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American History: April '97 Letters

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 11, 1997 
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SPEED IN VICKSBURG

After reading Jerry Potter's article "A Tragic Postscript" in your November/December 1996 issue, I journeyed to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to visit my parents. That evening while reading the Evening Post, to my surprise and pleasure I found the item in the "Old Post Files" under 110 years ago (1886): "Judge and Mrs. Frederic Speed return to the city." I know now who Judge Speed was!

I attended grammar school at Speed Street School in Vicksburg. Speed Street had the steepest hill an eight-year-old could imagine. Every day I trudged up that hill, and every afternoon I trudged down. Every decade or so we would get a snow, and then Speed Street was the place to go with your homemade sled.

The curator of our museum, our local historian, confirmed that yes, indeed, Judge Speed developed Speed Addition, which included Speed Street. When I remarked that I was surprised that the townsfolk would accept such a former enemy, he replied, "Why not? He killed more Yankees than any Confederate!"

Dean Gray
Waxahachie, Texas

SPEED'S WAR RECORD

It was a surprise when I received my November/December 1996 copy of American History that the cover picture was of Frederic Speed. He first served under Colonel Neal Dow, Maine's "Father of Prohibition," as adjutant of the 13th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was referred to by the regimental historian as, "A little man with a big voice."

Major General Benjamin Butler, Colonel Dow, Adjutant Speed, four companies of the 13th Maine, and the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment were passengers on the SS Mississippi when she was almost lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and was aground on Frying Pan Shoals, South Carolina. The voyage took 32 days between Boston and Ship Island, Mississippi, in February and March 1862.

Later, when Colonel Dow was promoted to brigadier general in late April 1862, Adjutant Speed was transferred with him to Pensacola, Florida. Speed's claim to fame in that place was the "capture" of some furniture in the commandeered home of a Confederate major. The contents of a letter from General Butler is part of the Official Records and severely admonishes General Dow for wanting to ship that furniture to his home in Portland, Maine. Dow was directed that, if indeed the furniture had been "captured," it was the property of the United States and should be shipped to the quartermaster in New York City or Washington, D.C. Thus, Captain Speed was in trouble for carrying out a command of higher authority, and not for the last time.

It is doubtful that Speed ever saw much action in the Department of the Gulf, and it is interesting that he later became a citizen of Vicksburg, where he practiced law and became active in Mississippi politics.

Osborne N. Ellis
China, Maine

FOOTNOTE ONLY TECHNICALLY CORRECT

I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the article by John Ferling–"1796: The First Real Election"–in the November/December 1996 issue of American History.

Although Mr. Ferling's footnote appearing on the bottom of page 26 stating that "not since 1824 has the winner of a presidential contest been decided by the House of Representatives" is technically accurate, it misses the opportunity to acknowledge the role Congress played in the disputed election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. In this case, Tilden, while winning 250,000 more popular votes than Hayes, was one short of the 185 electoral votes he needed, while Hayes' electoral shortfall was 20 votes. An additional 20 votes were claimed by both candidates. With no firm constitutional law to guide them, Congress set up a joint Electoral Commission to decide which candidate should win the disputed votes. Confusion and intrigue surrounded the deliberative process of this body, but in the end Tilden gained none of these votes, and Hayes received all 20. Thus, although Tilden won the popular vote, the U.S. Congress, through the Electoral Commission, gave the election to Hayes.

Lemuel A. Moye
Houston, Texas

Several readers have questioned the accuracy of the footnote that appeared in Mr. Ferling's article, for which the editors of American History, not Mr. Ferling, must be blamed. Because the circumstances surrounding that 1876 contest are so complicated, we felt that it would be impossible to explain in the space available. And, as Mr. Moye states, the footnote is technically accurate; the House of Representatives did not decide the outcome of the Hayes-Tilden election. Mr. Moye notes that Congress–through its appointment of the Electoral Commission to decide the disputed votes in Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon–gave the election to Hayes, but the commission itself was made up of five senators (three Republicans and two Democrats), five members of the House (three Democrats and two Republicans), and five Supreme Court justices (two Republican appointees, two Democratic appointees, and one chosen by consensus among the other four. A usually independent Republican, Justice Joseph P. Bradley, was selected and ultimately voted along party lines.) It was not, therefore, as some of our readers assumed, a simple vote in the House of Representatives that brought Mr. Hayes into office; in fact, the House, with its Democratic majority, disagreed with the findings of the commission. The Republican-held Senate, quite naturally, concurred. The country did not know who would be president until March 2, two days before the mandated date for his inauguration.

NIAGARA CAPTAIN DESERVED PRAISE

I read with particular interest James P. Kushlan's article in your November/December 1996 issue concerning the USS Constitution and the US Brig Niagara because the commander of the Niagara in the Battle of Lake Erie, Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliott, was a distant, peripheral relative of mine.

Mr. Kushlan writes on page 70 that "For reasons never determined" Elliott, who was supposed to engage HMS Queen Charlotte while Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry attacked HMS Detroit, "kept his charge out of action and out of harm's way," allowing the Queen Charlotte to join the Detroit in cutting to splinters Perry's ship, the Lawrence.

In fact, Captain Elliott's performance in the engagement is exhaustively documented. After the battle, when he was criticized by junior officers on Perry's ship, he demanded an official Navy Court of Inquiry. The court not only exonerated him but praised his part in the engagement. The depositions before the Court are all in the record. The House of Representatives later approved a motion requesting that gold medals be struck in his honor, and that of Commodore Perry.

Elliott went on to a distinguished career in the Navy, winding up as Commodore of the Navy's Caribbean and (from 1838-43) Mediterranean squadrons. In the latter assignment, his flagship was the USS Constitution.

William E. Knight
Bethesda, Maryland

MEDICINE'S GOOD OLD DAYS

The "Time Traveler" in the January/February 1997 issue mentions the pre-antibiotic period lasting until 1943. But there is always a lag time until technology reaches the common man. I never had a penicillin shot until 1950 or so in the Army.

I remember having an earache as a 13- or 14-year-old, and my mother followed the doctor's directions that he gave her over the phone to make a little bag of cloth and fill it with salt, heat it in a frying pan, and place it on my ear–which she did as I continued to scream. At some point the pain subsided and that was that. Those were the good old days.

My mother was born in 1895 and remembered being carried upstairs by her father by oil lamp. And of course, they had gas lamps before installing electricity later on. So 108 years for electric lights is stretching it a bit. And we don't live out in the country.

Donald W. Killmeyer
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

BURMA-SHAVE DITTY

Sharon Carter, who wrote the "Burma-Shave" article in your January/February 1997 issue, should be made aware of the ditty the boys in the then U.S. Army Air Force had in World War II, sung to the tune of the "Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." It went like this, "Oh, the daring young man in the B-29, he dips down to read every Burma-Shave sign …."

Meredith Mayo
Santa Fe, New Mexico


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