“An Awesometalk With” Andrew Jampoler, author of “The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight from the Gallows”

April 24, 2009: Barry Cauchon

Author Andrew Jampoler

Author Andrew Jampoler

Andrew C. A. Jampoler is a retired US Navy Captain who, amongst his many achievements, served in Vietnam, worked at the Pentagon, commanded a land-based maritime patrol aircraft squadron and a naval air station. He also flew Lockheed P-3 airplanes in search of Soviet submarines during the 1970s and 80s. After retiring from the Navy, he worked in the international aerospace industry and then moved on to become a full-time writer.

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Andy, the author of three books: The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight from the Gallows (2008); Sailors in the Holy Land: The 1848 American Expedition to the Dead Sea and the Search for Sodom and Gomorrah (2005) and the award-winning Adak: The Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586 (2003). The latter was voted “Book of the Year” by the US Naval Institute Press in 2003.

Andy is a true storyteller, walking me through each of his three books as well as his current project Horrible Shipwreck (working title) which tells the tale of the wreck of the female convict ship Amphitrite in 1833.

He is a fascinating man with fascinating stories to share. I am very happy to bring you my interview with Andy Jampoler and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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B. It’s nice to speak with you Andy. I wanted to tell you that I’ve enjoyed our emails back and forth this week. Please let me welcome you to A Little Touch of History.

A. Hello Barry. It’s good to be here.
I was really dazzled by your site. It fascinated me. If you get a chance to read “The Last Lincoln Conspirator” you’ll see that one of the Gardner photographs is one of the illustrations in the book. Because they are such high quality, I zoomed in on the gallows. And I remember when I saw those at the Library of Congress I was just horrified by them. So when I saw your study it fascinated me. You’ve gone very far with those extraordinary photographs and I was very interested in what you’ve done.

B. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. It was a labor of love. I was very curious. After you’ve looked at the same photographs for hundreds of times, you want to look beyond the main images. And it was very interesting what I started to find within those pictures. I’m still studying the Rooftop View which I find to be the most intriguing of all the photographs because it has so much to see, especially beyond the prison rooftop overlooking the Washington DC cityscape of 1865.
You can clearly see the incomplete Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Institute. So now I’ve started to get my bearings because I’ve just discovered the US Treasury Building and, if I’m seeing it right, I think I can identify the White House as well. It’s been a lot of fun going through this process.

A. Well if that’s true you will have seen half of the principal buildings in the city of Washington. There weren’t that many and you’ve just mentioned about half of them.

B. The Library of Congress and the National Archives are terrific repositories for photographs, maps, documents and the like. Do you use both of those resources when writing your books?

A. I do…and I draw on them very heavily and they are enormously cooperative. The people at the National Archives are very welcoming and the material they have is extraordinary. If you have to use microfilm that is a little hard on the eyes frankly!

B. (laughing)

A. But they are very helpful. Their resources are stunning. And they, and the Library of Congress, compete to be cooperative. I’ve marveled at how helpful they are systematically.

All they get in exchange for their wonderful help is honorable mention in the front of the book. And what I’ve done in the last two books is… they have a speakers program at both places. In exchange for their cooperation I’ve participated in giving talks at both the National Archives and Library of Congress in compensation for their assistance. It gives me the opportunity to tell people how grateful I am for their help. I think both are great national treasures and it surprises me how helpful they can be.

B. You’ve written three books to date and are currently working on your fourth one right now. How is that going?

A. I’m approaching half way. It’s due at the publisher next summer which is to say, something like 15 months. I’ll be on time. Things are pretty much on schedule. I have a trip this summer to do some research that I cannot do here.

B. What is the subject of this book?

A. The working title is Horrible Shipwreck and it’s the story of a female convict ship in 1833. For the moment, it’s my consuming passion.

In late August, 1833 the convict transport Amphitrite sailed from Woolwich just east of London heading for New South Wales, heading for the convict colony in Australia. I begin the story by explaining the story to American readers the reason there was a convict colony in Australia. It goes back to the American Revolution. Until the Revolution convicted felons from Britain were shipped to the American colonies. As children, we learned that the colonies were full of what were called indentured servants. In fact for the most part these people were felons who were sent to the United States, pardoned as part of the process, but then sold into indentured service by the ship masters who had delivered them here. So it was an ideal solution for the British justice system. They got rid of their felons at no expense. They had no requirement to build a prison system which was something they weren’t interested in doing. There was no requirement even to pay for transportation. Well, when the Revolutionary War started, that outlet closed up. And suddenly Great Britain had no place to send their convicted criminals. And these people were convicted of all sorts of things. Small things, large things…mostly theft and robbery. But there was a desperate moment there in the late 1770’s when people tried to figure out “Well, what are we going to do with this tide of felons that are going to wash over society and overwhelm us if we can’t get rid of them anymore?” There was a great hunt started for a suitable convict colony. A number of efforts were made to find such places, for instance the West African coast and elsewhere. Quite rightly, and quickly, they concluded that that would be nothing but a death sentence. There was no place in West Africa where these people would survive.

B. Okay.

A. Then somebody remembered Cook’s expedition to Australia. And very quickly, without any further research, the decision was made in 1778 to launch the first fleet carrying about 1100 male and female convicts to start a new prison colony in Australia, in New South Wales at the time.

B. Andy, I’ve heard the stories of the criminal beginnings in Australia. At the time that this convict fleet sailed was Australia already colonized?

A. No. This is how it began. The program continued for many decades. Ultimately some 160,000 convicts from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales were shipped to Australia of which 20% to 25% were women. All along there was the intention that this would become a self-sustaining colony. Once again, Great Britain didn’t want to pay for this. In the case of Australia they had to pay for transportation. They had substantial upfront costs because there was no settled community into which these convicts could be integrated. So it began that way.

B. I see.

A. Well by 1833 they had been sending convicts to Australia for nearly 50 years and there had been no shipwreck. Not until the Amphitrite sails has any vessel been lost, although there have been a number of deaths from disease and other causes. There has been no vessel lost and no substantial loss of life other than some horrific fatalities aboard the second fleet due to maltreatment and things of that sort.

But Amphitrite sails from Woolrich and less than a week later she’s caught in a terrific channel storm along with hundreds of other vessels and is run aground outside the city of Boulogne-sur-Mer, the French channel coast. And in the course of roughly the next ten hours the ship is caught on the sands, she’s run aground deliberately but she’s caught on the sands and beaten to pieces by the storm surge, in plain sight of the city. Several efforts are made to alert the crew to what’s going to happen to them if they stay there and don’t leave the ship. Depending on what source you believe for a variety of reasons, the captain, the crew and his convicts are not permitted to leave and all but three die, all but three drown Saturday night, August 31, 1833. And when Sunday comes, the good citizens of Boulogne, about 6,000 of who are British expatriates, discover to their horror that bodies are washing up on the beach in dozens.

My book is the story of the ship, the shipwreck, the public outcry after the investigation the admiralty conducts, and what happened and why. And of course the fact that it’s women and children who were the largest numbers among the dead I think just kind of makes it more poignant and frankly a more marketable story for an American audience.

B. Absolutely. When you first mentioned it to me, I felt it was a story that will be quite appealing.

A. The early vessels that went to the convict colonies had both men and women aboard. That very quickly turned out to be impossible and unworkable. And consequently early on what happens is that all-female transports become the model. There is some financial advantage. They don’t have to put guards on them. The male transports are carrying security detachments because everybody’s afraid of mutiny. The female transports, the people conclude quite rightly, that there isn’t the threat of the ship being taken over by these women, so they are able to put more convicts aboard any given size vessel. So that continues until 1833 when the first of them, Amphitrite goes down in this horrific, highly public accident. All of this happens in clear sight of the beach front of the city of Boulogne right in front of the principal hotel in the city, which happens to be owned by a Brit.

Anyway, that story is due to the publisher next summer and I think it’s an interesting one.

