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Recent Posts

Tragedy Recognizes No Boundaries of Time or Place
Harriet's Raid on the Combahee (The Roadside Edition)
Remembering Harriet’s Triumphant Journey on Combahee
A Snippet of History for this "Holiday Weekend"
No More Spring Cleaning. It's Time for Books!

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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Tragedy Recognizes No Boundaries of Time or Place

Here's one of the things I've learned from the years I've spent studying history. The twenty-first century does not have a monopoly on horrible events such as wars, mass shootings, epidemic disease, or even the loss of a toddler to a horrible accident. Oh, we may be more aware of these events than people used to be, thanks to technology that speeds up the spread of the news. But horrible events have always happened. You can find them in any period of history.

This morning I read a Facebook post in which someone lamented that she wanted life to go back to being like it was when she was growing up. Did she grow up in a perfect era? Of course not. Was the world safer, saner, healthier when we were kids? No. It's only our own knowledge and awareness that has changed. And does it help to solve the world's problems by wishing for a return to a simpler time? It does not. 

Maybe we cannot always learn from history, but historical events may serve to remind us that much of what we struggle against is part of the human condition. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and then look at our world with a bit of compassion and sympathy. It should be possible to recognize the existence of tragic events without needing to point a finger at any one culprit. And then, perhaps, we can start taking small steps to make the world a better place.

What set me off this morning was the realization that my great-uncle James McCaskey died on this date--June 16--one hundred and fifty-four years ago. He was a Union soldier, killed in a botched battle during the first year of the Civil War. I re-read the letter his parents received, and I noted once again the stains on the paper caused by the tears of my great-grandparents. The letter reminds me that grief and loss are universal experiences.  Here's the letter:

Mr. Jn. McCaskey,
Dear Sir:

   General Benham appointed the morning of the 16th as the time for our forces to move on "Tower Fort" near "Sesesha" Ville, which is in sight of Sumpter, and about 2 miles from the City of Charlestown.
   We left Camp at 1 A.M. and at daylight marched up to the Fort under a galling fire of Grape, Cannister, Shot, and Shell. I was in Command of our Company. Men were falling on every side. Whilst near the Ft. a Shower of Grape came in our ranks, one of which struck your Son, James, and we think tore off one of his legs, near the body. He fell! This is the last we saw of him. The "Liter-bearers" of General Wright's Div. must, I think, have carried him off the Field.
   I have searched and searched for him but in vain. We all feel confident that he is dead. Jacob Leary fell at the same time and is also missing. James was a noble young man and a brave soldier—was beloved by all his associates. He was like a brother to me, and I lament his loss. You have my sympathy and prayers in your deep affliction.
   The loss in our Co. was 4 killed and 71 wounded. We fought with great disadvantages and in consequence lost heavily.
   If it can possibly be done I will send his Knap-Sack and traps home to you, as I have no doubt you would like to possess them. His Watch and what Money he had, were on his person.
   If any further intelligence of his fate can be had, I will inform you in due time.

Yours truly,
Lieut. Philo S. Morton

Note: His body was never found. His family erected a tombstone above an empty grave.


Harriet's Raid on the Combahee (The Roadside Edition)

