11/25/2014

Very Busy, Please Stand By . . .

I'm working to finish up a book that will be published next year by Rowman & Littlefield, and I haven't had a lot of time to devote to Drye Goods. But keep an eye on this space. I'll be posting a new Civil War essay in January 2015, and perhaps a few other new posts when I get caught up. So please check back from time to time. And scroll down the page to check out some of the 200 or so Drye Goods posts from the last seven years. By the way, the accompanying comic is by Berke Breathed, who drew the classic comic strip "Bloom County," one of my all-time favorites. Happy Thanksgiving.

6/20/2014

A Letter from Petersburg


Engraving of the Battle of Petersburg is from the website Son of the South.

The closest post office to my great-great grandfather Allison Dry’s farm would’ve been in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, about five miles away. That’s where the letter telling him that his son, Daniel, had been killed at Petersburg, Virginia on June 17, 1864 would’ve been sent.

It's been said that the post office was the only department in the Confederate States government that was operated efficiently, but it still would’ve been days or perhaps a week or more before word of Daniel’s death reached his family in rural Cabarrus County.
It was customary during the Civil War for commanding officers of soldiers killed in action to write letters to their families explaining how their kin had died. But officers – especially those commanding troops in combat – didn’t have a lot of spare time, and so days probably passed before Captain Jonas Cook, commander of Company H of the 8th North Carolina Infantry, could take a moment to write letters to the families of fallen soldiers.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that one of Daniel’s friends in Company H scrawled a hasty note to his family telling them that he’d been killed, and that this letter reached Daniel's family before that of the company commander.

Whenever the letter was written, it would’ve taken several more days to move from Petersburg to Mount Pleasant. Rural free delivery of mail was decades away, and so Allison would’ve had to make a trip into Mount Pleasant to collect his mail. So the letter with the awful news may have waited for several more days in the Mount Pleasant post office until Allison had time to go check his mail.
I wonder how Allison and his family dealt with this latest dose of bad news. Daniel was the second of his sons to die in the war. His son Thomas had died of smallpox about five months earlier in the Union prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. And he’d also lost two brothers. His brother Henry had died of typhoid in Charleston, South Carolina in 1863, and his brother Moses had been killed at the Battle of Plymouth only two months earlier.

His son William, my great-grandfather, had been imprisoned at Point Lookout since being captured at the Battle of Bristoe Station in Virginia in October 1863. About 50,000 Confederates were held there, barely surviving on a starvation diet.
By the summer of 1864, only a miracle could save the Confederate cause, but Southerners were more than willing to hold out for that miracle. And it could have come in the form of the U.S. presidential election in November. President Abraham Lincoln had doubts about whether he'd win reelection. He knew that if he lost, a new president of the war-weary Union might be willing to settle for a negotiated peace that would either have allowed the Confederate States to remain a separate nation or allowed the seceded states back into the Union with slavery preserved.

For months, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been trying to keep his Army of Northern Virginia between the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. He was stalling for time, hoping he could keep up some sort of resistance until the fall election. It was a long shot, but it was the only chance he had.
The regimental history of the 8th North Carolina Infantry doesn’t have a lot to say about the events of June 17, 1864. The unit was ordered to Petersburg on June 14. They arrived on the afternoon of June 16 and immediately dug into defensive positions near Petersburg where, only a few months earlier, they’d engaged in a raucous snowball fight with comrades in the 51st North Carolina Infantry.

 “There was no time to be lost,” H.T.J Ludwig wrote in the unit’s regimental history in 1900. “The enemy was advancing. The line of battle was formed in the (earth) works around that city and the approach of the enemy awaited.”
“On the morning of the 17th the firing began early,” Ludwig wrote. “All forenoon there was heavy skirmishing. About 5 p.m. it was evident that a heavy assault on our line was contemplated. The enemy was massing his troops in our front. Just before dark the assault was made. The enemy succeeded in breaking the line occupied by the brigade on our immediate right and rushed his forces into the breach thus made. The Eighth Regiment was ordered to assist in driving the enemy out and regaining the line. The work was done and the line re-established. After several hours fighting the enemy retired, leaving our line unbroken.”