B. Were there good resources available to you considering it was such a public tragedy?

A. The resources are quite good in some areas and I’m still exploring other areas. All the legal documents that resulted in the convictions of these women at trial are very complete. The court system in England, Ireland and Scotland ran much as it does today, on paper. And all of those papers are available so it’s possible to understand in great detail what these individual women were accused off, what they were convicted of, what they were sentenced to, and where and when. So the records there are quite good. The records about the ship are quite good too. There are several principal characters. The captain of the ship, there are some good records about him. I found his will for example which tells me about his family and his property and one thing or another. The surgeon superintendant aboard, the man who is actually in charge of the convicts, he is turning out to be the most difficult to research. And it’s one reason why I’m going to go to Edinburgh because he was a Scot and I think I’m going to have to press harder on some things there. I have an acquaintance in Scotland doing some research for me but I need more on a Dr. James Forrester and his wife. She was accused of being the reason why no boat was launched from the ship to take people ashore, because it is alleged that she refused to ride with common prostitutes in a boat.

The admiralty investigation was conducted by a Navy Captain named Henry Chads, about whom the documentation is very complete. His investigation is very well documented. And there was a woman on the beach, a Brit, Sarah Taylor Austin who played a very important role in the efforts to save the lives of these people. She’s an enormously colorful figure married to a well known failed British lawyer living in France at the time. And the biographical data on her is both fascinating and very good. And there were two Frenchmen who tried very hard to alert the crew to what was happening and to make sure they understood their danger. But the biographical information on them is adequate.

The newspaper coverage in English language papers and French language papers is very good. And especially the coverage stimulated by a British reporter named John Wilks Jr. who is the guy who essentially stirred up the public excitement by his reporting in the Times of London and in the London Standard. He’s an enormously colorful character. He was living in France because he had been ridden out of England as a result of a whole bunch of stock frauds that he traded.

B. (laughing).

A. And all that is very well documented too. So the answer is…the source material is certainly available to do a good job. And it’s my job to take that source material and do the best job that it’s possible to do.

B. I may have missed it but did the accident occur at night?

A. It occurred in late afternoon. During the course of the afternoon the captain found himself….in aviation you say, kind of “out of altitude and ideas and air speed all at the same time”. He had the same problem. He’s being driven on the French coast by a wind out of the northeast. His ship will not go into the wind such that he cannot get away from shore. So he makes the deliberate decision about mid-afternoon to drive her up onto a sandbar to anchor there. He then assumes that the tide will come in, the storm will abate, it will lift him up and he will be able to continue his voyage. What he doesn’t understand, and what the French fisherman at the port do understand, is that as the tide comes in, it will bring with it all the sand that washes around. And that he will be fixed on that bar as the water rises around him. And that the narrow channel that he’s in, he’s in the Pas de Calais, the Dover Strait, that focuses the wind, it focuses the waves and that essentially once he is on that bar his ship will be beaten apart as the tide comes in. They try to alert him to this. For whatever reason he discounts it and it’s exactly what happens. Over the course of the evening, let’s say between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am, Amphitrite is beaten apart and that is when the bodies start washing in.

B. So the captain initially beached his ship!

A. Yes. Exactly! He deliberately took her ashore and that’s not unheard of in those days.

B. So with was his knowledge base at the time, it was the thing to do?

A. Yeah, well he didn’t have any alternatives. He was being pushed ashore and the question was, was he going to manage it or was he just going to be driven sideways somewhere and broach and rollover and that would be the end of it.

B. I see. But the locals who knew the area knew that that was not the place to do it.

A. Two of them, one in a boat and one, incredibly, swimming, went out to his ship to tell him exactly what was happening. And depending on whose story you believe he rejected the advice, or ignored it or had such confidence in what he was doing that he just figured that he would ride it out.

B. How incredible…

A. In fact what they told him is exactly what happened. The next morning his ship was in 10 or 12 great big pieces washed up on the beach. As I recall sixty-three bodies were found, his was not among them. They never found his body.

B. Did anyone survive?

A. Three of the crew members were the only survivors. The bosun and a couple of the youngsters on the crew were the only survivors. Everybody else, 133 drowned in the storm.

B. Were the women chained or in cells?

A. No, they were not restrained. Originally, as the scenario unfolded, they were put below in the prison space in the hold. But during the course of the storm, either the deck split, the poop broke up or the hatches burst because at the end, the women were out on the deck and washed over the side and drowned.

B. This is going to be a great book. It’s a story that, as I hear you tell it to me, I’m quite fascinated by. I know you said you have a deadline next year but what is the release date?

A. Well, it’s the same publisher and they typically take between ten and twelve months to go from when you deliver the manuscript to when the bound book comes out of the printer. And they really move pretty fast. That’s good time for the process that the manuscript goes through. My guess is that it will be in spring 2011; maybe late spring 2011; early summer…something like that. It often depends on the publisher. They publish about 70 to 80 books a year. It kind of depends on where in their schedule they’re going to put it.

B. That is one book I really look forward to reading Andy. Let’s move on to your most recent release, your third book which came out just last October 2008.

the-last-lincoln-conspirator1

 

A. That’s the one we met over, so to speak, and is called “The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight from the Gallows”. When I was researching my second book Sailors in the Holy Land” I read in the biography of the American consul in Malta that in 1866 he attempted to arrest one of Lincoln’s conspirators passing through Valletta.

B. Really! (laughing).

A. And I said to myself “Now that’s crazy. How could that possibly happen?”
And I put that idea aside until I finished “Sailors in the Holy Land’. Then I came back to it to try to find out who was this Lincoln conspirator passing through Valletta in 1866. And it turns out it was true. It was young John Surratt, son of Mary Surratt, the woman who you know better than most, who was hanged for her part in the conspiracy. John’s story is the story of the last Lincoln conspirator. The title focuses on the fact that he was the last to be arrested, the last to be tried and last, by many decades, to die. He lived until 1916. He died in the arms of his family, his wife Mary Victorine Hunter, the second cousin to Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote the words to the American national anthem, and his children.
So it’s the story of Surratt’s flight through Canada, through England, across France to Italy where he joined the Papal Zouaves, the army of Pope Pius IX where he hid out for eleven months. He was discovered there and arrested. He escaped arrest, that’s the story anyway. The reality is he was freed by his jailors. Fled overland to Naples and got on a ship. Passed through Malta and here’s where William Winthrop tried to arrest him and got all the way to Alexandria, Egypt before he was caught.
In Alexandria, he was caught, jailed and a navy vessel was sent to pick him up. On November 26, 1866 United States Ship Swatara sails for Washington with Surratt in chains in the corner of the Captain’s cabin. He will spend six weeks chained while being brought back for trial. The book takes him through his trial, through the subsequent legal proceedings in ‘67 and ‘68. He is quite astonishingly freed in 1868 and after unsuccessful careers successively as a teacher and public speaker; he ends up being an auditor for a steam ship line in Baltimore called the Old Bay Line operating steam vessels from Baltimore to Richmond and Baltimore to Norfolk. He will spend more than 50 years as the auditor for that company dying just a few years before WWI begins.

It’s another one of these odd things that not many people know about and when they hear about it they tend to be disbelieving…the idea that he did all these things all by himself in his 20s. He spent a year in the Pope’s army. He was arrested in Egypt of all places.

B. Andy, Who actually arrested John Surratt? During those days, I’m not quite sure what the protocol was and whether or not they issued an international warrant for him.

A. Well, it’s better than that. Surratt as he traveled through Canada and Britain and Malta was under the protection of British law. And it was very unlikely that he would have been arrested and extradited by the Brits. But when he arrived in Egypt he no longer had that protection. Egypt was a part of the Ottoman Empire. And the Ottoman Empire and the United States, several decades before, signed a treaty that provided that American citizens in the Ottoman Empire were subject to American law as executed by American diplomatic officials in the country. So when he stepped off the ship in Alexandria, he was met by the American Consul in Alexandria, Charles Hale, who simply arrested him. Hale asked that the Egyptians jail him until he could be extradited; he could be shipped back to Washington. He put him in an Egyptian jail for three weeks which must have been a real experience in 1866. And then when Swatara showed up the day after Christmas ’66 they loaded him on board and shipped him out. So he had unwittingly exposed himself to American law.