     The next morning was delightfully cool, and the teachers from St. Helena enjoyed the short boat ride across the river to Beaufort. As they approached the city, they could see a small crowd gathering at the water's edge, but nothing seemed amiss.
     Lottie Forten was delighted to see that Doctor Rogers was there. He greeted her as she stepped off the boat. "Come," he said, "I want you to have a place in the front row. You're going to enjoy this."
     Mystified, she followed him through the crowd, noticing that many of Colonel Higginson's men were present. "I don't see Colonel Montgomery anywhere," she said.
     "He'll arrive shortly," Doctor Rogers said with a slight knowing smile.
     A shout went up from somewhere in the crowd. "Gunboats approaching from the west!"
     "From the west? Coming down the river? Are we under attack?"
     "No, this is a scheduled arrival."
     Lottie stood on tiptoe and strained to see the boats more clearly. "They appear to be loaded down with passengers, and there's someone standing at the prow, but that's all I can make out."
As the gunboats came closer, she caught her breath. "They all appear to be black, but I still don't understand the person at the front of the boat. It's certainly not Colonel Montgomery. It looks more like a small child."
     "No, not a child. More like a very tiny lady wearing a turban. Recognize her now?"
     "Is it… no, it can't be. Miss Tubman?"
     "I believe so. Listen now. We'll have an announcement as soon as the boats tie up."
     Colonel James Montgomery was the first to disembark. He strode to General Saxton, saluted crisply, and shouted so that all could hear. "Sir, I have the honor to present to you some 750 former slaves, newly liberated from the plantations along the Combahee River through the efforts of the 2 South Carolina Volunteers under the leadership of Miss Harriet Tubman."
     A gasp went up from the crowd and then applause and cheers filled the morning air.
     The passengers now poured off the boats and for a while chaos reigned. Saxton had planned well for this moment, however, and his officers soon sorted the newcomers into manageable groups. A hundred or more strong young men had volunteered to join Montgomery's regiment, and a couple of black sergeants soon had them lined up and marching toward a makeshift camp.  
     Miss Tubman bustled about, identifying the elderly and ailing so that Dr. Rogers and his staff could assess their conditions and arrange for their medical needs to be treated in one of the local hospitals. The remaining family units assembled close to the docks. Each group of fifty or so had its own military officer and one of the teacher-missionaries.
     General Saxton addressed these groups last. "I have arranged for you to be transferred to St. Helena Island, where your needs will be met. Military rations are already there and will be distributed to each family, along with temporary shelter in the form of tents. As soon as we determine how many houses will be needed, we'll be assigning you to empty dwellings on the island. If we need more room, our Army engineers will provide building materials to help you erect your own new homes.  
    'Please tell your leaders about any special skills you may have that can help us build your new community. We'll want to identify the cooks, the carpenters, the farmers, the stable hands, and so forth. Welcome to the United States and freedom!"
    At last he turned to Laura Towne. "Sorry to keep you in the dark about all of this, but we wanted to make sure the boats made it back safely before any announcement. I've asked Colonel Montgomery and Miss Tubman to join my staff in the mess tent for a debriefing. Would you and Miss Forten care to join us? I'm sure you must be curious about how all this came about."
     James Montgomery opened the meeting by describing Miss Tubman's efforts. "She has been prowling around the interior for the past month with her small band of spies. They infiltrated the plantations, talked to the slaves, and learned where the river had been mined to prevent any invasion. She promised her people that they would be rescued when they heard gunboats blowing their whistles. Yesterday she met my gunboats at the mouth of the Combahee and served as our pilot, guiding us around the Confederate torpedoes and taking us straight to the banks of the richest plantations in the area. But she should describe what happened from there."
     Harriet beamed with pride as she stood. She described the scene as slaves dropped whatever they were doing and ran to the banks of the river when they heard the whistles. Some tried to wade out to the boats while others clambered into rowboats. A few overseers tried to hold the slaves back. Others, frightened lest this be a trap, hesitated on the banks.

     "I tol' de soljers to take der caps off an' let de people see der wooly heads," she laughed, "but some uh dem slaves stil dint trust us, even if we was black like dem. So I stood on de prow uh de boat an' I sang to em:

     Of all the whole creation in the East or in the West,
     The glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best.
     Come along! Come along! don't be alarmed,
     Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm.

 "Dat was a song I jist made up 'cause I don't know de Gullah language an' we had trouble unnerstandin' each udder. But dey unnerstood bout Uncle Sam. Dat did de trick an' dey all come on da boats.
    "I nebber see such a sight," said Harriet; "we laughed, an' laughed, an' laughed. Here you'd see a woman wid a pail on her head, rice a smokin' in it jus' as she'd taken it from de fire, young one hangin' on behind, one han' roun' her forehead to hold on, 'tother han' diggin' into de rice-pot, eatin' wid all its might; hold of her dress two or three more; down her back a bag wid a pig in it. 
     One woman brought two pigs, a white one an' a black one; we took 'em all on board; named de white pig Beauregard, and de black pig Jeff Davis. Sometimes de women would come wid twins hangin' roun' der necks; 'pears like I nebber see so many twins in my life; bags on der shoulders, baskets on der heads, and young ones taggin' behin', all loaded; pigs squealin', chickens screamin', young ones squallin'." 
                     [This is a direct quote from Miss Tubman's own narration of what happened.]