At some point during this “several hours of fighting” that ended in the fading light of June 17, 1864, Daniel was killed. He was 20 years old. He's buried in a mass grave at the Petersburg battlefield.

Had Union troops broken the Confederate line that day, Richmond would have been vulnerable and the Civil War might very well have been over in a matter of days or weeks. But the stubborn Confederate resistance meant that Grant would have to lay siege to Petersburg, and the war would drag on for another 10 grueling months.

Sources for this post included Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, and an interview with Robert Krick, historian at the Richmond National Battlefield Park.


4/20/2014

Another Death in the Family at the Battle of Plymouth

This map from Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65 shows Plymouth in April 1864. Our house, built around 1870, is indicated by the orange and red triangle near the center of the map.

Years after the Civil War ended in 1865, author George Nowitzky visited Plymouth – where my wife and I live – as part of the research he was doing for a book. What he saw astonished him.

“There is no town or city in the United States that shows more scars of war than Plymouth, N.C.,” he wrote in 1888. “Every few steps within the business portion brought me to excavations and low stone walls which but too plainly show that they were formerly cellars and foundations to buildings that have passed into smoke, ashes and history.”
Plymouth’s location in northeastern North Carolina on the Roanoke River near the Albemarle Sound offered an important strategic advantage to whoever held it. So Union and Confederate armies battled to control the town throughout the war. And any town that must repeatedly endure being the object of contention between two hostile armies is going to be left in shambles.

Union troops occupied Plymouth in early 1862. Control of the town went back and forth until late 1864. It’s been said that at the end of the war, there were only 11 buildings in the town that had not been destroyed or heavily damaged. All that remained, Nowitzky wrote, were “nothing but ghostly looking brick chimneys and stone foundations which could not burn.”
Reminders and scars of the war are still visible. Former Union soldiers returned to Plymouth after the war to repair Grace Episcopal Church over at the corner of Madison and Water streets a few blocks from our house. But I’m told that there are a few holes made by cannonballs in some of the lumber in the interior of its steeple.

Less than a block down Washington Street from our home is a house with plainly visible bullet holes around one window, reminders of fierce street fighting that happened here on December 10, 1862 when Confederate raiders attacked Union troops and set fire to houses on Columbia Street, now Main Street.
Confederate forces regained control of the town during the Battle of Plymouth, fought April 17-20, 1864. On April 18, the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle chased Union gunboats down the Roanoke River and then shelled Union troops in the town.

Our house sits on ground that was occupied in April 1864 by Fort Williams, a Union fort. It’s possible that the shot that killed Moses Dry 150 years ago today was fired from this fort. Moses was the brother of my great-great grandfather, Allison Dry and the uncle of my great-grandfather, William C. Dry, and his brothers, Thomas Dry and Daniel Dry.
Moses was 45 years old when he enlisted in the Confederate Army in May 1863. His comrades-in-arms in the 8th North Carolina Infantry bore surnames that are common today in telephone books back home in Stanly, Cabarrus and Rowan counties – Barringer, Blackwelder, Culp, Earnhart, Eudy, Fisher, Goodman, Honeycutt, Isenhour, Lowder, Misenheimer, Ridenhour, Ritchie, and Safrit, among others.

Moses may have met his end when his unit made a spirited but foolish and futile charge on the morning of April 20 to try to oust the defenders from Fort Williams, by then the last Union stronghold in Plymouth.
“The men charged up to the edge of the surrounding ditch, only to find that it could not be crossed,” wrote John W. Graham, a former Confederate officer who fought in the battle and contributed to a history of North Carolina troops that was published in 1901. “There was but one of two courses to take, to-wit: either to fall back or to surrender. The regiment chose the former. When the retreat began, the enemy poured a fearful volley into the ranks, killing and wounding many of the men. This charge was reckless and unnecessary. It was made under the flush of victory, and not by order of the commanding general.”