B. Now I have read one of Surratt’s published speeches from when he was doing his public speaking tour discussing his version of the events that transpired around the time of the Lincoln kidnapping plot and subsequent assassination. He must have been a good speaker because he comes off as being very ‘believable’ regarding what he told his audience about his involvement, which he claimed was fairly minimal. And yet what I find interesting is that historians generally believe that John Surratt was John Wilkes Booth right-hand man. What are your thoughts on this?

A. Well this is a complicated question. The prosecution at his trial tried to make the case that he was in Washington on Easter weekend, 1865 and participated directly in the assassination of the President. Surratt’s defense was the he was in Elmira, New York that weekend casing the Union prison holding Confederate prisoners of war in preparation for a possible prison break. And during the course of the trial, there were witnesses swearing to both sides of that. But the jury who heard that voted 8 to 4 to acquit him. The prosecution did a very bad job presenting their case. The defense did a good job presenting their case. And the New York Times finally concluded that regardless of where the members of the jury came from, and there were seven Southerners and five from the North on the jury, regardless of where you came from you could not have concluded that the prosecution had made a persuasive case. And in fact they didn’t. I personally, for what that’s worth, don’t think Surratt was in Washington. He clearly was Booth’s right hand man. He was his chief recruiter. But he was not in Washington, not in Maryland after the last day of March. I think that Booth’s decision making coalesced, came together, during the first two weeks of April. Remember they had that failed kidnapping plot in the middle of March.

B. Yes.

A. At the end of March Surratt goes to Richmond as a courier and he will spend all of April on a courier mission. And he will not be in Washington when the assassination of the President happens, when the assault on the Secretary of State happens, when the bungled plot to kill the Vice President happens and when the planned attempt on General Grant’s life never transpires because Grant takes a train out of town that day. And he’s nowhere to be seen.

I think in that fact Surratt was deeply involved with Booth’s plotting with respect to the kidnapping. I think the case has never been proven that he was aware of Booth’s assassination intentions. And I think it is more probable than not, that he was, in fact, in Elmira, NY when the assassination happened. I would even go farther than that. I would probably say that he was in fact there. I found that witnesses that identified him as being there very persuasive and at least half the prosecution witnesses that said he was in Washington were clearly lying for whatever reason.

B. Was there a reason why the prosecution decided to take that approach?

A. Poor judgment!

B. I guess (laughing)!

A. I think the prosecutor Carrington, the District Attorney, was just not a very smart man. He had the assistance of three other attorneys. The principal one was as civilian, Edwards Pierrepont, a New York attorney. And I think Pierrepont was a grandstanding, publicity hungry, a status conscious sort of guy who did just a very bad job putting the case together. Despite that fact, the judge George Fischer clearly believed in Surratt’s guilt and conducted the trial in such a way to make the prosecution’s case easier to present. He was so biased that even the newspapers were commenting on it. His charge to the jury for instance, at the end of that first trial, was outrageous.

 

 

 

Prosecutor Edwards Pierrepont

Prosecutor Edwards Pierrepont

B. I guess that’s a good point. Were there not two trials of John Surratt?

A. No. There was one trial. The subsequent legal proceeding never went to trial. There were three indictments altogether. The first one went to trial. The second one the grand jury signed and sent forward. The third one the grand jury refused to sign. But there were a year’s worth of legal proceedings that did not rise to the level of a trial under a new judge, Andrew Wiley. And it was the last of those proceedings at which Wiley dismissed the proceeding and set Surratt free.
And that’s the story of the last Lincoln conspirator. Kind of a neat story, I guess as much as anything, because people have never focused on young John Surratt and his epic escape. There’s a mid-western newspaper at the time that said “Compared to Surratt’s escape, John Wilkes Booth’s twelve days was just a highway man’s ride”!

B. (laughing)

A. Well, I mean that’s silly because Booth was just the giant figure of all this. But in fact, he was only on the road for twelve days and Surratt almost for two years (chuckling).

B. What was your second book about Andy?

A. The second book was called “Sailors in the Holy Land”. And it is the true story of the American Expedition to the Dead Sea in 1848. Another one of these odd bits of history when you say to yourself “Well why would the US Navy have any interest at all in the Dead Sea in the middle of the 19th century”?

sailors-in-the-holy-land1

B. It is a question mark (chuckling).

A. When I first heard about it I didn’t believe that. So drawing on my navy experience I said “Of all the salt water on the earth that is the least likely place for the US Navy to operate” but I was wrong! In fact, the spring and early summer of 1848 there were sailors in uniform under the American flag, under arms exploring the River Jordan and the Dead Sea and quite unexpectedly all but one of them returned alive. It was a great success. It ended up answering some interesting scientific questions about the peculiar body of water. Everybody knew there were some odd things about the Dead Sea they just weren’t quite sure why and it was all caught up in Old Testament and religious imagery and everything else. But that book came out of a lot of reading I did and when I came across Mark Kurlanski’s book called ‘Salt’ a paragraph that said something about the navy’s expedition in the Dead Sea. I said to myself “Well, when I get time I’m going to look into that ‘because I don’t believe it”.

B. It’s funny how just one word, or phrase, will trigger you to start looking into something.

A. That’s not the story of the first book. “Adak”, the story of the ditching Alfa Foxtrot 586” off the Siberian coast in 1978, that’s a story I kind of grew up with. None of us who flew that airplane believed that you could survive putting it down in open water under the conditions that Jerry Grigsby did and live through it.

B. I guess we should give a quick summary of what your history was which related to this flight. You were a flyer in the US Navy?

A. I was. I got in the Navy right out of school in 1962. I started flight training immediately. Got my wings the day President Kennedy was assassinated in ’63. On that same day, he was in Dallas shot by Oswald, I was at Corpus Christi listening to all that on the radio at the Navy Exchange at Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas.

B. No kidding. Wow. You heard that live!

A. Oh yeah.I went to my first squadron. It was a P-3 squadron of Lockheed Turbo Props that the Navy used and was just buying. They were brand new airplanes for ocean surveillance, maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare. I flew that airplane in three squadrons, on the East coast, the West coast and most places where there is salt water. There are places in the South Pacific and South Atlantic I didn’t get because the Soviets didn’t send their submarines there.

Lockheed P-3 "Orian"

Lockheed P-3 often called the Orion

B. Was there a reason it had to be salt water?

A. Well we were looking for submarines.

B. Oh I see.

A. Anywhere there was salt water that the Soviet Navy operated submarines in, the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. All those places we spent a fair amount of time working over making sure we knew where they were and what they were up to.

B. That was a pretty volatile time right around then too!

A. Well, it was an exciting time. The Soviets were building what was demonstrably the world’s biggest submarine fleet. Certainly the most threatening aspect of their naval force was that fleet. And we were working very hard, along with the Royal Navy and other friends and allies, to understand what they were doing, where they were doing it and how well they were doing what they tried to do.

I was fortunate that the ‘70s and ‘80s, we were very, very good at what we did. It was the golden age of air anti-sub warfare and I had a lot of fun with it. My last squadron was one which I commanded from California in Moffett Field in ’76 to ’78 and then returned to Moffett Field to command the air station in the early 1980s. In ’86 I retired. I tell people that I spent the next 15 years learning to be a capitalist. And it’s true. In the naval service you’re not dealing with making the payroll or selling the product or any of that. So for the next something years I did. And that worked out well enough that about ten years ago it became possible for me to write full time.

B. I understand that you worked in the Pentagon as well. When did that occur?

A. I worked in the Pentagon a number of times. It got to the point that I was going back and forth from the squadron to the Pentagon. At first I was on the staff of Chief of Naval Operations, both on his staff and personal staff. I next ended up on the staff of the Secretary of Defense, on his personal staff. And the last job was, again on the Navy staff in the Plans, Policy and Operations Office of the Navy Staff in the mid ‘80s. I may be one of the few people who enjoyed every assignment I had in the Pentagon. It’s traditional that people complain about it. I found it enormously interesting. I thought that the people I worked with were smart, dedicated and trying to do a good job and I thought it was a useful thing to do.

