Booth DNA Testing, Decoded Message From Vicksburg, and Secession Ball in Charleston

Civil War in the News December 2010
Three events attracted the attention of the media as the year drew to a close.

Booth Descendants Approve Exhumation of Edwin Booth for DNA Testing

After assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth escaped to Virginia, where he was cornered in a tobacco barn and shot to death on April 26, 1865.  However, there are those who believe Booth escaped to Texas where he lived under the assumed name John St. Helen for several years before moving to Oklahoma. He again changed his name, this time to David George, and eventually committed suicide. The theory is that a different man who was being sought by the Union Army and who was physically similar in appearance to John Wilkes Booth was actually the man killed in the tobacco barn. This man, it is said, is actually the one buried in the unmarked grave in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery.

In order to prove or disprove the theory that the man shot in the Virginia barn was actually someone else, Booth descendants have agreed to allow the exhumation of John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin Booth, for the purpose of comparing Edwin’s DNA with that of the man in question.

Three vertebrae from the man shot in the barn and who is buried in the grave in Baltimore were removed from the body during the autopsy and are in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC. If there’s a match, it’s game over.  If not, then some history will have to be rewritten. The National Museum of Health and Medicine will have to agree to allow the testing to be performed on the vertebrae; they have not yet agreed to do so.

The body in the barn was positively identified by multiple family members and friends as that of John Wilkes Booth, but theories of an escape have persisted for years. If this DNA testing is indeed carried out, it  should settle it one way or another.

Update:  In March 2013, The National Museum of Health and Medicine rejected the request for access to the alleged Booth vertebrae, citing the need to preserve the specimens rather than lose some of the material for the tests.  While not stated, it could reasonably be inferred that less destructive testing methods of the future could result in testing the bones at that time.  Meanwhile, the mystery will have to continue.

Message in a Bottle for Vicksburg

An encrypted message in a two inch bottle that was sent to General John Pemberton, the commander of Confederate forces in Vicksburg during the Union Army’s siege of that city has finally been opened and decoded. The bottle has been in the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia since 1896, but apparently no one thought to remove the message and see what it said. Museum collections manager Catherine M. Wright decided to find out.  She gathered some experts to open the bottle and unwrap the 6 1/2 by 2 1/2 inch piece of paper, which was wrapped around a bullet and tied with string.

A  retired CIA code breaker deciphered the message, and a Navy cryptographer confirmed his findings.  The message, dated July 4th, 1863, was probably from Major General John G. Walker, who was across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. It said that Pemberton could not expect help from across the river, but Walker could make a diversion if Pemberton’s forces and those of General Joseph E. Johnston attacked the Union lines. Johnston was in the area but did not launch any full scale attacks during the siege on the Federals under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Vicksburg surrendered to Grant on July 4th, so speculation is that the message was never delivered.

Secession Ball in Charleston

On December 20th, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.  One hundred fifty years to the day later, a commemorative ball with participants in period costumes was held in Charleston to mark the anniversary.  While participants viewed the event as a celebration of southern heritage, critics charged that celebrating the act of secession was wrong. While some politicians participated in the ball, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the event  “the opposite of unifying”. The vice president of the local NAACP chapter called it “disgusting”, and a protest was held outside the venue.

With the sesquicentennial commemorations of the Civil War beginning, no doubt there will be more differences of opinion over what to celebrate and what to rebuke as the nation reexamines this period in history.

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