Archive for February, 2014

George Washington’s Granddaughter on his Religion

February 27, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in War for Independence by

The Washington Family

Many words have been written about the religion of George Washington from his lifetime up to the present. One interesting perspective is that of his step granddaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, who was informally adopted by Washington and grew up with him. She wrote in 1833:

Truro Parish is the one in which Mount Vernon, Pohick Church, and Woodlawn are situated. Fairfax Parish is now Alexandria. Before the Federal District was ceded to Congress, Alexandria was in Fairfax County. General Washington had a pew in Pohick Church, and one in Christ Church at Alexandria. He was very instrumental in establishing Pohick Church, and I believe subscribed largely. His pew was near the pulpit. I have a perfect recollection of being there, before his election to the presidency, with him and my grandmother. It was a beautiful church, and had a large, respectable, and wealthy congregation, who were regular attendants.


He attended the church at Alexandria when the weather and roads permitted a ride of ten miles. In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition. The afternoon was spent in his own room at home; the evening with his family, and without company. Sometimes an old and intimate friend called to see us for an hour or two; but visiting and visitors were prohibited for that day. No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother.

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o’clock where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, “that they may be seen of men.” He communed with his God in secret.

My mother resided two years at Mount Vernon after her marriage with John Parke Custis, the only son of Mrs. Washington. I have heard her say that General Washington always received the sacrament with my grandmother before the revolution. When my aunt, Miss Custis [Martha “Patsy”] died suddenly at Mount Vernon, before they could realize the event, he knelt by her and prayed most fervently, most affectingly, for her recovery. Of this I was assured by Judge Washington’s mother and other witnesses.

He was a silent, thoughtful man. He spoke little generally; never of himself. I never heard him relate a single act of his life during the war. I have often seen him perfectly abstracted, his lips moving, but no sound was perceptible. I have sometimes made him laugh most heartily from


sympathy with my joyous and extravagant spirits. I was, probably, one of the last persons on earth to whom he would have addressed serious conversation, particularly when he knew that I had the most perfect model of female excellence ever with me as my monitress, who acted the part of a tender and devoted parent, loving me as only a mother can love, and never extenuating or approving in me what she disapproved of others. She never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties; and she and her husband were so perfectly united and happy that he must have been a Christian. She had no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity. Is it necessary that any one should certify, “General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity?” As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, “Deeds, not Words”; and, “For God and my Country.”

With sentiments of esteem,
I am, Nelly Custis-Lewis

Thanks to the American Creation blog.


The FBI was still Investigating John Wilkes Booth in 1977

February 24, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Civil War by

Theories of History

February 21, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Historiography by

Historians, as a whole, spend a significant amount of time on the philosophy of history. The question is: when looking at the past in terms of decades, centuries and millennia, rather than hours, days or years, what, if any, are the patterns of history? What drives history? There are many competing answers to that question.


One popular idea today is that history is random – that the interaction of billions of humans and their choices with all the other natural factors in the world creates history with no discernible flow or path. This seems to be demonstrated by the fact that history often turns upon the smallest factors. One lost order, and an entire battle is lost. One unwise interview, and a politician falls. This is demonstrated by the famous poem, For the Want of a Nail:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Great Man

Thomas Carlyle

Another idea, which was expressed most clearly in the 19th century, is that history is driven by great men, like the heroes of Greek mythology. “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,”1 wrote Thomas Carlyle, one of the men who formulated this theory. The idea is that the world is changed by great men – that the United States of America would not have gained its independence without the great founders, or that Karl Marx changed the world forever with the creation of Marxism, and without him, it would not have happened.

Great Forces

In opposition to this is what we can call the Great Forces Theory, that the world is not shaped by a few men, but it is changed by factors in societies as a whole. It holds that the great men are formed and given the opportunities to succeed by the movements of the societies in which they live. One man who espoused this idea in the 19th century said:

[Y]ou must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown….Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.2

This idea suggests that the important men do not shape the forces and movements in history, but the forces and movements of history create the great men. That Karl Marx did not change the world with the creation of Marxism, but that the movements in the world created the situation where Marxism would take hold, and Marx just happened to be the man to rise to fill the void. The Great Forces theory takes many forms. Some say that history is driven by economics, or technology, or the struggle for human rights, or a hundred other factors.