B. I want to get back to your first book, but mentioning the Pentagon, 9/11 comes to mind and I want to know what your feelings are on that and if you knew some folks in there.

A. No, that was far enough away from me. I’d worked in those offices. I knew the geography. I have a pretty good idea what it would have been like inside of that building at the time. By the time that happened, the people who were inside were a generation behind me. My sympathy, my horror and my unhappiness was generic rather than specific.

B. What years were you in the Pentagon?

A. The first Pentagon assignment was ’70 to about ’74 doing different jobs. I was back there during most of the Carter administration through the late ‘70s, early 80’s working for Secretary Brown. I was back there again ’85 and ’86 on the Navy Staff. Altogether about nine years or so! Seems like a long time in one building. But there were four different jobs, very different people and all of them I thought were worth doing.
Beyond that, I spent a year in Vietnam and a bunch of time flying airplanes. I did some time at school and some graduate work for a couple of years.

B. Were you in Washington in ’83 or had you already gone to California at that time?

A. No, I think I was already in California. I was at Moffett Field then for Moffett Field’s 50th Anniversary. The air station was built as a WPA project during the depression and its 50th anniversary we celebrated in ’83 with a spectacular 3-day weekend and air show and carried on vitally. So I remember that date pretty clearly. I still have two bottles of wine in the house with labels from Mirasou Vineyards celebrating Moffett Fields 50th anniversary. My guess is that stuff would just taste awful.

B. There’s probably some serious vinegar in there (laughing).

A. I think it could peel paint (laughing).

B. (laughing)

A. But the bottles are beautiful and it’s a nice memory.

B. That’s terrific. What was the plane that you flew that related to the Adak story?

 

adak1

A. It was the same airplane, the Lockheed P-3. It’s really called the Orion. It was a four engine, land based turboprop, 127,000 lbs when we started and ended up being about 132,000 pound airplane with four turboprop engines altogether about 17,000 horsepower. Just a great airplane! Full of expensive equipment and normally carrying a crew of between ten and twelve.

B. Now you had mentioned before that this plane was not meant to float.

A. Yeah, think for a moment. This is not a seaplane. This was originally an airliner. It’s designed for pressurized cruising at altitude. It doesn’t have a keel; it doesn’t have any of the kinds of things that make a seaplane into a seaplane. And it’s what makes the landing of the US Air aircraft in the Hudson River so stunning. The idea that he could that and survive it and get everybody out…I mean that’s an authentic miracle.

B. I understand. Wow.

A. For the same reason when Lieutenant Commander Jerry Grigsby in end of October, ’78 put his airplane down into the open Pacific in thirty foot seas, the idea that it would hold together at all, long enough for people to get out of it, is just amazing. It took extraordinary skill and frankly a fair amount of good luck too.

B. How long was that plane in the water?

A. It sank in about two minutes. The survivors’ stories vary between two to four minutes. Your sense of time is really skewed under those kinds of stresses. But they hit the water, broke up just behind the cockpit and just in front of the tail and sank very quickly. Before it went down, 14 of the 15 men aboard had time to get out. And 13 out of those 14 managed to get into a raft. Tragically, the pilot Jerry Grigsby did not. He got into the water, he was swimming towards the raft but he was never able to catch it. Under the wind and the waves at the time there was nothing the guys in the raft could do. And Jerry drifted off to sea and he was lost at sea.

B. This was a storm that took the plane down?

A. That part of the North Pacific around the Aleutians has some of the nastiest flying weather or for that matter steaming weather in the world. It’s very very tough because that very cold dry air comes off of Siberia and hits the relatively warm moist air of the Bering Sea and it just spins up storms that are just ferocious. Those storms come tracking down through the Gulf of Alaska and tear up the North Pacific and Jerry had the misfortune of being operating right on edge of that such that when he went to put Alfa Foxtrot 586 down in the water he was facing 25-30 foot seas.

B. Now he put it down for what reasons?

A. He had a problem with the No. 1 propeller. It translated itself into four separate engine fires. The first two engine fires he could put out. The aircraft has fire extinguisher systems that will put out two fires on any one side. The third fire blew out. When the fourth one flared up, he realized that he was out of options, a little bit like the captain of Amphitrite. He’d run out of options and had to do something decisive and what Jerry did was, before the wing burned off and killed them all, he put the plane into the water. And everything flowed from there.

B. Did this happen right when the storm hit?

A. No. There had been a storm out there the whole time. They were going out from Adak for a flight that was scheduled to be 9 hours. That weather was there and stayed in the Aleutians for the next couple of days. As a matter a fact while the search and rescue flights were being flown looking for them the weather moved down the Aleutian chain, from west to east, and progressively closed the Air Force base and the Navy bases and things like that, tremendously complicating the conduct of the search and rescue missions.

B. Although Jerry Grigsby didn’t make it, how many men were in the life raft at this point?

A. There are now thirteen in the raft at about two or three o’clock Thursday afternoon. Thirteen of them have made it into two rafts. There are nine guys in a seven-man raft and four men in a twelve-man raft.

B. Are they lashed together?

A. The rafts blow apart. After just a few minutes they blow a couple of miles apart and they don’t see each other. Over the course of the next twelve hours three of the young men in the nine-man raft die of exposure. And it’s pretty clear that the rest of them had just a few hours to live. Meanwhile, there is a frantic effort to rescue them. And that effort includes an appeal from Washington to Moscow for assistance because there are no American flag vessels or US Navy ships in the North Pacific around them. It turns out there is a Soviet fishing trawler, the Mys SInyavin. Mys SInyavin is directed by the Soviet Fisheries Ministry to turn around and sail to the wreck site. And she is led to the rafts by a US Coast Guard airplane that has been flying on top of the rafts.

B. Oh, so they know where they are?

A. They know exactly where they were. They just can’t get them out of the water. And the water is going to kill them. The nearest Coast Guard cutter is 2-1/2 days away. It’s a Coast Guard cutter, also out of Adak, Alaska, Hamilton class cutter, and she’s not going to get there until Saturday morning. This is now Thursday night. So the Mys SInyavin turns around, heads back to the wreck site and manages in the middle of the night to collect the ten living men, who are hours from death at most, and the three bodies. They will spend a week in the Soviet Union in two hospitals, one in Kamchatka, the Kamchatka Peninsula and one on the Soviet mainland. And then quite remarkably and quite surprisingly they are released. And they are home Saturday, nine days after they hit the water with the three bodies of the young crewmembers who died. So the story is about a ten day story. What makes it exciting is that the sources on that were very very good. I have in fact, among other things, the tape recordings of the emergency radio transmissions between the aircraft and the ground in 1978. And when you listen to them it is breathtaking. One of the young crewmembers, the tactical coordinator, is talking to Elmendorf radio and at 200 feet above the water, he is telling Elmendorf that, okay, they are going in. They’ve stretched this out as long as they can. He’s sitting at a window. His station has a window. He’s sitting above the water, looking at these horrific waves, the horrific wind, telling them that they have 15 of them aboard, that they’ve got life rafts, that they’re all wearing survival suits. And his voice is so calm and so collected that he sounds like a sports announcer watching a ballgame. You would think that there would be something in his voice that would tell you he thinks he was going die because he had every reason to believe he was. And it’s not. The kid’s just out of college. It’s just an extraordinary demonstration of professionalism and coolness that, every time I hear that transmission, and I’ve probably heard it 150 times, I marvel at it.

B. I assume that when you do a book tour you play that tape during your talk. It must be breathtaking for folks who hear that.

A. I play that tape and play a number of sections from it. I begin with that because it’s just so arresting to hear that. And then I explain to people “Okay, this is what you heard. Now let’s listen to it again”. And as I say, every time I go through that I get a lump in my throat. Matt Gibbons is the guy whose voice that is. Matt lives on Half Moon Bay in California now. He works for a technology company called Novellus. You look at Matt today, he looks like…do you know the American cartoon character Elmer Fudd?

