Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cyrus Teed and the New Jerusalem

Located in a small cemetery in Escatawpa, Mississippi, are the unassuming graves of Herman Rudolph Cropp and his wife Sophie. Born in Missouri in 1874, Herman Cropp owned a small store and a grist mill. He and his wife raised five children, all born in Mississippi. Both Herman Cropp and his wife died in 1949. Nothing about their graves would indicate anything other than ordinary lives. For Herman Cropp, however, his early life was spent in anything but an ordinary place.

Herman Cropp was the step-son on an immigrant named Gustave G. Damkohler. Born in 1825, Damkohler emigrated to the United States from Germany by way of Australia, where he was a cook in a mining camp. According to a son, his father was a baker, confectioner, landscape gardener and medical doctor, although he never actually practiced medicine. When he came to America he went to Missouri, but moved to Estero, Florida, in 1883. It was in Florida that Gustave Damkohler became acquainted with an enigmatic and self-proclaimed messiah named Cyrus Teed.

Cyrus Reed Teed (right) was born in 1839 in Delaware County, New York. At age eleven, he quit school and went to work on the Erie Canal and later studied medicine with an uncle (although his parents hoped he would become a Baptist minister). After marrying and moving to Brooklyn in 1862, Teed served in Co. F, 127th New York Infantry. A corporal, he suffered from sunstroke in August 1863 and spent weeks in the hospital with a paralyzed arm and leg. He was released in October 1863 and discharged, whereupon he resumed his medical studies at the Eclectic Medical College in New York, a school which specialized in herbal remedies. After graduation in 1868, he moved to Utica and began practicing medicine. He also practiced alchemy in hopes in finding a way to make gold and in 1869, while conducting an experiment involving electricity, Teed was knocked unconscious. While in that state, he had a vision that he was the messiah and that the secrets of the cosmos would be revealed through him and through scientific knowledge. Changing his name to Koresh (the Hebrew form of Cyrus, and no relation to David Koresh of more modern infamy), he  developed a unique theory of the universe called Cellular Cosmogony. According to "Koresh," the earth did not revolve around the sun; instead, all humanity lived on the inside surface of a hollow earth, with the "sun" (a mechanical light) in the center. In addition to his theory of the cosmos, Teed had very definite ideas about how people should live, and his "Koreshanity" included many concepts popular with other communal societies of the day, including equality of the sexes, shared property, and celibacy. In fact, Teed spent time with the Shakers before establishing his own community of believers.

It should be no surprise that for people who were not taken with his new ideas, all this seemed a bit strange. As a result, he eventually lost his medical practice but by 1886 had attracted enough followers that he was able to establish a community in Chicago called Koreshan Unity. The vast majority of his followers were women. Perhaps attracted by his beliefs regarding gender equality, some were apparently attracted to him personally as well. "An undersized, smooth-shaven man...whose brown, restless eyes glow and burn like live coals," as he was once described by the Chicago Herald, Koresh seemed to easily attract the opposite sex. Dressed in a "Prince Albert coat, black trousers, flowing while silk bow tie, and a wide-brimmed hat," the prophet would make some of his followers faint when uttering phrases like "efferent fluxions of essence." As the sole representative of the father/mother creator, Koresh boldly proclaimed that "all that is opposed to Koreshanity is antichrist."

Because Koresh apparently alienated so many women from their husbands due of his teachings concerning equality of the sexes (and perhaps because of his apparent good looks), he was sued several times. Eventually, the cost was too much to bear, and he started looking for some place other than Chicago for his Koreshan Unity society. Attracted by an ad for land in southwestern Florida, Teed and some of his followers took the train to see the area for themselves. They were disappointed in what they found (the land was too expensive) but Teed left some of his newspapers, the Flaming Sword, behind. Gustave Damkohler, the German immigrant (who had by this time migrated to Florida) picked up a copy of the Flaming Sword, was impressed by Koresh's ideas and invited him back to Florida. By 1894, Koresh had talked Damkohler into selling 320 acres of land to the Koreshan Unity at a very rate and soon a "New Jeruslalem" was established in Estero, Florida, near Fort Myers. Koresh proclaimed that the city would someday grow to a population of 8,000,000 people and would be the capital of the world. By 1908, the Koreshans had purchased nearly 6,000 acres and established an almost completely independent, communal society, complete with manufacturing facilities, farms, theaters, etc. Art and literature were a particular emphasis of the society and women continued to play a prominent role in the "New Jerusalem," although there was never any question that the core of the community was based on Koresh's ideas. One of his ideas involved his own resurrection. Koresh promised his followers that he would rise from the dead and lead the faithful to a heavenly paradise. On December 22, 1908, at age 69, he got the chance to prove it when he died. More than 200 of his faithful followers waited for the promised resurrection, which they anticipated would occur on Christmas Day. As Christmas came and went, however, Koresh failed to rise from the dead as promised and instead began to stink. Ordered by local officials to bury him due to the odor, the Koreshans finally laid him to rest in a concrete sarcophagus on Estero Island. Many waited another thirteen years for him to be resurrected and continued to live and work as Koreshans. the last followers did not disband until 1949. Koresh's burial site was eventually lost during a hurricane.

