Rambling #3

I’ve been back to my beloved PC for about a week after being gone for nearly a month.  We’ve been visiting family in the East and taking historical tours.

After visiting everyone in east Tennessee, we continued to the Colonial Williamsburg area in eastern Virginia to see my youngest brother.  If you cross the Coleman Bridge between Yorktown and Gloucester County, he’s likely to be the one in the control booth above the bridge, so be sure to wave as you go by.

You may be familiar with the swing bridges along the Gulf Coast, whose use has been discontinued and have been locked in an open position since they have been replaced by taller bridges on the interstate highways.  The Coleman bridge is different from just about any other swing bridge you’ve seen.  It is the largest double swing span bridge in the United States (and formerly, in the world until the El Ferdan Railway Bridge across the Suez Canal was completed in 2001).  The “double swing” refers to the fact that two spans swing open simultaneously, doubling the clearance width for ships.  (If you like swing bridges, you may want to visit the Alanson Crooked River Swing Bridge in Michigan, which is the shortest in the world.)

The bridge clears the water by 60 feet, so it’s seldom that you’ll get to see it open.  If you do, be sure to watch the beginning of the sequence.  First, the spans lift to different elevations to avoid hitting each other while opening, then they swing open.

Operating the bridge may sound like a cushy job, but the other half of it is maintaining the bridge, and before you can even do that, there are 6 stories of ladders that you have to climb up and down.  It’s a little more than just opening and closing the bridge when a large ship approaches every day or two.  Okay, so I like unusual bridges and lighthouses.

Colonial Williamsburg was on our schedule of places to visit.  We got to see the original archeological excavations for the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, and I was really interested in following up on that.  As you probably remember, Governor Francis Fauquier proposed a hospital for the poor unhappy set of people deprived of their senses and staffed by doctors who would “endeavour to restore to them their lost reason”.  When the burgesses ignored him, he got their attention by housing some prospective patients in the Public Gaol.  On June 4, 1770, the legislators adopted an act to “Make Provision for the Support and Maintenance of Ideots, Lunaticks, and other Persons of Unsound Minds”, making this the first hospital in North America dedicated to the mentally ill.

When the hospital opened on October 12, 1773, it was state of the art.  Patients were chained to the wall in small isolated cells.  Treatment consisted of “strong drugs (cathartics), plunge baths and other shock water treatment, bleeding, and blistering salves”.  This effective regimen produced a 20% cure rate in the first 17 years.  By the mid-1800s, automated spring-loaded fleams had been introduced, improving treatment.

Of course, I wanted to see all the other changes to Williamsburg, but fate intervened.  There was so much to see in Jamestown and Yorktown that we never got to Williamsburg before it was time to move on.

Our next stop was Philadelphia, the capital of our nation (from 1790 to 1800, anyway).  We actually stayed in Bellmawr, N.J., which was a fortunate accident because that’s where we found the Club Diner.  I normally don’t tout such things, but it’s inexpensive and we gorged ourselves on a different meal every night.

The first day we revisited the colonial government buildings with the exception of Philosophical Hall, which was closed.  That was a real disappointment since I wanted to discuss Franz Brentano’s manifold sense of Being in Aristotle to find out if it’s anything like Being John Malkovitch.  Now I guess I’ll never know.

Of course, we saw the Liberty Bell.  For some reason they were playing the theme from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  You may not have realized that it was originally intended to be part of “The Devil’s Deputy”.  Okay, look it up at Monty Python Theme Song and play the recording at the beginning of the article.

We toured the surrounding areas and museums on foot and by bus.  On one of the tours, we learned that Eastern State Penitentiary was an insane asylum, something that no one else seemed to know.  For some reason, I thought that it was the world’s first penitentiary, built to keep prisoners in solitary confinement for years with only the Eye of God (a skylight) peering down from the ceiling, allowing people to contemplate their crimes in complete silence day after day.  Guards wore special footwear to deaden the sound of their footsteps, and prisoners were not allowed to make any sound.  Uncooperative prisoners were humanely trussed up in a straight jacket and gagged.  For those who could read, each cell was equipped with a Bible to help strengthen morals and aid in penitence.  (Who knew the Gideons were active so early in American history?)  After a visit in 1842, Charles Dickens was duly impressed and wrote “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

Eastern State Penitentiary    

Strangely, many prisoners who were released had become insane, something that wasn’t fully understood until the middle of the 19th century.  In spite of having a Bible in each cell, apparently some prisoners indulged in self-pollution (also called the secret sin and self-abuse, for those who don’t understand masturbation).  Although no prisoner seems to have been caught in the act, it is well-known that this is the only thing that could have driven them insane.  Scientific deduction is a powerful tool.