B. Yes (laughing).

A. Okay. Matt looks a little like Elmer Fudd. And what you don’t realize looking at Matt is here’s a guy of exquisite courage. I mean just extraordinary courage. And it’s all wrapped up in this quite ordinary body. Interestingly enough, I mentioned to you that Jerry Grigsby died. He was never able to swim to a raft. Two years later, Matt married Jerry’s widow. They live today, happily, more than thirty years later, in California where this is still a big part of their lives, this whole memory.

B. Have you met most or all of the survivors?

A. All of them. With one exception they all cooperated very generously while I was writing the book. One of them was in my squadron for a brief period of time. The navigator was in my squadron before he went to this squadron. And the guy who wrote the Navy investigation for this I knew. The commanding officer of the squadron was a contemporary of mine so I knew him too. So it was a story in the family and it was possible to tell it especially persuasively, especially convincingly because I had flown the airplane most of my life. I’d operated out of that part of Alaska. I had flown off the Soviet coast where they were flying. And I kind of understood a lot of what was going on there although I won’t pretend to you that I have any experienced anything remotely like what they went through which is just an extraordinary event.

B. That’s pretty amazing.

A. It’s a neat story.

B. And you’ve picked four rather amazing stories. I can’t wait to see what’s up your sleeve next, Andy.

A. I haven’t even begun to think about it. I’m deep in Amphitrite and her women. What I try to do is to always be working on a book and in the intervals around the edges of that, I generally write a periodical article each year. There has been one published in Naval History Magazine every year for the last, I don’t know how long. And they’re generally 5000-6000 word features on exciting adventures. The American expedition up the Congo [B. Note: This article was voted Feature of the Year by Naval History magazine in 2006]. The American expedition down the Amazon. Henry Eckford, an American ship designer in the 1830s, who ended up quite improbably running the shipyard for the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. They’re stories that are odd and they’re interesting and it gives me a chance to take a midway break from working on the book to dip into something else for a couple of weeks and then refresh and revitalize until I get back into it.

B. When you retired from the Navy, what rank were you at?

A. I was a Captain.

B. And you also spent some time in Vietnam?

A. I spent a year in Vietnam on the MACV staff at Ton Son Nhut. My graduate degree was in Southeast Asian Politics. I’m a graduate of the School of International Affairs, because I expected to go to Vietnam, I concentrated on Southeast Asia.

So when I finished the degree program, as expected I ended up going to Vietnam and I spent a year in Psychological Operations. It was our mission to persuade the members of the North Vietnamese Army in the Republic of Vietnam to surrender and to persuade the members of the Viet Cong to rally to the government. And you can tell by the way the war came out how successful I was in that. Which is to say, not at all!

B. (laughing)

A. And I spent many years reflecting on that failure. And I finally concluded that you can’t get people to quit if they think they’re winning. And there is no reason why they thought that they weren’t winning, because they were. It was clear to them, and consequently all our persuasion, all our dropping of leaflets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, all our propaganda broadcasts, one thing and another we were doing. We were just going through the motions. We were having no effect whatsoever.

B. At the time, did you know that?

A. At the time, I suspected it but I didn’t know it, and I wasn’t going to quit trying. As you can tell, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. And it was very ill conceived, the effort we made. And we used to drop 12 or 13 million propaganda leaflets at a time. There must be parts of Laos today that you can still walk hip deep through propaganda leaflets assuming that they haven’t disintegrated into paper mache. And that effort was just silliness.

B. But at the time, it seemed to make sense (laughing)!

A. Well (laughing) Lord knows we were trying! One of the things we tried to do is we decided that people were not picking up leaflets because they’d get in trouble if they did.

B. Oh, okay.

A. So people said, “What would they pick up. They’d pick up money, wouldn’t they”? So there was a program where one side of the leaflet was printed with money. Printed as if it were a piaster or a North Vietnamese dong or something. So then we realized “Hey, that’s really dangerous”! You start that stuff then you encourage people to counterfeit your money and now all kinds of stuff unravel. So, we went from that to the idea of “Why don’t we print propaganda on tobacco leaves!”, because all these guys will pick up tobacco to make cigarettes to smoke. But you start trying to feed tobacco leaves through high speed printing presses…

B. (laughing loudly).

A. I want to tell you the mess you can make is just stupefying! Modern equipment or what was modern then, can’t handle something like that. So there are a lot of things we did that, that when I look back on, I say to myself “Gee that was silly!” But there are more important criticisms than what I’m saying.

B. These are the stories that the general public never hears (laughing). I don’t think they’re stories out of school. They’re just things that happened.

A. We set up a propaganda radio station in the Highlands of Pleiku and people started saying “Hey, wait a minute. Who’s going to hear this? There aren’t enough radios around.” So the decision was “Alright, let’s buy some really cheap radios, fix tuned to this station and just air drop them.” And then there was decision made that said “Okay, we have to make sure that there is no way that these radios can be traced back to us.” So a some expense, we had a bunch of radios made (little things about the size of a pack of cigarettes), we had a bunch of these things made and paid quite a bit of money to make sure that there was no component in the radio that identified its origin. You know, Made in…made here, or made there. And then we started scattering these things up and down Vietnam. Well, unless you believed in the Radio Fairy, there’s only one place these things could have come from…

B. (laughing)

A. …the United States! So the whole concept of dropping these mysterious radios that nobody knew where they came from was silly because everybody knew where they came from.

B. Considering the channel that they were locked in on…

A. There was one player in that part of the world with enough money to do that…

B. & A. (laughing).

A. Anyhow, I’ve had a lot of time to think back on this stuff. It was odd. Very odd. And more than odd it was in many respects, tragic.
I felt very strongly as a young man. One of the parts of the deal was if you were a commissioned officer in regular Navy, if there was a war going on you were honor bound to serve. And on the strength of that I’ve never regretted what I did but I have looked back with a certain amount of bemusement as to just how it all came out.

I hope that gives you a sense of maritime adventures that I’ve been working on and writing up and how it is I got from the rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586 to the trials and tribulations of John Harrison Surratt Jr. and finally to what tragically happened to the women aboard the convict transport Amphitrite off the beach of Bologne in 1833.

B. This has been fascinating history and I’m really thrilled that you shared it with us. It has been my pleasure to talk with you and share these great stories with my readers. Andy, thank you so much.

A. I’ve enjoyed meeting you over the ether. I’ve enjoyed talking to you and I appreciate your interest and attention.

B. Thank you.

END

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I want to thank Andy for this interview and look forward to our continued conversations in the future.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

 

 

 

 

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Mr. Lincoln In Enemy Territory? by Laurie Verge

April 21, 2009: Barry Cauchon

This afternoon I was having a nice discussion with Laurie Verge, the Director of the Surratt House Museum, when she told me about a recent visit the museum had by a large group of Lincolns, Mary Todd Lincolns and one General Ulysses S. Grant. I couldn’t picture this humorous event so I ask her if she could send me a picture. She did one better, Laurie directed me to Abraham Lincoln Online where she posted the following story. As well, the photos were all posted on Flickr  http://flickr.com/gp/pgparks/03YE97 of which some are reproduced here. All photos were taken by Cassi Hayden/M-NCPPC.

Laurie was kind enough to allow me to reprint her article and some of the photos. Thanks Laurie. I enjoyed them a lot.

Barry

That's a whole lot of Lincolns here!!!!!

That's a whole lot of Lincolns here!!!!!

 

Mr. Lincoln in Enemy Territory?  by Laurie Verge

After 144 years, has all been forgiven?

Today, April 17, 2009, fifty Mr. Lincoln presenters, several Mrs. Lincolns, and one General Grant, ventured into the heart of Southern Maryland, a hot bed of Confederate sympathies and espionage activities during the Civil War. Their target? A visit to historic Surratt House Museum, where guns, ammunition, and other supplies had been hidden in March of 1865 as part of an aborted kidnap plot against the president. These items ultimately brought Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, to the home within two hours of shooting Mr. Lincoln on April 14, 1865 – resulting ultimately in the arrest, trial, and execution of Mary Elizabeth Surratt and bringing about one of history’s mysteries: Did the lady deserve to die?

