Tag Archives: american history

Mystery photo unseen for 30 years may show Civil War gunship

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FILE 2015: Divers prepare to descend onto the wreck site of the CSS Georgia near the channel of the Savannah River, Savannah, Ga. The recovery of the Confederate ironclad ship marks the beginning of the construction phase of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. (AP Photo/Georgia Port Authority, Stephen Morton)

John Potter says he was browsing for antiques at a yard sale in south Georgia when he came across an old picture frame containing an enigmatic image — the dark silhouette of a person in a hat and coat standing to one side and a long, boxy structure looming in the background.

Potter says he didn’t have the $175 the owner in Waycross wanted for the photograph, a hazy image further blurred by stains from water or chemicals. He also recalls finding a written clue to decoding the image on back of the frame. The inscription read: “CSS Georgia.”

“I knew exactly what it was,” said Potter, a Savannah native now living in North Carolina. “I thought, `This belongs in a museum.”‘

That was roughly 30 years ago. The only evidence of the mystery image are photographs snapped of the original to share with historian friends back in Savannah. Civil War experts say the image, if authenticated, would be the only known photograph of the CSS Georgia, an armored Confederate warship that was scuttled by its own crew 150 years ago as Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops captured Savannah.

“Believe me, if I had thought that the image was the CSS Georgia, I would have moved mountains to make sure we got it.”- Paul Blatner, museum curator

Experts still have many questions about the sunken ironclad, and they think the original photo could help them find answers.

“The photo is just as much a mystery as the CSS Georgia, because nobody has seen it in years,” said Julie Morgan, an archaeologist for the Army Corps of Engineers.

The federal agency is spending $14 million to raise the Confederate ship’s wreckage from the bottom of the Savannah River. Divers have been in the water since January and work is expected to wrap up this fall.

In a military sense, the CSS Georgia was an ironclad flop that never fired a shot in battle. The Civil War ushered in the era of armored warships. In Savannah, a Ladies Gunboat Association raised $115,000 to build such a ship to protect the city. But the 120-foot-long CSS Georgia’s engines proved too weak to propel its 1,200-ton frame against river currents. It stayed anchored off Fort Jackson as a floating gun battery before it was scuttled in December 1864.

No photographs of the ironclad have been confirmed. Neither have blueprints or construction plans. Several artists drew renderings of the CSS Georgia, but they differ in their details.

If the image Potter found the 1980s could be authenticated, would it necessarily be the CSS Georgia?

Robert Holcombe, former curator of the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, dug up archival information on the CSS Georgia for a report to the Army Corps in 2003. Holcombe said the shape in the photo conforms with known aspects of the CSS Georga’s design that made it unique among ironclads — namely an armored casemate that covered the ship’s entire deck with sides sloped at 45-degree angles.

“If it’s an original, it’s certainly the Georgia, just by process of elimination,” Holcombe said. If the photo isn’t authentic, he said, “it’s an awfully good fake.”

The Army Corps is spreading word that it’s seeking the original photograph through its website and by using social media. Morgan said she hopes the owner may have other relics related to the ironclad.

Potter said he tried unsuccessfully to reconnect with the photo’s owner, who soon moved away from Waycross. He donated a photo of the original image to the Georgia Historical Society, which confirmed it received Potter’s gift in March 1986.

A couple of years later, Potter said, he got a letter from a family member of the original image’s owner. He said the letter, which he no longer has, claimed the original photograph had been donated to the Savannah History Museum.

Paul Blatner, the museum’s curator and director from 1984 to 1990, said he never saw a photograph of any Confederate ironclad during his tenure.

“Believe me,” Blatner said, “if I had thought that the image was the CSS Georgia, I would have moved mountains to make sure we got it.”

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American Cities at the Turn of the 19th Century

Photos of American cities from Civil War era to 1912…

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1795 time capsule found in Boston capitol

A time capsule buried in 1795 by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams was unearthed at the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. It is possibly the oldest such U.S. artifact ever uncovered. VPC
A time capsule buried in 1795 by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams was unearthed Thursday in Boston at the Massachusetts Statehouse, possibly the oldest such U.S. artifact ever uncovered.

About the size of a cigar box, the copper container — green from oxidation and caked in plaster — was found in the cornerstone of the “new” statehouse on Beacon Hill, which was completed in 1798.