In America, prison reform continues to be high on our agenda.  In Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio pursues these forward-thinking ideas in his system of jail-tents.  They’re recognizable by the sign at the entrance: “Arbeit Macht Frei”.

We couldn’t pass up Franklin Institute, but our big hope was to visit the Mütter Museum maintained by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and containing medical oddities and pathological specimens.  I knew that in a place like this, I’d feel right at home.  It contains the corpse of a lady who appears to have turned to soap after burial and the 9 foot 40 pound colon of an unfortunate soul who died of constipation.  He suffered from a congenital oversized colon that led to the constipation.

The moment I walked through the entrance, they were overjoyed to see me.  They immediately offered me my own display case between the rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis exhibits.  When I mentioned that I wasn’t quite dead yet, they offered to make me a traveling exhibit until I was ready.  I asked if they couldn’t somehow combine that with myelodysplasia, and they promised that when my blood was somewhere between pink and clear they could arrange it.

That’s when I tried for the big enchilada.  I demanded to be next to the colon since it matched my anal retentive personality.  They didn’t even hesitate, so somewhere in the indefinite future, that’s where you can visit me.

One last sad note before leaving Philadelphia.  I saw a sign saying “Save the United States”, and I wasn’t sure whether it was placed by the John Birch Society, the NRA, or just someone trying to impeach Obama.  Unfortunately, it was none of the above.  It was referring to the SS United States, the longest cruise liner built in the U.S. (a hundred feet longer than the Titanic), and it holds the speed record for crossing the Atlantic in both directions.  This is what it looks like now.

Not many people remember its glory days, but you can relive them at The United States.

Our next stop was Gettysburg, PA.  Naturally we were there to see the Gettysburg National Military Park.  We saw the Cyclorama and museum as well as the exhibits in the hallway.  One of the exhibits was of the musical instruments of the Civil War.  Surprisingly, most of the brasses had rotary valves and if they were large enough (saxhorns) the bell faced backwards over the shoulder.  The running joke was that they did this so they could play “Charge” as the band ran away, forcing the enemy to slow down for the imminent charge.

Civil War Instruments

One of the other oddities was the number of muskets and rifles (most used percussion caps) was that they had two triggers and one barrel.  What the hell is that all about?  It a method of improving accuracy similar to today’s single and double action handguns.  The rifle can be fired by pulling only the front trigger, but the pull was long and heavy because it had to cock the gun before firing.  (On some guns, the rear trigger had to be pulled first.)  The rear trigger took care of cocking, so that once that had been pulled, squeezing the front trigger required only touching it to fire the gun, making it great for snipers.  The system is called a double set trigger.

This system originated of flintlocks and are sometimes seen there.  There were also single set triggers, which only had a single trigger that usually had to be pushed forward to be fired.  One of those little-known tidbits of history is that for the Hamilton-Burr duel, Hamilton supplied his brother-in-law’s Wogdon dueling pistols, which had a single set trigger that Hamilton knew about but Burr didn’t.  Hamilton used the feature so that he could get a more accurate shot first.  Unfortunately, he didn’t realized that he had to aim the pistol before touching the trigger, and the gun fired while he was still taking aim.  Burr took his time.

At the General Lee museum, I spotted another unusual firearm.  Most revolvers are limited to only 6 shots per load.  Some .22 caliber revolvers exceed that, but it is rare to see it in a higher caliber revolver.  The museum acquired an 8 mm 12-shooter, which is an odd-looking duck.  (The actual gun was similar to but not the same as the one below.)