     "What about the plantation owners and overseers, Colonel?"
     "A few got themselves shot, sir. And we torched the plantation buildings and crops. The bosses who were left were too busy with the fires to make any effort to stop us."
     Lottie Forten noticed that Colonel Higginson's jaws tightened at the thought of wanton destruction, no matter whose property was involved. "Was that necessary?" he asked.
      "Didn't want to leave valuable crops behind, but we were too full of slaves to transport anything else. And we didn't want those Rebels to think about coming after us. With their plantations burned around their ears, they have no further need for slaves. When you find a bed of snakes, Colonel, you kill them all and destroy their den so they don't bite you again."
     To ease the tension, General Saxton offered lunch, and the assembled group made its way to the kitchen tent for filled plates. Laura and Lottie talked with General Saxton over the meal, discussing what additional supplies would be needed to accommodate six hundred new residents of St. Helena Island.
     "It's not as bad as the situation was when you dropped 1500 Edisto Island residents on us," Laura said, "but our resources are being more fully utilized now. Our plantations can put many of the former slaves to work, but only if you can guarantee that the government will provide enough money to pay them. We'll need more teachers, too."
     "We have no choice but to provide for them," he said.
     "You'll get what you need, one way or another," he promised.
     Lottie was sorry not to have had more time to talk with Harriet Tubman, so in a couple of days she made excuses to return to Beaufort for a visit to Camp Saxton. As usual, she was a welcome visitor, but when she asked about Harriet, Doctor Rogers winced.
      She's gone, I'm afraid."
     "Gone? Gone where?"
     He shrugged. "Nobody knows."
     "But what if something has happened to her? She could have been captured by the Confederates, or she could be ill somewhere, or…"
     "This is the way she operates, Lottie. She is a phantom. She appears where she is needed, and then moves on. She works in the shadows, blending into the background so that no one notices her. She could be anywhere, but she won't be found if she doesn't want to be found."
     "I wanted to thank her."
     "She neither wants nor needs your thanks. She knows the value of her work, and that's all that matters to her. If you want to show your appreciation, you'll not endanger her by trying to find her."
 
This whole short story collection is now available on Kindle Select. Members of KOLL or Amazon Prime can read it for free any time. And starting today and running through midnight on Tuesday, [June 5-7, 2016] anyone can download a personal copy of Left by the Side of the Road.

-- Compliments of the author, as well as all these interesting folks who keep demanding to have their stories told.

Remembering Harriet’s Triumphant Journey on Combahee


This is a re-blogged article that first appeared yesterday to honor the memory of Harriet Tubman.  Queen Quet tells a story that also appears in my "The Road to Frogmore," so some of you will recognize the details.


June 2nd is the date that Mama Moses Harriet Ross Tubman also known as "General Tubman" worked shoulder to shoulder with Colonel Montgomery as they led the "Combahee River Raid" just up the road a piece and along the waters that now flow under the only bridge in the world named in her honor.

I thought about the many awards that I have been presented with bearing Harriet Tubman's name and image.  I remembered when I first uncovered the records of her living in the City of Beaufort, SC and having a laundry co-op and a bakery.  I remember when it appeared that no one else knew or took much interest in this aspect of Beaufort history, but me.  

I remember being a re-enactor in the parade in Beaufort and I walked as Harriet Tubman along side two men who were there to portray Nathaniel Heyward and Gullah Statesman Robert Smalls.  We ended the parade teaching the children at Beaufort Elementary who each of these people were and their significance to our county and to the history of America.  I remember going home each of those times with songs in my soul.As

 I continued to work with other historians around the country to get the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom established, we continued to discuss the strength and multifaceted roles of Harriet Tubman and how these have been down played and ignored.  We would no longer allow her significance to be ignored!  So, we pushed on as she would have done and finally we got the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom established and proceeded with getting her recognized nationally via the Harriet Tubman Study as well.  The study now gave us a chance to revisit all that I had uncovered before and to bring it to the table with the records of her work in Maryland and New York.As more and more pages were amassed about this powerful woman, amongst these were the records of what took place on June 2, 1863.  