As Boston Museum of Fine Arts Conservator Pam Hatchfield chiseled away for hours to free the box, five silver coins spilled from the stone block — measures of good luck tossed in when the capsule was entombed by the revolutionary heroes 219 years ago, officials told the Boston Globe. At the time, Adams was known as the governor, not a beer.

The world will have to wait a little longer to learn what’s inside. The museum will X-ray the box over the weekend and reveal its contents next week.

It’s the second time the time capsule has seen the light of day. It was dug out in 1855 during emergency repairs to the building, which houses the legislature and governor’s offices, and replaced when the cornerstone was reset.

Another bit of hidden history was uncovered in September in the city that practically invented American history. A 113-year-old time capsule was found in the golden lion atop the original state capitol.

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Image found of Confederate White House housekeeper

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Mary OMelia is seen in an undated photo provided by the American Civil War Museum. OMelia served at the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.,as housekeeper for Jefferson Davis and his first lady, Varina Davis, and was a confidante of the first lady.The American Civil War Museum

Mary O’Melia left Ireland for America as a young widow with three children before she was hired as housekeeper at the White House of the Confederacy. An intimate witness to history, she also has been much of a mystery.

That was until this year, when a woman with a distinctive Irish lilt to her voice called The American Civil War Museum. The housekeeper, the woman said, was related to her late husband, and she had in her possession a necklace that Confederate first lady Varina Davis gave O’Melia.

But there was more.

“What really took my breath away is she said she had a photograph of Mary,” said Cathy Wright, curator at the Civil War Museum, formerly the Museum of the Confederacy.

“Considering that it’s been almost 150 years since she left the White House that anyone has been able to look at her face is just remarkable,” Wright said in an interview.

The tintype adds a human dimension to what is a tantalizing but frustrating portrait of a woman who left her children in Baltimore to oversee the White House in the capital of the Confederacy during the duration of the Civil War but publicly revealed little of the experience.

O’Melia was among a staff of 20, was a confidante to the first lady, and may have been in the mansion in April 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln visited after Confederate defenders left the city smoldering. Historical records are unclear on that point.

The discovery is important nonetheless because the museum, which is next door to the White House, has strived to piece together the often untold lives of the African-American slaves, free people of color and European immigrants who worked as domestics for the Davis family.

“One of the more elusive figures was Mary O’Melia,” Wright said.

O’Melia was a central character in this Southern version of “Downton Abbey” and she remains a bit of an enigma. Even her name is a mystery. It’s been spelled various ways through the years — O’Melia, O’Malley and O’Malla.

This much is known: she was born Mary Larkin on April 7, 1822, in Galway, in western Ireland. She was educated in a convent, and apparently the fine needlework the religious order of nuns taught her may have influenced her hiring by Varina Davis.

She married a ship captain, Matthias O’Melia, but was widowed at age 25 when he was lost at sea.

While the circumstances of her journey to America are not known, Mary O’Melia settled in Baltimore in about 1850. In 1861, she left her children with relatives and headed to visit friends in Richmond, where she was marooned when Virginia left the Union.

Told by friends Varina Davis could help her return north, she appealed to the Roman Catholic bishop to intercede on her behalf.

Ultimately, Davis prevailed upon O’Melia to take the position as housekeeper and companion to the first lady despite O’Melia’s separation from her children.

O’Melia would eventually remain at the Confederate White House until Richmond’s fall in 1865.

Despite her perch within the Confederate seat of power, O’Melia left little written accounts of her years in Richmond. She left it to others to speculate on her employment, including a reporter who wrote after her death of all the “exciting conferences” she would have witnessed.

When the first family left Richmond in April 1865, O’Melia remained to oversee the mansion.

Writing from Danville days after his departure, President Jefferson Davis wrote to his wife: “Mrs. Omelia behaved just as you described her, but seemed anxious to serve and promised to take care of everything which may mean some things.”

Perhaps a more telling gesture of O’Melia’s connection to the first family of the Confederacy was her correspondence with the Davis family after they parted and a wedding she and Varina Davis attended in 1867. They were the only white people in attendance at the wedding of Ellen Barnes, who had served in the White House.

When Jefferson Davis died in 1889, O’Melia attended a memorial in Baltimore. A reporter said she “attracted considerable attention” and was described as “a well-preserved old lady.”

Wright said O’Melia’s story resonates particularly with her because she calls herself the “modern housekeeper of the White House of the Confederacy.

“I’m supposed to be over there keeping it clean and maintaining it so I’ve always felt a personal affinity for her,” she said.

