 1844. Ether was used for general anesthesia starting in 1846, and chloroform in 1847. Chloroform anesthesia became very popular after it was administered to Queen Victoria in 1853 for childbirth.

Keeping up with the latest medical procedures would have been a high priority for rural doctors as well. The American Medical Association began in Philadelphia in 1847. Members received a quarterly newsletter announcing new methods of surgery, recent research, advice from prominent physicians on the East Coast or Europe.

Because of their dedication to their patients, frontier doctors were often the most well-known and most valued members of their communities. They likely delivered every child in the community and sat with the dying as they drew their last breath. They saw people into and out of this world, and in the meantime tried to keep them alive and healthy. Their selfless devotion to their patients and and creative ingenuity have left a legacy that continues to capture the imagination of the American people.



Letters from History: An Ex-slave Writes His Former Master

Long before God put a dream in my heart to be a writer, I loved the written word. The ability to skillfully craft your thoughts and manipulate the words to convey the exact meaning you desire is a benefit that oral communication often lacks. As a lover of history, diaries and letters from generations gone by provide glimpses into a culture and way of life that is often hard for us to understand in the 21st century. The vocabulary can tell us if the writer was educated and the tone can give insight into the character of the person who penned it.

One such letter recently caught my attention. In “A Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master,” Jourdan Anderson responds to his former master’s request that he return to the family’s plantation and help restore the farm to it’s pre-Civil War . In his letter, Jourdan’s satirical wit shines and is often compared to the dry humor of American novelist, Mart Twain.

Jourdan Anderson

Who was Jordan Anderson?

Not much is known about the former slave other than he was born “somewhere” in Tennessee in 1825.  He was later sold as a young boy of 7 or 8 years to General Paulding Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee. The General gifted Jourdan to his son Patrick who often went by his middle name, Henry. Jourdan went on to become one of the most skilled workers on the Anderson’s plantation. In 1848, her married Amanda McGregor on the Anderson’s plantation and together they had 11 children.

Similar to most slaves, the outbreak of the civil war changed Jourdan’s life very life little. However in 1864, a group of Union soldiers stumbled upon Jourdan toiling on the property and granted him, his wife and children their freedom, making the act official with papers from the Provost Marshal General of Nashville. Documents Jordan would treasure for the rest of his life.

With his new emancipation papers in hand, Jourdan and his family promptly left the plantation. An act that angered Henry so greatly he shot at his former slave repeatedly as he fled with his family, only ceasing to fire when a neighbor grabbed Henry’s pistol.

Jourdan and his family eventually made their way to Dayton, Ohio where a local abolitionist, Valentine Winters, helped him and his wife secure employment. While there, the couple’s children were enrolled in school, something the illiterate Jourdan was never allowed to do.

Now this is where the story gets really interesting.

It was here in 1865, that Jourdan received a letter from his former master, Henry Anderson. Unable to read, Jourdan took the letter to Winters and asked him to read it aloud. As it turns out, the letter audaciously invited Jourdan and his family to to return to the Big Spring plantation which had fallen into disrepair. Deeply in debt and desperate to save himself from financial ruin, Henry implored his former slave, a man he knew had the skills to save the plantation, to not only return himself but to convince other freed slaves to come with him. In the letter, Anderson promises to pay any laborers for their work and to treat them as any other freed man.

Jourdan’s original letter reprinted in the Salt Lake Tribune, August 1865.

Some people would have had a good laugh then ball up the letter and throw it away, taking delight in his former master’s change of circumstances. But Jourdan had another idea. After several days of pondering Henry’s offer, Jourdan invited Winters to his home and requested that he write a letter in response that Jourdan would dictate. At Jourdan’s request, Winters sent the following letter to the man who had enslaved his family that Jourdan himself titled, “A Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master.”


“A Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master”

Dayton, Ohio,
August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,
Jourdon Anderson.

From Former Slave to Media Sensation

As fate would have it, if Jourdan had crumpled up that tempting offer of employment from his former owner and gone on with his peaceful life in Ohio, we wouldn’t be talking about him today. You see, Jourdan’s friend, Valentine Winters later had the letter published in the Cincinnati Commercial under the same title. The satirical eloquence with which Jourdan politely told his boss where he could shove his offer of employment made the letter immensely popular. Eventually the letter was reprinted in papers across the country and even in Europe, making Jourdan a media sensation by today’s standards and his former master a laughing stock.