The Lincoln presenters are holding their annual convention at the Colony South Hotel in Clinton, (once Surrattsville) Maryland, just down the road from Surratt House. Costumed guides at the museum were quick to point out that, in 1860, Mr. Lincoln earned only one vote in the county. He did a little better in 1864. Throughout the war, Surratt House served as a stop on the Confederate underground route that ran from the Potomac River to the Union capital.

Today, both sides were very friendly; and the entourage of Brady photographers that followed the presidents all day captured many memorable pictures – including a group photo posed at the front door that stopped rush hour traffic on the road that runs past the museum.

Laurie Verge, Surratt House Museum

Photos by Cassi Hayden

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Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

“An Awesometalk With” Ed Isaacs, Owner of Civil War Diary from Soldier Who Guarded the Lincoln Conspirators

April 10, 2009: Barry Cauchon

Ed Isaacs holds the diary of his great great grandfather George E. Dixon.

Life has a way of blessing you when you least expect it. Call it karma, good luck or maybe even a genuine intervention by a higher power. I personally believe that things happen for a reason and so when this story began about two weeks ago, I can say that I was blessed again. A kind and humble gentleman by the name of Ed Isaacs, a retired fire fighter from Norwalk, Connecticut wrote to me saying that he had just come into possession of the diary of his great great grandfather, George E. Dixon. George was a Civil War sergeant in Company C of the 14th Regiment Veterans Corp; the regiment that was assigned to guard, and eventually take part in the executions of several of the Lincoln assassination conspirators in 1865. This was extremely exciting news for me as this is the focus of my current research.

Once Ed shared some of the contents of the diary with me, I knew I was seeing something that was never before on the public record.

The diary is the first known document found to list the names of the guards and their duties guarding the prisoners. It also adds another perspective to the story. It’s a first hand account, documented in the handwriting of the man who was actually there and participated in this famous historic event.

From a researcher’s point of view, George E. Dixon’s diary is a great find. And as you’ll read, Ed Isaacs’ efforts to share this as well as honor the members in his family tree are genuinely uplifting. I am happy and honored to share this story with you on his behalf. Enjoy.

Barry 

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B.Hey Ed. How are you? 

 

E. I’m good and ready to go! 

 

B.(laughing) Alright then, let me start by asking you where you live and what did you do for a living before you were retired?

E. The answer to that is I live in Norwalk, Connecticut. I just recently retired on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th of this year from the Norwalk Fire Department with nearly 32 years on the job.

B.Wow. 

E. Yup. It was a good career. I took good care of my family with that.

B. Let me ask you about two associations that you are affiliated with. You are a member of The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and a member and past president of The Sons of the American Revolution.

E. Yes I am.

B.What are those organizations and how do they serve their members?

E. These are hereditary societies whose missions are to preserve the ideals our forefathers fought for during the Civil War and the American Revolution. I was the past president of The Roger Sherman Branch, Connecticut Society Sons of the American Revolution. I had three ancestors that were in the Revolutionary War and they were Amos Dixon, John Saunders and Samuel Brown Isaacs. And then I became a member of The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and my ancestors there of course were George E. Dixon and Edwin Lorenzo Tuttle who fought in the 5th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers and then he reenlisted into the 17th.

B.And the reason we are talking here today is because of your great great grandfather, George E. Dixon.  

 

Sergeant George E. Dixon.

Sergeant George E. Dixon wearing his medals which can be seen later in this article.

 

You contacted me by email back on March 23 and I’d like to read a portion of that note now.

“I recently acquired a diary that was my great-great grandfather’s. His name was George E. Dixon from Poundridge, NY. During the Civil War he was stationed in Washington, D.C. This is what his diary says,  

May 16, 1865: On guard at the old penitentiary over the Booth party conspirators.
I was in the court room during the day while the witness’s were being examined. I saw the bullet that killed the President, also the pistol and two carbines. Booth’s photograph and the boot that was cut open to take it from his broken leg by Dr. Mudd.

 July 7, 1865: On guard at the penitentiary. The execution of Surratt, Payne, Atzerodt + Herold.

 I hope you find this interesting”.

Well Ed (laughing) the first thing that I thought to myself was ‘DAH! Of course I’d find this interesting”. For me, this is great stuff. This is sort of what I specialize in and so I was dying to talk to you and I’m glad that we now have a rapport and are talking more and more about this.

E. And for me it was very interesting because I wasn’t really aware of any of that history. Maybe I mentioned that I have his obituary, “Civil War Veteran Claimed by Death”. Commenting on the execution, of which he was an eyewitness, he says in his diary,

 “The first two, having fainted, were carried to the gallows by the guards: the latter two walked calmly up and put their heads in the nooses.”

So of course, when I eventually got the diary this is what I expected to see. I’ve never seen this line in here yet! So, it could have been hearsay from his wife or a child. But the information I did find was pretty fantastic.

B.So that quote is actually not in the diary from what you can find so far! 

E. I have not found that quote. Nope. 

B.George lived to be quite old. And two things I’ll ask you to explain to everyone are ‘Who was George Dixon’ and ‘what was his history’?

E. George E. Dixon was 90 years old when he passed away. He was a Civil War Veteran who resided in Pound Ridge, New York. He was well known to the people of Stamford. He was the driver for an old mail and passenger stagecoach line for many years. He was born in Pound Ridge on December 2, 1834.

 

George E. Dixon's business card.

George E. Dixon's business card.

He attended the schools of that district. And on April 4, 1859, he married Sarah E. Birdsall, a native of Pound Ridge. After the Civil War broke out, he volunteered for the service of his country, joining the 6th Regiment New York Heavy Artillery. He was mustered in at Yonkers, and went to a training camp for three months. 

B.[NOTE: At this point in the interview I interrupted Ed with another question and we never got back to George E. Dixon’s history, so here is the rest of it before we pick up the interview again].

His military service states:

 He enlisted as a Private in the 172nd Infantry Regiment New York on September 6, 1862, at the age of 27. He was transferred into Company M, 6th Regiment New York Heavy Artillery on December 4, 1862. He was transferred on January 26, 1864 from Company M to Company A. He was wounded on June 20, 1864 at Petersburg, Virginia. He was transferred to Company M, 6th Regiment New York Heavy Artillery on January 19, 1865 and then transferred to Company C, 14th Regiment Veterans Reserve Corps January 19, 1865. On July 7, 1865, he was appointed Sergeant in Company C of the 14th Regiment of Veteran Reserve Corps to rank as such from the 1st day of July 1865. During the war, he was twice wounded in action and fought in the following battles: Manassas Gap, Mire Run, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Harris House, North Anna River, Totopopomoy, Cold Harbor, and Bethesda Church. In this last battle, he was wounded when the handle of a musket was shot off and later, at Petersburg, he was shot in the right arm. He was honorably discharge July 31, 1865. Just prior to his discharge, he was present to witness first hand, a chronicle of American History. During his final service in Washington, DC, he served as sergeant of the guard at the penitentiary in Washington where the persons implicated in the death of President Abraham Lincoln were kept and later was in charge of the guards at the execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Payne, George Atzerodt, and David Herold, who were involved in the assassination plot.

 Following the war, he returned to Pound Ridge where in 1868, he was given a contract of carrying mail between Stamford and Pound Ridge; a position which he held for 22 years. At first, he only carried the mail three times a week but, later, the number of trips was increased to six. When the rural routes were instituted, he continued carrying freight and passengers until 1916.

Ninety-year old George E. Dixon died on March 16, 1925; just 19 days shy of his 66th wedding anniversary (April 4, 1925). He was one of the oldest members of the Charles A. Hobbie Post #23 of the Grand Army of the Republic located in Stamford. At the time of his death, he was survived by four children – Charles L. of New York City, Mrs. Ada Isaacs of New Canaan, Myron A. of Stamford, and Wilbur of New Canaan: his wife, Sarah E., and 14 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.

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George and Sarah Birdsall Dixon on their 65th wedding anniversary.