On this date, Harriet Tubman became the first woman to plan and guide a significant armed raid during the United States Civil War. Harriet Tubman and the 2nd Regiment South Carolina Volunteer Infantry which was an all Black regiment that contained many native Gullah/Geechees destroyed millions of dollars worth of Confederate supplies and freed close to 800 people from bondage in the rice fields along the river which divides Beaufort and Colleton Counties today.

According to the dispatch which appeared on the front page of a Boston newspaper called, The Commonwealth on Friday, July 10, 1863:

Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation. 

After they were all fairly well disposed of in the Beaufort charge, they were addressed in strains of thrilling eloquence by their gallant deliverer, to which they responded in a song. “There is a white robe for thee,” a song so appropriate and so heartfelt and cordial as to bring unbidden tears. The Colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman, who led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence, her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation... 

Since the rebellion she had devoted herself to her great work of delivering the bondman, with an energy and sagacity that cannot be exceeded. Many and many times she has penetrated the enemy’s lines and discovered their situation and condition, and escaped without injury, but not without extreme hazard.

Mama Moses Harriet Tubman surveyed the area herself as she was known to do as the true scout that she was.  She was willing to lead the 150 "Negro troops" in the raid as long as Colonel Montgomery was in charge of it.  According to "Scenes in  the Life of Harriet Tubman" (p. 39.):

The Combahee strategy was formulated by Harriet Tubman as an outcome of her penetrations of the enemy lines and her belief that the Combahee River countryside was ripe for a successful invasion.  She was asked by General Hunter “if she would go with several gunboats up the Combahee River, the object of the expedition being to take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops. She said she would go if Col. Montgomery was to be appointed commander of the expedition…Accordingly, Col. Montgomery was appointed to the command, and Harriet, with several men under her, the principal of whom was J. Plowden…accompanied the expedition.

"The success that this united force had together turned the tide of the Civil War and allowed Harriet Tubman and the troops to return to Beaufort County, SC.  Although they never provided her an appropriate military title after this, we could easily call her "Colonel Tubman" since that was the leading role that she played in this triumphant journey up the river.   Accounts of that day even state that she also made her way to her station at my home island of St. Helena.  



So, it is not surprising that the flow of the tide onto St. Helena's shores awoke me this morning with songs of freedom in my mind just as Colonel Mama Moses Harriet Tubman sang a song of freedom upon the Combahee.  I pray that these sounds from our souls get into the hearts and the minds of others.  Not another day should sail by without the story of her outstanding role as a soldier that went to the front lines for the freedom of our people-of Gullah/Geechee people-is told!  Like the fort, Harriet Tubman's story still stands strong and the songs of freedom flow on!

A Snippet of History for this "Holiday Weekend"



The tradition of honoring our war dead probably pre-dates the Civil War, and we know that families cleared winter debris from family graveyards long before governments became involved in creating a special day for doing so. Still, most accounts give credit for the first “Memorial Day” to the African-American events carried out in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. There, ceremonies honored 257 Union soldiers who died while being held as prisoners of war at the Hampton Park Race Course.  Freedmen, Union troops, black ministers and northern missionaries gathered to clean up their unmarked graves, to remember those who had lost their lives during the Civil War, and to offer thanks for the end of slavery in the United States.

In the North, the first Decoration Day came at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, at the direction of General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. He announced that the day should be "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land." Gradually the custom spread across both the North and the South. At the same time, the two names — Memorial Day and Decoration Day — gradually merged, until a federal law passed in 1967 officially designated the term Memorial Day. 

Almost immediately thereafter, Congress began to work on a proposal that would change the fixed dates of four holidays to  designated Mondays, so as to create four three-day holiday weekends for the convenience and pleasure of American voters. The four included George Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. The change became effective in 1971. 

By 1975 protests forced the date of Veteran’s Day to be restored to November 11th, but efforts to do the same for Memorial Day were less successful. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii began offering resolutions to restore the May 30 date in 1987 and continued to do so every year until his death in 2012. The VFW picked up the effort in 2002, declaring that the 3-day weekend trivialized the meaning of the day.  So far all such efforts have failed.