To no one’s surprise, Henry never took Jordan up on his offer to pay him 50 years of past wages up front and Jourdan’s highly publicized response likely prevented any of the family’s other slaves from being tempted back to the family’s Tennessee plantation. As a result, the crops that year were never harvested. Henry, deeply in debt, had to sell the plantation for a fraction of its worth and he died penniless and destitute a few years later at age 44.

As for Jordan, he lived and worked in Dayton for the rest of his life, dying in 1907 at the age of 81. His beloved wife, Mandy, died six years later and is buried alongside him.

What is your reaction to Jourdan’s letter? If you had been in his shoes, would you have feared any retribution?


What Do Macaroni, a Wheel Cipher and the Presidency Have in Common?

Q: What Do Macaroni, a Wheel Cipher and the Presidency Have in Common?

A: Thomas Jefferson

That’s right! When he wasn’t drafting the Declaration of Independence, establishing the University of Virginia or serving as the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson  was also an inventor and an innovator.

Here’s a list of some of the his amazing inventions:

Courtesy of Monticello

The “Wheel Cipher”– Long before electronic encryption and account passwords, codes were needed to make sure messages stayed safe. Jefferson’s device consisted of twenty six letters inscribed on cylindrical wooden pieces threaded together onto an iron spindle. The pieces with the letters could be rearranged to send coded messages that could be easily deciphered with the right key.

Courtesy Agricultural History Museum

Iron Plow – Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, was one of the largest in Virginia but his fields were prone to erosion because of the of the Virginia climate and the rolling hills. The plows of his day were made from wood and could only partially dig into the soil. Jefferson needed a plow that could dig up to three inches deeper to facilitate hillside planting. Together with his his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, he created an iron and moldboard plow that could create furrows down hillsides. Iron plows were also more durable.

Courtesy of Monticello

“Macaroni Machine” – Following his travels to Europe, Jefferson developed a passion for fine wine and European cuisine. One of his favorite foods was macaroni.  Jefferson created the “macaroni machine” which forced the pasta dough through six small holes so that it could have that classic elbow bend thus allowing his personal chef to create the pasta dish in less time. Side note, Jefferson also enjoyed adding various cheeses to traditional dishes, often melting it into a type of sauce and many food historians credit Jefferson with the invention of macaroni and cheese!

Swivel Chair – There is some dispute over this one, but many historians credit Jefferson with the invention of this office staple. While in Philadelphia, Jefferson purchased a simple English-style Windsor chair from a local cabinet maker. Then Jefferson set about modifying the chair so that the top and bottom parts were connected by a central iron spindle-enabling the seat to swivel. Legend has it that Jefferson drafted the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 in his swivel chair. Jefferson later had the invention sent to his Virginia plantation where he later built a “writing paddle” onto its side in 1791. Since 1836, the chair has been in the possession of the American Philosophical Society located in Philadelphia.

Devices Jefferson Improved Upon:

Courtesy of Monticello

The Polygraph Duplicator  – Not the kind we think of today for measuring the veracity of a suspect’s testimony, but instead a copy machine. Long before carbon paper, this was a machine used to copy letters by imitating the movements of the writer’s hand. It was originally invented by the Englishman John Isaac Hawkins, who later sold the rights to produce and market the device in America to Charles Willson Peale. Jefferson purchased many versions of the Polygraph from Peale, several of which were developed after recommendations for improvements by Jefferson himself. Jefferson called the device,”the finest invention of the present age.”

Courtesy of Monticello

“Dumb Waiter” – During a trip to a Parisian cafe, Jefferson observed the staff using a mechanical dumb waiter. Once he returned to Monticello, he drew designs and adapted the device to accommodate wine bottles. Servants controlled the dumbwaiter by using a pulley system that would safely deliver the beverage from the kitchen to his drawing room while entertaining. Jefferson even devised an inconspicuous place for his creation, hiding it in the side of a fireplace inside his Virginia plantation house.

Although he did not invent crop rotations, Jefferson improved many crop rotation methods, farming implements, and developed over 300 types of hybrid vegetation at Monticello.  He also invented a rotating book stand, a folding ladder, the lazy Susan and a seven-day clock . Jefferson thought of furnishings as a waste of space. His dining room table was designed to be fold away when not in use, while beds were often positioned in alcoves.

Thomas Jefferson commented on his love for science, saying “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.” Despite his fascination with science, technology and innovation, Jefferson never filed for a patent. Jefferson, a strong proponent of equality among all people, was not sure if it was fair or even constitutional to grant what was essentially a monopoly to an inventor, who would then be able to grant the use of his idea only to those who could afford it.

Which Jeffersonian invention or innovation surprised you the most?



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