George and Sarah Birdsall Dixon on their 65th wedding anniversary.

B. You sent me two pictures of George, one of him and his wife and the other being a family portrait. I guess these are both from their 65th wedding anniversary on April 4, 1924. Is that correct?

[Note: Just last Saturday, April 4, 2009 would have marked George and Sarah’s 150th wedding anniversary].

E. That’s correct. At their home which we referred to as “Charter Oak Place”. 

B.In the family photo, is there somebody there that you are directly related too? 

George and Sarah and their family on their 65th wedding anniversary

George and Sarah and their family on their 65th wedding anniversary

E. The young couple right behind Sarah and George were my grandparents. The young gentleman is Clarence Isaacs and his wife Muriel. It is very sad how things go because that picture was taken in April, 1924 and my father had just been born in February of that year. My grandmother, Muriel  died the following year at only 21 years old. My grandfather Clarence died at 30 years old in 1927. So they didn’t have a great long life, yet Clarence’s mother Ada, who’s standing right next to him, lived to 96 years old. That’s Ada Dixon Isaacs, my great grandmother.  

Muriel Isaacs, Clarence Isaacs and Ada Dixon

Muriel Isaacs, Clarence Isaacs and Ada Dixon

 

B.Well…I’d love to say that …

E. …you don’t know what tree you’re going to be in. Right!

B.Exactly (laughing).

E. Yup.

B.When did you first get interested in your great great grandfather? I know you have some items of his as well as his diary.

E. Well first, the items that I have, I didn’t have to worry about collecting, outside of the diary, because the items were already here. My father was a great collector. In my family, we save everything. I’vegot a bible from Samuel Brown Isaacs who was in the Revolutionary War and I’ve got a powder horn from Amos Dixon.

But the question is always asked “When did I get interested in it”? Like a lot of people would say “When your parent dies”. My dad was very interested in our family history. And of course when I lost him in 1990, I’d always remember as a young kid when I was 10, 12, 14 years old, the many weekends we would spend going to a cemetery, a library, a town hall or somewhere always looking for facts on family. And that’s what we did. And of course as I came up on sixteen years old, I’m looking at my watch saying “Dad, I got a date. I gotta get out of here”. I didn’t show as much interest then. But when I lost him it became one of the most important things in my life. Honoring my ancestors is honoring my father, Howard R. Isaacs.

 My family has a lot of history in this area.  Ralph Isaacs and Mary Rumsey Isaacs settled in Norwalk in 1725.  My family has not moved more than 20 miles in 284 years.

B.What are some of the items that you obtained from your father?

E. I have George E. Dixon’s certificate promoting him to Sergeant. I’ve got his pension paper. I’ve got original news articles about George and Sarah’s 65th wedding anniversary and of course the article on his death. I’ve got many photos including George with family members in front of his home “Charter Oak Place”. I’ve got a medal given to him for serving in the 6th Regt. New York Heavy Artillery, Army of the Potomac and his GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] medal. And now I have his diary!

 

 

George Dixon's Army of the Potomac and GAR medals

George Dixon's New York Volunteers Heavy Artillery Army of the Potomac and GAR medals

 

B.Well, let’s talk about the diary then (laughing)!

When you contacted me on March 23 you had only just received it a few days before on March 18, so you haven’t had it that long.

E. When it arrived at my house in the envelope I did not open it. I needed to relax in anticipation of what I would discover. I just put it downstairs in a safe place until Sunday the 22nd and that was the first time I opened it. I was just so relieved.

B.How long have you known of its existence?

E. I didn’t know if it still existed. All I had was just a copy of his obituary that said “…in his diary” and that one quote that I haven’t been able to find. But I didn’t know where that diary could be. So really, the story of how I got it is very interesting.

B.I’m sure. Can you tell us?

E. Before I retired, I was looking at family members’ histories and went on Ancestory.com. I started loading the names of different family members that I had, on it. I looked at photographs of George and Sarah and the extended family. One of my parents had put the names of the different family members on the back of the photos. So I just started looking at the different names and I found one, that was Floyd E. Dixon. I put Floyd E. Dixon into my family tree just looking to see who else would be searching for this particular Dixon and I found one that matched exactly. And then of course, I made a phone call to Maine to Pamila Dixon Tift and said, “Hi, I’m your cousin”. I started sending her a lot of information about our great great grandfather.  When I sent her a copy of George’s obituary talking about his diary, she called me back and said she had that diary.

B.(laughing).

E. Needless to say, I nearly fell out of my chair here. But I had to keep my wits about me. Through many emails and conversations over the next week or so I let her know that since I had everything else of his, and I’m only minutes from Pound Ridge where he lived; and I visited the home where he lived many times… that the diary needed to be here. I was very fortunate that she agreed with me.  

If anything else was interesting, she told me that she put it in the mail on March 16th and just by coincidence, I looked at his obituary again that night and noticed that March 16, 1925 was when he died. So everything has a meaning.

 

 

The Dixon gravestone.

The resting place of George E. Dixon, Sarah Dixon and Ada Isaacs.

B.Yeah for sure! What an amazing story. It sounds like coincidence but perhaps it’s not. It goes deeper than that and was meant to be in your hands.

E. That’s exactly right.

B.When you first opened the diary did you focus on any one page after you looked through it?

E. The main one for me was of course the page we just talked about where he was an eyewitness in the courtroom when the witnesses were being examined. That one, and the other page that’s seems to be the one getting us all really excited, page 27, with the names of the guards and executioners. I didn’t have a clue what anything on this page meant, so I contacted you.

 

 

Page 27 from the Dixon diary.

Page 27 from the Dixon diary.

  

B.At first, when you sent me a photo of the page, we were debating whether the list of names was of guards or prisoners. Well it turned out that it was a list of guards from the 14th Regiment Veterans Corp.

 

A list of men from the 14th Regiment and the schedule of cells they were assigned to guard.

A list of men from the 14th Regiment and the schedule of cells they were assigned to guard.

 

But the names that really jumped out at me were the four at the bottom of the page [#15, 16, 17 & 18]. And those were the names of the four guards that stood under the scaffold and who were responsible for knocking the props out, or springing the traps.

 

Although spelt incorrectly, the names of the four soldiers who sprung the traps at the conspirator executions are

Although some of the names are spelt incorrectly, the names of the four soldiers who sprung the traps at the conspirator executions are in Dixon's list: William Coxshall, Joseph Haslett, George F. Taylor and Daniel F. Shoupe (Shoup).

[Ed later pointed out that on this same page George notes this very fact when he writes “The last four numbers were executioners. Sergt. G. E. Dixon, Co. C, 14th Reg”.]

  

 

The note that George penned indentifying the four men that sprung the traps at the execution.

The note that George penned indentifying the four men that sprung the traps at the execution.

I guess as we’ve talked a little bit further it sounded like George, at the time being a Sergeant, perhaps was in charge of scheduling some of his men to guard the prisoners, hence his list of guards names.

 

 

 

 

 

 

E. These names didn’t mean anything to me because even though I have my family here that I honor very much, I didn’t follow the history as much as I should. But now I’ve started looking into it more. As you know I’ve bought the book “American Brutus” by Michael Kauffman and I have just bought “The Trial” by Ed Steers Jr. That’s just about twice as many books as I’ve probably ever read in my life.

B.(laughing) Well the two authors you mentioned are both excellent in this field. The field of the assassination.

E. Oh yes. It’s very exciting.

B.On your behalf, I did approach some of these gentlemen who I correspond with and respect highly. And right off the bat we had a really good response from Michael Kauffman. I think his first response to me, before I passed it on to you, was “WOW”! So it really meant something to him as it related to his own research. I know that he is now working with you to further discover what other information is to be found in that list as well as in the other pages of the diary.

Michael is definitely excited about the project. I have had responses from other Lincoln experts. Some are quite busy right now. But eventually these folks will get back to you as their schedules free up.

E. I know for sure that this has to be exciting for some of them just like when you contacted me. If someone is going to give you his cell phone number you know that they are interested. To get the home phone number from Michael Kauffman or to hear from Laurie Verge, I mean that is very exciting and I’m very honored for George E. Dixon. I really am!

B.Laurie Verge is the Director of the Surratt House Museum and Surratt Society. She is quite interested in collecting whatever information she can on George, putting it into their files, so any future researchers have an opportunity to explore him and see how his life relates to perhaps the research that they are doing. It’s an exciting time, Ed!

E. It really is. When I retired on March 17, officially after the 18th, I wondered what I was going to do other than feet hitting the floor in the morning and going to get a cup of coffee. I’m still not that old but I plan on doing something down the road. But to have this happen, there isn’t a day right now where I don’t have something to do. I’m doing a newspaper interview tomorrow in George’s hometown of Pound Ridge at 10:00 o’clock. It’s all about honoring George and it’s a great thing. I’m really enjoying it.

B.Do you have children Ed?

E. I have a 19-1/2 year old daughter Emily and my son will be 18 in June and that is Christopher.

B.Do they find interest in this or are they sort of like how you were back when? They have their own life right now!

E. Just like me! (laughing).

B.(Laughing)

E. My wife is very good with this. She understands that not everyone is into this when you are a teenager. But everything is going to be put away safely and catalogued somehow so they’ll have things to look at and be proud of when they do show interest. My son is also a member of The Sons of the American Revolution. And in December of this past year I got my daughter into The Daughters of the American Revolution. So they are good to go. It is just a matter of what they want to do with their lives and their time. But they are good to go.

B.What’s your hope for yourself now that you are retired?

E. Now that I have the Dixon diary, I can see my first book. I can see myself going on some talking tours. Maybe do some schools. It would be very interesting once I figure out everything. It’s nice to say that you’ve got something but you want to make sure that you know what you are talking about. If I can put something together, I would enjoy it. I really would. It’s a nice thing and so many people are interested in the Civil War and of course the assassination of Lincoln. It’s a lot to go over. It really is a lot. 

B.Well it’s a great part of our history and the Dixon clan has been a part of it for decades, for centuries. And you must carry on the tradition.

E. Exactly. There you go.

B.Well Ed, this has been great. And you and I will obviously be talking well beyond this interview. I think there is a lot more to look into and as we start to pick it apart and figure out which way to go, I’m glad you’re taking me for the ride.

E. I feel I’m honored to have you ask me these questions. I’m very excited. And as I’m sitting here looking at my computer now I see this picture of Harold Holzer, the eminent Lincoln scholar and Civil War expert. And thinking that you’re interviewing me, and you’ve interviewed him and some of these other guests, I’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill.

B.(laughing).

E. I’m floating on a cloud right now.

B.I have to thank Harold because he was my first interview. He actually contacted me when I was searching out some information for another gentleman who had written me. He is a gracious man and always very generous with his time, and I will always be grateful to him for that. 

E. You have a great website. And of course as you already know, the short article that you put on there about me yesterday, I’ve already sent out to many of my friends (laughing).

B.Ah yes…the TEASER!!! (laughing).

E. You’ve got a lot more followers now, I tell you!

B.Thank you. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you Ed.

E. Again, I’m just very excited and very honored.

B.You’re a good man Ed and I’ve enjoyed learning about you, your family and George E. Dixon. Thanks again.

E. Thank you.

END

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

Civil War Diary Found from Soldier Who Guarded the Lincoln Conspirators

April 9, 2009: Barry Cauchon

Ed Isaacs holding the diary from his great great grandfather George E. Dixon.

Ed Isaacs holding the diary from his great great grandfather George E. Dixon.

Hi all: I wanted to share some exciting news with you today. Two weeks ago, I was contacted by Mr. Ed Isaacs from Norwalk, Connecticut whose great great grandfather was a guard at the Old Arsenal Pentitentiary in Washington D.C. in the spring/summer of 1865. The soldier’s name was Sgt. George E. Dixon. He not only acted as a guard at the pentitentiary but was assigned inside the courtroom during the Lincoln conspirators’ trial. As well he witnessed the executions of Mary Surratt, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell on July 7, 1865. What is particularly thrilling about this is that George E. Dixon wrote a diary and recorded notes and his personal impressions from these events.

On March 18, 2009, the diary was obtained by Ed Isaacs, the great great grandson of Sgt. George E. Dixon. On March 23, Ed graciously shared some of his excitement with me as well as the contents of the diary. I can say that I was overjoyed to see what was on some of its pages and know that a small piece of previously unknown history surrounding the conspirator trial and executions had come to light. Ed asked if I could help him better understand some of the content on the pages. Currently we are in touch with several Lincoln researchers and the information coming back has been very exciting.

I interviewed Ed on April 9 and the story is posted at https://awesometalks.wordpress.com/2009/04/10/an-awesometalk-with-ed-isaacs-owner-of-civil-war-diary-from-soldier-who-guarded-the-lincoln-conspirators/.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

UPCOMING STORIES ON ‘A LITTLE TOUCH OF HISTORY’

Updated April 06, 2009: Barry Cauchon

Here is what I am currently working on for A Little Touch of History.

A: “The Lincoln Conspirators Execution Photos: A Study in Detail”. is now posted. Click on the following link to start at Chapter 1 to read the whole series.

B. “An Awesometalk With” 2nd Lieutenant George Hauck, 8th Air Force Group, World War II, Prisoner of War. I have posted my interview with Mr. George Hauck  (March 31, 2009) who was an airman during World War II. While returning from a bombing raid over Germany in 1944, his plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner. George is a very charismatic man and our talk was extremely enjoyable. You will enjoy his story and his openess about his experiences.

C. “An Awesometalk With” Andrew Jampoler, author. Andy is a retired US Navy Captain who has written three books and is working on his fourth. I completed this fascinating interview with Andy on March 26 and you won’t want to miss the stories he had to tell. Andy’s first three books are “Adak, the Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586”, “Sailors in the Holy Land: the 1848 American Expedition to the Dead Sea and the Search for Sodom and Gomorrah” and “The Last Lincoln Conspirator: John Surratt’s Flight from the Gallows”. Currently his fourth book, in progress, is called “Horrible Shipwreck”, the wreck of the female convict transport “Amphitrite” in September, 1833. I was riveted as I listened to Andy’s description about all four books and his life in the military. Look for this AWESOME TALK sometime in April, 2009.

D. “An Awesometalk With” Steven G. Miller, Lincoln Expert specializing in the hunt for Booth and his capture at Garrett’s farm. Steven was also an expert witness in the 1993 court case to exhume Booth’s body in Baltimore. My conversations with Steven have been fascinating and he is a wealth of information. If you have been following some of my postings, Steve has contributed to some of my stories (look for his reposted article called “Who Was The Boy At the Hanging”.  Steve has a lot to share and you won’t be disappointed. The interview was recorded on April 4 and will be published sometime in May/09.
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E. “An Awesometalk With “Laurie Verge, Director of the Surratt House Museum”. Laurie has been very helpful to me and our plan is to do our interview during the week of April 6 to 10.
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F. The History of the Construction of the Washington Monument – In progress.

G. What’s In A Picture? A Look Beyond the Main Subject – The plan is to study a series of photographs over time and look beyond the main subject. The first one I will review Alexander Gardner’s Rooftop View of the Lincoln conspirator executions from the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary on July 7, 1865.  My focus in this photograph will be the Washington DC cityscape seen above and behind the roof top.

Enjoy.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

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Current interviews posted on ‘A Little Touch of History’.

“An Awesometalk With” HAROLD HOLZER, Lincoln Scholar (posted on November 10, 2008)

 “An Awesometalk With” DR. THOMAS SCHWARTZ, Illinois State Historian (posted on December 08, 2008)

“An Awesometalk With” ROGER NORTON, Webmaster of the ‘Abraham Lincoln Research Site’ (posted on December 30, 2008
“An Awesometalk With” LAURA FRANCES KEYES, Mary Todd Lincoln performer (posted on January 26, 2009)  
“An Awesometalk With” ROBERT KRAUSS, 509th Composite Group Historian (posted on December 16, 2008)