Fort Williams surrendered after being pounded by Confederate artillery. The Battle of Plymouth was over, and the town was back in Confederate hands – for a few months.

Union military strategists were determined to retake the town, but with the Albemarle anchored on the Plymouth waterfront, that was impossible. In October 1864, a young Union Navy officer named William Cushing led a daring nighttime raid in a small wooden steamboat and sank the Albemarle.
With the ironclad sitting on the bottom of the Roanoke, Union forces attacked and drove Confederates out of town. Part of the town caught fire when a Confederate ammunition storehouse exploded during the battle.

Back on the family farm in Cabarrus County, about 240 miles inland from Plymouth, the news of Moses Dry’s death was another crushing blow to his brother, Allison Dry.

Allison’s brother Henry, who enlisted in the Confederate Army in May 1863 at the age of 40, died of typhoid only three months later in Charleston, South Carolina. His oldest son William was taken prisoner at the Battle of Bristoe Station in October 1863 and confined in a hellhole of a Union prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. And his son Thomas, who was captured during the first day’s fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, had been imprisoned at the same POW camp as William, where he died of smallpox in January 1864.
Allison would receive more terrible news in June 1864.

Sources for this essay included Ironclads and Columbiads: The Civil War in North Carolina, by William R. Trotter; Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, edited by Walter Clark; and Norfolk: The Marine Metropolis of Virginia and the Sound and River Cities of North Carolina, by George Nowitzky.


3/19/2014

Everything I Know About Wealth I Learned From Uncle Scrooge

The cover of "Uncle Scrooge" #19, drawn by
Carl Barks and published in September 1957.
A billionaire’s recent inane fretting about being an oversized target for radical progressives out to separate him from his immense wealth reminded me of a comic book character I loved when I was growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Walt Disney comic “Uncle Scrooge” featured the adventures of Scrooge McDuck, the world’s richest duck. The character was created by Carl Barks, an artist who developed his remarkable talent – and maybe his elaborate fantasies about great wealth – in his spare time while working a series of menial, low-paying jobs. And while he presumably made a living during the time he worked for Disney, he never approached the kind of wealth that he imagined for Uncle Scrooge.

When I was eight or nine years old, I couldn’t wait to get the latest “Uncle Scrooge” comic. And I was far from alone. Although Disney had a stable of artists drawing Uncle Scrooge and other “duck” comics, Barks’s work made him a cult figure among young Baby Boomers who were just starting to read. His fascinating, well-researched stories and drawings full of detail and texture were immediately distinguishable from other Disney artists’ depictions of the same characters.

Barks’s humble jobs and his struggles to make an honest dollar undoubtedly influenced his characterization of Scrooge McDuck and shaped the wonderful stories he told of Scrooge’s adventures. But the work of all artists went out under Walt Disney’s stylized signature. So he was anonymous to his young Boomer fans, who referred to him simply as “the good artist.” They didn’t know who he was until late in his life after he’d retired and the Boomers, now grown, started spending big bucks to reacquire the comics their mothers had thrown out when they were kids.

Barks created a fascinating character who was obsessed with his wealth and had a personal attachment to every dollar he’d ever earned. Scrooge had lucrative business interests around the world and lived in a giant cube-shaped piggybank known as the Money Bin. It contained three cubic acres of cash, including the first dime he ever earned.

In one episode, Scrooge said it took him 13 years to count all the money in the Money Bin, which sat atop a hill overlooking the city of Duckburg, in the state of Calisota. In another episode, his wealth was expressed as a five, followed by 77 zeroes.

Scrooge wasn't interested in using his mountain of cash for pleasure or power. His motivation for accumulating such vast wealth was simply to prove he was a better man or duck -- than his competitors. He had little use for those who made their money off of other people’s money and ideas. In one episode, he is asked if he made his money in banking.

“Banking?” he answered with a snort. “I made it on the seas, and in the mines, and in the cattle wars of the old frontiers. I made it by being tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties. And I made it square.”