Today, the same protest is echoing across Facebook. If you are among those who cringe at “Memorial Day sales,” picnic recipes, ads for beach get-aways, and well-meaning but oblivious folks who wish you a “Happy Memorial Day,” you already understand. This “holiday” was never meant to be National Barbecue Day. It’s not even a day to say “Thank You” to living veterans who gave of their service. They’ll get their day on November 11th. Today, May 30, we are meant to remember and honor those who have given their very lives in the service of their country, both those who died on a far-off battlefield and those who later died of their war-related injuries.


As one whose husband died of combat-related injuries, my heart aches on this day. I’m not having a nice holiday. I’m not happy. I won’t be cooking out. But I will remember.


No More Spring Cleaning. It's Time for Books!

Things have been quiet around Katzenhaus Books lately, because the boss (that’s me!) has been insanely engaged in the “Spring Cleaning” impulse that arises every year when the weather warms up. When i was a kid, we knew it was finally spring in Ohio when the fire in the furnace was banked and put to rest until fall. But that event brought on the next. Every room in the house was now coated with a fine layer of black coal dust after the winter’s heating. The bathroom and kitchen were not a problem because the walls were painted and could quickly be scrubbed. But the other rooms all had wallpaper, and it was real paper, not vinyl, so we couldn’t apply water to it.

The solution was complicated. All furniture was moved to the center of the room and draped with old sheets. Then we opened the yearly supply of Kutol. This was a nasty mixture resembling putty and smelling like a chemical factory. Actually, it was little more than salt, flour, water, and cleaning substances, kept moist in a can until we took out handfuls, wadded them into ball and started wiping down the walls. As it picked up the soot, the clay turned from pink to gray, which called for further kneading until the dirty surface was replaced with cleaner particles. The process worked, but it was messy, and took days. I can still smell those chemicals.  The advent of the gas furnace was a major turning point in my young life, but by the time we converted the old coal furnace,  I had absorbed a need to clean somewhere deep into my genes. It rears its ugly head every year.

This year the impulse began with a search through the garage for a nail to rehang a picture. My hunt turned up 15 containers of used nails, most of them bent, rusty, or tinged with paint. It also revealed several cartons of household goods that had not been unpacked when we moved here twelve years ago, along with box after box of unsorted photographs. Those discoveries, along with a neighbor’s sidelong glance and offer to help me clean up “this horrible mess,”  were enough to trigger the whole “Spring Cleaning” drive.  I’ve been at it ever since. And once I got started with the garage, it carried over into several closets and my husband’s old office furniture. I’m happy to report that I now have a clean garage with room to park an extra car if I should ever need to, as well as a cozy new “girl cave.”  I still have my writing office, full of books, papers, and computers, all of them telling me to get back to work. But this new room is a place where I can curl up in a comfortable rocker and read or daydream or listen to music without feeling guilty.

All those changes fall into the category of “good news.” The bad news is that I haven’t done any writing, and that includes both the new book manuscript and the usual blog posts. Ugh!  I would firmly resolve to get back to work, except that I’m going to be tied up all next week with a writers’ conference.  So to carry us all over until I can be more productive, I’ve scheduled another book promotion. Many of you have read “Damned Yankee” and wondered what happened to the Grenvilles after the Civil War. Now’s your chance to follow them through the turmoil and challenges of the Reconstruction era. I promise it will be more fun than spring house cleaning!

 Here are the details:

On Saturday, May 21, starting at 8:00 AM (Pacific Time), the Kindle edition of “Yankee Reconstructed” will be available for just ninety-nine cents. That’s a price reduction of something like 80%.  Grab it quickly, because at 8:00 AM on Sunday, May 22, the price will jump to $2.99. That’s still a bargain at half-price, of course. But don’t delay further, because at 8:00 AM on Monday, May 23, the price reverts to the list cost of $5.99. This is a once-a-year bargain countdown deal. The clock will be ticking, and the remaining time will show up on the book’s Kindle page, for those of you who need to convert to other time zones. Click here to grab your copy: