Desperate Times

Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter attacked by provisional Confederate forces, sparking the Civil War

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired in April of 1861, and though it had soon become quite evident that there was little to be gained by the butchering of one’s fellow man, once begun, neither side could discern a graceful way to disengage itself.
Two years later the war was still raging and the country was mired in such a hellish imbroglio that any notion of a summary conclusion had long since been abandoned.

A Perfidious Plot

The milieu of jaded despair that now pervaded the formerly “united” States was ripe for exploitation.  England, who had lost two wars with her former colony and was prickling for revenge, was quick to take advantage of it.  Perceiving at once that a divided America would fail to thrive and could ultimately be reabsorbed into the British Empire, she decided to make a Southern success her business.

Left: England’s offer to the South, Right: England’s ulterior motive

In early 1863 the unsuspecting Confederate government was offered a gift it could scarce refuse: a ready-made army of 30,000 British mercenaries that, when combined with a force of 4,000 native southerners, could crush Washington in a sneak attack while the Union army was distracted elsewhere.

headed for Gettysburg

Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia lures the Army of the Potomac north, leaving Washington open for attack.

The plan was all but foolproof.  General Robert E. Lee was sent with his Army of Northern Virginia on a diversionary mission to invade the North.  Union General George Meade and his mighty Army of the Potomac dutifully took the bait, following them into Pennsylvania.

path to Washington

The R.S.L.’s proposed route to invade Washington

transparentspacerMeanwhile, the mercenary army – dubbed by the Confederate government the “Richmond Special Legionnaires” – had been secretly training at a hidden camp in the Shenandoah Valley.transparentspacer

The 13th R.I. in the path of the R.S.L.

The 13th R.I. in the path of the R.S.L.

With the Army of the Potomac out of the way, its route to the Federal capital lay virtually unobstructed.transparentspacer

Virtually… but not entirely.

Unlikely Heroes

The Thirteenth Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, a rag-tag unit with a checkered history, had been separated from the rest of the Union army some time earlier.  On July 1, 1863, along the banks of Pussy Willow Creek, this tiny regiment unexpectedly found itself smack in the path of the oncoming mercenaries.

Colonel Jonathan Franklin Hale at Pussy Willow Creek

Jonathan Franklin Hale at Pussy Willow Creek

When Colonel Jonathan Franklin Hale, the Thirteenth’s colorful young commander, gave the order to challenge the enemy it was – by any rational standard – an act of almost certain suicide.  But Hale had three aces up his sleeve: General Li Shao-zu, Captain Elijah Swan, and Regimental Drummer Nicholas Brody. transparentspacer
With the help of these brilliant soldiers, along with his regiment of underdogs-with-something-to-prove, Hale devised a dazzling strategy… one which allowed him to beat the odds and outfight an enemy over fifty times his strength.

Photographs from left to right: Li, Swan, & Brody (aka Rowena Harris)

Some Disturbing Facts (A Potential Scandal)

Lincoln was ecstatic to learn of the narrow escape, and vowed to honor Hale and his team with a public celebration of thanks.  But while festivities were still in the planning stages, certain “unsavory” details began to emerge which gave the President pause. Hale had not only been under the influence of narcotics while conducting his battle, he had, as it turned out, been intimately involved with the R.S.L.’s commander while the two were cadets at West Point.

Jonathan Franklin Hale & Sinclair Whittier, West Point class of 1860

Jonathan Franklin Hale & Sinclair Whittier, West Point class of 1860

Li, Hale’s elderly Chinese second-in-command, was not even officially enlisted in the US Army, and nor for that matter was “Captain” Swan.  The additional happenstance that these two were non-caucasians did not help their cases, despite the North’s supposed egalitarianism. Furthermore, Nicholas Brody, the “drummer boy” who had played a key role in the victory, was in reality a teenaged ex-prostitute from Arkansas whose real name was Rowena Harris.

A Cover-Up

Although there was still a year to go, Lincoln knew he would be facing a difficult re-election.  Clearly it was not to his benefit to put forth such “miscreants” – as they would undoubtedly be adjudged – as the saviors of the Union.  Still, in light of the stultifying malaise that had consumed the nation after two years of interminable fighting, people were in need of a victory to celebrate.

Lincoln writes

Lincoln re-works his Pussy Willow Creek Address for use at Gettysburg

After some frantic maneuvering, it was decided to suppress all mention of the battle of Pussy Willow Creek, and to instead play up the battle of Gettysburg, which had in fact been merely the decoy component of the South’s larger plan.  Lincoln’s Pussy Willow Address was re-worked for this purpose, and a dedication ceremony was planned for the Pennsylvania battlefield.

To this day, the preservation at Gettysburg remains one of America’s most visited military parks.  Conversely, in a contemptible example of gross disregard for America’s national heritage, the site of the valiant struggle at Pussy Willow was paved over in the 1930s to make way for a Piggly Wiggly shopping plaza.


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