Unlike some of today’s uber-wealthy – including the fretful billionaire mentioned earlier – McDuck avoided conspicuous displays of his wealth. He did not own a car, and he refused to buy new clothes or even replace his eyeglasses. And he wouldn’t buy newspapers, preferring to roam public parks looking for copies of yesterday’s papers left behind by less-thrifty Duckburg residents.

The splash-panel for one of the first Uncle Scrooge adventures
drawn by Carl Barks shows Scrooge McDuck pursuing his
favorite pastime. The story was published by Walt Disney
in 1952.
The sole pleasure that Scrooge took from his money was an odd and rather sensual one. For him, life’s greatest delight was diving into his piles of cash like a porpoise, and burrowing into it like a gopher, and tossing up coins and letting them hit him on the head.

Scrooge’s only relatives were his nephew, Donald Duck, who lived in a modest house in Duckburg with his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Donald and his nephews joined Scrooge for his adventures, and nearly all of the stories consisted of his efforts to either acquire more wealth or prevent it from being stolen, usually by his arch-nemeses, the Beagle Boys.

Although Huey, Dewey and Louie were kids, they were wise beyond their years and inevitably provided the knowledge needed to safeguard Scrooge’s fortune or crack an ancient code or solve an ancient mystery that added more treasure to their great-uncle’s holdings. And they usually obtained that valuable information from an infinite storehouse of the world’s knowledge and history – the Junior Woodchucks’ Guide Book.

But even though Donald and his nephews repeatedly rescued Scrooge from impossible difficulties, saved his vast fortune from being plundered by the Beagle Boys, and helped add immeasurable riches to his Money Bin, he always squawked loudly at having to cough up the pay – 30 cents an hour – he’d promised them for their help.

I read and re-read my “Uncle Scrooge” comics, and so I guess that’s where I formed my earliest impressions of how rich people behave. To me, Scrooge represented American capitalism, and he gave me the impression that somewhere in their souls, rich people were decent folks who would do the right thing for the common good when the time came.

I’m older now, and while I’ve somehow managed to avoid becoming wealthy, I do have a little more sophisticated understanding of how immense wealth sometimes affects human behavior.

Wealth obviously was affecting that billionaire I mentioned earlier. And his comments seem to have prompted other wealthy men to voice their own fears and frustrations about how the world perceives them.

Scrooge also was terrified of losing his money. But this comic book character differed from some of his real-life counterparts in one way – he occasionally showed a social consciousness. There were times during his adventures when he reluctantly realized that the only right thing to do was spend a sizeable amount of money to help someone who needed and deserved help.

Wealthy philanthropists aren’t fantasy characters confined to the pages of comic books, however. Henry Flagler was the son of a poor Presbyterian minister. He became John D. Rockefeller’s business partner at Standard Oil and used his great wealth to essentially invent modern Florida around the turn of the 19th century.

Flagler’s upbringing influenced his world view. “If money is spent for personal uses, to promote idleness, luxury and selfishness, it is a curse to the possessor and to society,” he said in 1907. “Wealth brings obligation, moral and governmental. It has but one legitimate function, and that is its employment for the welfare of the nation.”

Flagler obviously enjoyed his wealth, and unlike Scrooge, he didn’t try to conceal it. Whitehall, his home in Palm Beach, is a 100,000-square-foot, 75-room palace that the New York Herald described in 1902 as “grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.” It’s also a far cry from the frugal-and-fictional Scrooge McDuck’s plain and utilitarian Money Bin.

Still, Flagler realized that there is such a thing as noblesse oblige. And Scrooge realized that there are times when the only right thing to do was help someone in need, regardless of how painful it was to him.

I’ve got nothing against money, and I do wish I had more of it. I don’t begrudge the wealthy their prosperity. But I do wish more of the most-fortunate had more in common with Henry Flagler, the real-life plutocrat, and Scrooge McDuck, the comic book character.