Divine Providence

There is another philosophy of history, which has fallen out of favor in recent times – that history is controlled by God. Many figures in history have held this view including George Washington. He wrote in 1778 about the latest campaign of the War for Independence:

The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations….3

It is this system of history that is put forth in the Bible. It says that at times God uses kings, whose hearts he “turneth it whithersoever he will,”4 or he chooses “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”5 Although men are used by God in history, He does not rely on them. If the person you might expect to do something does not fulfill their role, than God has planned for someone else to take their place. As Mordicai told Queen Esther:

For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?6

The Bible also teaches that history is going somewhere. It had a beginning and will come to an end when God’s plan is completed.

1. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle (London: Chapman and Hall, 1840) p. 34.
2. The Study of Sociology by Herbert Spencer (London: C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1881) p. 34-35.
3. George Washington to Thomas Nelson, Jr. August 20, 1778.
4. Proverbs 21:1.
5. 1 Corinthians 1:27.
6. Esther 4:14.

The First Submarine Attack – 150 Years Ago Today

February 17, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Civil War by


The Hunley

During the Civil War the civilians suffered hardships, and many came from the blockade of their coast by the Union navy. They could not export their cotton to the world, and could not import many things they needed from the outside. There were several people in the Confederacy who tried to invent new weapons to break this blockade, and the work of several of these men produced the H. L. Hunley, the world’s first successful combat submarine.

James McClintock, one of the boat’s designers

The road to a successfully attack on a Union ship was long and costly. The Fish Boat, as the Hunley was originally was called, was the third submarine built by Horace Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson. Their previous failures had helped refine the design. She had a crew of eight one steered and the other seven worked at a crank which turned a propeller. More problems were encountered in Charleston – the boat sunk twice and many of the crew were drowned, including Hunley.

Plan of the Hunley

The Hunley was recovered, and George Dixon, a member of the crew who happened to be absent when she sunk, was appointed her commander. After many days of waiting, they went out on the night of February 17, 1864. They had selected as their target the USS Housatonic, a 12 gun wooden steamer. It was five miles off the coast, and it took the crew of the Hunley much effort to get there. At around 8:45 pm they approached the Housatonic, and the officer on watch sighted what looked like a ripple in the water 100 yards out. But looking again he saw an object moving very fast toward the ship. The ship went into an uproar, and they tried to move forward, while the crew fired at the strange object with anything they could lay their hands on. The Hunley dove and attached its torpedo in an area that happened to be just near the magazine. Seconds later there was a huge explosion, throwing smoke, water, and debris high into the air. A huge hole was ripped in the side of the Housatonic. It sunk in less than five minutes, and the survivors were picked up by boats from other ships. Five men had been killed, and the rest survived. The Housatonic was the first ship in military history to be sunk by a submarine. But the Hunley never returned to port. Not long after the attack a light was seen by the men watching on shore, a prearranged signal for success, but she never returned.

USS Housatonic

The Hunley’s disappearance was one of the most puzzling mysteries of the Civil War. After many years of speculation, she was finally located in the late 20th century lying under 3 feet of mud, and in 2000 the wreck was brought to the surface, and investigated by archaeologists. Inside were found the bones of the crew and many artifacts they carried with them. The ongoing work on the Hunley has answered some questions regarding the boat’s fate. None of the men had left the ship. They were 1000 feet away from the wreck of the Housatonic. There was no structural damage from the explosion.

The Hunley underwater

But many questions still remain. Why did they sink? Did they intentionally dive to wait for the incoming tide and for some reason not surface? Or did the Hunley sink immediately and the wreck gradually move the 1000 feet? Whatever the Hunley’s fate, it was unique. Safe and usable submarines were far in the future, and the next successful military use occurred in 1914, during World War I. With the Hunley’s sinking, the war was almost over for Charleston. New weapons had been developed and used successfully, but none were powerful enough to break the blockade and turn the war around.


Slideshow of Photos of the Great War

February 15, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in World War I by

H. L. Hunley – The First Successful Combat Submarine

February 15, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Weekly Video by

The Armies of the Civil War

February 13, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Civil War by

Historian Sam Smith discusses the complexities of the many armies involved in the Civil War.

This video is part of the Civil War Trust’s In4 video series.

Escape from Libby Prison

February 10, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Civil War by

Libby Prison
There were many thousands of prisoners captured by both sides in the Civil War. Although many were patrolled or exchanged, many prisons were still needed to hold them. One of the south’s famous prisons was Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Before the war Luther Libby owned a warehouse for ship equipment that took up an entire block in the Confederate capitol. When the government needed a prison for Federal officers they used that building, and the old name stuck. The basement was used for storage and cooking, the first floor was the quarters for the guard, and the second and third held the prisoners. However, the kitchen had to be abandoned because of a large number of rats, and the room won the name “Rat Hell.”


Although most of the prisoners avoided “Rat Hell,” three of the Union officers saw it as an opportunity to escape. They found a way to secretly access it by climbing down a chimney in the wall. This alone took fifteen days to accomplish, as they only had pocketknives to remove the bricks. With their plans in place, the prisoners started digging. But before long they hit a snag. They found that the building was built on large timbers. After a tremendous amount of work they were able to saw through those with their pocketknives, but then the tunnel began to fill with water and it had to be abandoned. They tried at another spot to hit a sewer through which they could climb to safety. But when they caused a furnace to collapse they halted that attempt to avoid being detected. It was then decided to go out through the sewer that led out of the kitchen, but days of work were necessary to widen that passage so men could fit through. All was believed to be ready for an escape on the night of January 26th, but the last bit of work took longer than expected, and the tunnel began to fill with water.

Map of the prison and tunnel

With this third failure, another group took over the project and began work on a new tunnel starting from the cellar. The first day of work, when they had to break through the brick wall with an old ax, happened to be the same day the Confederates were installing grates on the windows. This, combined with plenty of stomping by the other prisoners, covered the sound of the work. They then began working on digging the tunnel with a pen knife. The work was done in shifts. Two men went down at night and dug, hiding there during the day until they were relieved the next night. The dirt was packed and hid under a pile of straw in the cellar. The longer the tunnel grew, the more workers were needed, until there were fourteen men handing the dirt out to the opening, using a spittoon with a rope attached. The working conditions were very bad. As one of the diggers wrote:

[I]t was impossible to breathe the air of the tunnel for many minutes together; the miner, however, would dig as long as his strength would allow, or till his candle was extinguished by the foul air; he would then make his way out, and another would take his place – a place narrow, dark and damp, and more like a grave than any place can be short of a man’s last home.

The work would have never been done in normal circumstances, but they were driven on by the hope of escaping from Libby Prison. Another prisoner wrote, “No tongue can tell…how the poor fellow[s] passed among the squealing rats,—enduring the sickening air, the deathly chill, the horrible interminable darkness.”

They work had to stop after several prisoners were able to slip pass the guards. Security was heightened, and the guards began to do roll call. At one rollcall when the prisoners were collected, two were missing, as they were down in the cellar. They were able to talk their way out by saying they had just been missed by the officers doing rollcall. But another time one officer was again in the tunnel during rollcall. The guards decided that he escaped, and the prisoners decided he would have to remain in hiding in the cellar to avoid giving away the plan.

Diagram of the tunnel

After 17 days of digging, it was decided that the tunnel was long enough to reach a tobacco shed, about 50 feet away. But when they broke into the air that night, it was found that they had missed the shed and were within sight of the sentries. Thankfully they did not see the hole before it was closed up. The tunnel was extended to its final length of 57 feet, right beneath the shed. The escape was made on February 9th, 150 years ago today.

The escape was very successful. 109 prisoners made their way out of the tunnel and walked out of the prison gates without attracting the attention of the sentries. The guards believed that escape was nearly impossible, so they were not particularly careful in keeping watch. When morning came the tunnel was closed and the remaining prisoners tried to hide the large number of missing men. Inevitably the escape was discovered, and pursuit was made. Many of the officers had fought in the area before being captured, so they were familiar with the terrain. 59 of the escapees were able to reach the Union lines, 48 were caught by the Confederates, and two drowned in the James River.

More of this fascinating story can be found in Four Months in Libby, and the Campaign Against Atlanta by Captain L. N. Johnston.
This post originally appeared on the Civil War 150th Blog. 

The Death of General Albert Sidney Johnston

February 4, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Videos, Weekly Video by

An interview with NPS ranger Chris Mekow about the death of Albert Sidney Johnston at the Battle of Shiloh.