Lefaucheux 7mm Pinfire Revolver

For those familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg, it lasted for three days from July 1 through July 3, 1865.  After General Robert E. Lee had won several well-fought victories in northern Virginia, he decided to take the war north to force Lincoln to bring some of his troops back out of the South.

Gen. Joseph Hooker with the Army of the Potomac was on his way to counter Lee’s Army of North Virginia, but Lincoln replaced him with Gen. George Meade just before the meeting of the armies.  Gettysburg was the ideal site to control because it connected in all directions to the rest of Pennsylvania.  Meade’s forces arrived first and General Reynolds began setting up defenses to the north and west of Gettysburg to keep Lee out.  The Confederates overwhelmed Reynolds’ forces, killing him early in the first day of battle.  The Army of the Potomac was pushed out of Gettysburg to the south.  Throughout the first day, Gen. Meade pleaded with Lee, “Please, Mr. Lee, don’t fling us onto those hilltops overlooking the battlefields.”

Meade had to put up with the indignity of sitting on the hilltops in highly defensible position, latter dubbed “the fishhook” because of the pattern of the hills.  It allowed rapid troop relocation from any location in the hook to any other location needing reinforcements.  The eye of the hook at one end was Little Round Top, and the barb was at Culp’s Hill.

On the second day Meade would have had a solid position, had General Daniel Sickles not ignored his orders and spread his part of the line westward on what he imagined to be a more defensible position.  In doing so, he abandoned Little Round Top, the single highest elevation and endpoint in the hook.  Both the North and the Confederacy noticed the vacancy and after prolonged fighting the North regained the hill.  In the meantime, Sickles’ troops paid heavily for being out of position and fighting their way back.  On their way back, they took heavy casualties in the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard.

After the appalling loses to both sides the second day, for the third day, Lee decided to probe the eastern flank of the hook at Culp’s Hill with a “demonstration” to keep the North busy while he devised a new strategy for attack.  All of Lee’s major successes in the past had started with flank attacks, taking advantage of collapsing lines.  Little Round Top had become impregnable the previous day, so he decided on a full frontal assault against Cemetery Ridge in the middle of the hook on the west side.

Lee ordered Gen. James Longstreet to lead the assault despite Longstreet’s insistence on how stupid the idea was.  Lee prevailed and started with softening up the Union with a prolonged artillery barrage.  Shortly after he started, the gun smoke was so thick that Lee’s forces could no longer see where the artillery rounds were landing.  Everything was falling short, so the Union stopped firing to save their ammunition.

After the wasted barrage, Longstreet commanded three of his generals to charge of the Union lines.  One of those was Gen. George Pickett, whom Longstreet was happy to credit with leading the assault, now known as Pickett’s Charge, which was intended to hit the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge to split the Union forces and attack the divided Union army.

A mile-long line of the Army of Northern Virginia emerged from a wooded area about a mile from Cemetery Ridge.  The North immediately opened with artillery canister shot, blowing holes in the Confederate line.  The Southern line immediately closed ranks so that the next artillery volley could be just as effective.  After marching a mile, the South was finally in range of the infantry’s rifles and muskets, and the killing really got into high gear.  Although the Confederates finally broke through the line at the High Water Mark, there was no one left behind them to finish the attack.

Longstreet had been absolutely correct, and on the fourth day (Independence Day), the remains of Lee’s army made a sad retreat toward Hagerstown, MD.  That one mistake pretty much guaranteed that Lee would end the war with defensive battles.

The point of all this was that my sister-in-law had read about the Oxford Greys, better known as the University Greys.  Nearly the entire student body of the University of Mississippi had joined the Confederates in 1861 to go whup some Yankee ass.  We found a marker among the North Carolina infantry that listed them explicitly as part of a Mississippi regiment.  They got their opportunity with Pickett’s Charge and suffered a 100% casualty rate.  One source said that they were all killed in the charge.

Sorry about the lack of photos, but my wife is in charge of the camera and they aren’t downloaded yet, so I had to make do with other sources.  I’m also having problems with Windows Live Writer.  It wouldn’t copy a video, so I had to use a link to the video.  I’ll try to make the video work when I go to WordPress.


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