After her service at the White House, O’Melia returned to Baltimore where she operated boarding houses until her death in 1907.

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Historians unravel mystery behind cryptic Lincoln note

Historians unravel mystery behind cryptic Lincoln note

Published March 09, 2014

Associated Press
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    This photo provided by Papers of Abraham Lincoln project shows a note written by Abraham Lincoln. (AP)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. –  The cryptic note penned by Abraham Lincoln identifies its recipient only as “my dear Sir” and has a small section carefully clipped out.

Who was he writing to and why was a key piece of information later removed so meticulously?

Historians believe they have unraveled the mystery and uncovered a bit of political intrigue in the process.

Researchers at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project concluded Lincoln was writing to an ally to ask him to maintain a secret relationship with a political insider during the 1860 election campaign.

Lincoln asked his cohort to “keep up a correspondence” with the person, a phrase that gave researchers their best clue. They ran it through a searchable database of Lincoln’s papers and found several matches.

One was in a letter to Lincoln from fellow attorney and Republican Leonard Swett of Bloomington, Ill.

The two men, it turns out, were conspiring to keep tabs on a New York political figure. The mystery note was Lincoln’s response to Swett’s letter, the researchers surmised.

“If you can keep up a correspondence with him without much effort, it will be well enough,” Lincoln wrote to Swett. “I like to know his views occasionally.”

Swett’s earlier letter also had a clue about who the political insider was. It referred to “our friend TW of Albany,” who researchers concluded was Thurlow Weed, a Republican newspaper editor and political boss of New York state.

Lincoln was seeking Weed’s support in New York, even though Weed had been backing front-runner William H. Seward for the Republican presidential nomination. Lincoln got his way, ultimately winning Weed’s support. Seward later became his secretary of state.

But Lincoln couldn’t be seen as close to Weed during the campaign so he recruited Swett to be a secret go-between. That also explains why Swett clipped Tweed’s name from Lincoln’s note.

A New York City manuscript dealer recently contacted the Papers of Abraham Lincoln for help solving the riddle.

The group of researchers is trying to identify, transcribe and publish all documents written by or to Lincoln. Project Director Daniel Stowell said Saturday that solving the mystery behind the note points to the project’s value.

“To be able to identify the date, recipient and subject of such a brief letter is a remarkable achievement,” he said.

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1884: The Stevens Bicycle Rifle

1884: The Stevens Bicycle Rifle

March 7, 2014
Stevens-Bicycle-Rifle

Source: Old Bike
Nothing says Second Amendment rights like a nice rifle bicycle.  Stay in shape, get around, and protect yourself.  Could be good for a zombie apocalypse too…  Of course if they made something like this is Massachusetts today, the ATF would raid them.

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Hidden fortress found under Alcatraz

Hidden fortress found under Alcatraz

By Rob Quinn

Published February 27, 2014

Newser
  • Hidden fortress found under Alcatraz

    Three armored railroad cars arrive on a car ferry at the United States Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, San Francisco in August 1934. (AP Photo/File)

A surprising find under what used to be America’s most notorious prison: Texas A&M researchers using ground-penetrating radar have discovered the remains of an old military fortress long believed to have been completely destroyed, reports the BBC.

The San Francisco Bay island was once the home of Fort Alcatraz, built upon the discovery of gold in the area and transformed into a line of defense during the Civil War.

The fort never fired a shot during the war, though it did house Confederate sympathizers jailed for denouncing the federal government. The radar has revealed old fortifications along with buried magazine buildings and tunnels dating from long before the main prison building was erected in 1915.

“From 1850 to 1907 was the era of Fortress Alcatraz,” explains Texas A&M professor of geology and geophysics Mark Everett. Much of the remaining fortress is inaccessible under prison buildings, but archeologists hope to start excavations soon on what they believe is an important find under the prison’s parade ground.

“It is called a caponier, and it is a large structure that juts out into the bay and provides defensive cover. We have seen it in the old photographs but it has completely disappeared from present view,” says Everett.

He told the Houston Chronicle last month that the National Park Service had asked his team to search for Civil War-era structures at the site, using equipment that scans under the earth in a way “similar to the way people look for oil deposits.” One other find of note: what is believed to be some of the oldest concrete in the US, which was likely imported from Europe.

(Historians are trying to locate another long-lost US fort, but it turns out they may have been looking in the wrong state.)

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