Gustave Damkohler, the German immigrant who sold the land to Koresh for a pittance, was not among those who waited for him to rise from the dead. By that time, Damkohler had lost faith in the self-proclaimed messiah and had left the commune. In 1905, he had wandered off to Alaska in search of gold and died there (he's buried in Juneau). His son, Elwin E. Damkohler (left), also went to Alaska to look for gold, and later served in the Merchant Marines and was a Florida fishing guide for nearly half a century. Although both he and his half-brother Herman Cropp eventually left the commune, neither forgot their time with the Koreshans. In fact, it was Herman, as the elder of the two, who accompanied his step father whenever he visited the prophet and helped establish the family homestead. Whether Herman was a follower of Koresh, as was his step father, is unknown, but in 1926 both he and Elwin visited the community and were pleasantly surprised by what they found. The visit was recorded in an issue of the Flaming Sword, which was still being published at the time:

One of the most appreciative visitors we have ever met in Estero was Mr. H.R. Cropp of Mississippi. Mr. Cropp was a stepson of Mr. Damkohler, who first settled in Estero and who was instrumental in inducing the Master to locate here and move his colony from Chicago. It has been close to forty years since Mr. Cropp left Estero. He and his half brother, Elwin E. Damkohler, took great pleasure in reciting their early experiences about the place. Estero having undergone such a transformation was a revelation to Mr. Cropp. "To think," he said, "that deer and turkeys practically came up to our back door, besides other wild life; and plenty of alligators lined the river banks."  A most sacred spot to both of them was the spot where their mother, a brother and two sisters were buried.  Upon leaving, Mr. Cropp said:  "I can't begin to tell you what this visit has meant to me."

After concluding his visit, Herman Cropp returned home to Mississippi. He died in 1949. Elwin lived to the ripe old age of 90. In  1967, he wrote a somewhat bitter memoir of his experience among the Koreshans, admitting that he  never forgave his father for foolishly selling all of the family land to Koresh (a transaction his father would also come to regret). When Elwin died, he was the last of the original settlers of Estero and probably one of the last who remembered Cyrus Teed. In time, all his followers died (after all, they practiced celibacy) and belief in "Cellular Cosmogony" gradually faded away. Today, the site of Koresh's "New Jerusalem" is a Florida state park. A number of buildings remain on site and the park's interpretive exhibits keep the memory of Koresh alive for tourists and history buffs. While there, visitors can fish, picnic and hike. Few people who happen by the little cemetery in Escatawpa, Mississippi, however, would ever guess that one of the cemetery's inhabitants had a hand in establishing one of America's most interesting (and perhaps unique) societies.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Grierson's Raid: From Newton to Baton Rouge

Sunday, May 3, 1863, was a beautiful, sunny day in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sprawled around the grounds of Magnolia Mound plantation (right), located approximately two miles south of the city, Col. Benjamin Grierson’s completely exhausted troopers woke from their first extended sleep since beginning their raid through Mississippi on April 17. Even the arrival of hot food and coffee, provided courtesy of the 116th New York and 48th Massachusetts Infantry, failed to rouse the cavalrymen the evening before. Now, they enjoyed the scenery, described by Grierson as “a most delightful spot, shaded by the magnolia, whose long green leaves encircle a beautiful white flower, which fills the air with its rich perfume.” Safe within the bounds of Union-occupied Baton Rouge, the music teacher turned cavalry officer could rest in the knowledge that his daring raid was a complete success. “During the expedition we killed and wounded about 100 of the enemy,” wrote Grierson in his official report two days later. In addition, the raiders “captured and paroled over 500 prisoners, many of them officers, destroyed between 50 and 60 miles of railroad and telegraph, captured and destroyed over 3,000 stands of arms, and other army stores and Government property to an immense amount.” The whole affair had been a “signal success,” as Grierson termed it, but it was almost a complete disaster for the Federal cavalry. Only by hard marching, deception and a hearty dose of good luck had Grierson and his men escaped annihilation in the magnolia state.

After leaving Newton Station on the afternoon of April 24, where Grierson’s men destroyed locomotives, freight cars, ammunition and supplies, the column continued south in an effort to escape Confederate cavalry that would surely be in pursuit. After a brief firefight at Garlandville with some local militia, Grierson moved into the thinly populated piney woods area of Mississippi. His destination was now Grand Gulf, as Grierson hoped Grant’s army had already moved across the Mississippi River to begin the final march to take Vicksburg. Between Grierson and the safety of Grand Gulf, however, were miles and miles of hostile territory. He knew, too, that Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton (left) would not rest until he caught the Union raiders. Indeed, Pemberton was frantically issuing orders to various units to intercept Grierson and protect his supply and communications along the railroad.

On April 26, after crossing the Leaf River, the Sixth and Seventh Illinois Cavalry rode into the little town of Raleigh. There, they captured “a man hastily mounting his horse and riding away at full speed.” The man, as it turns out, was the Smith County sheriff, and he was captured with $3,000 in Confederate bills. Whether he was taking the money to protect it or to abscond with it is unclear, but he was taken prisoner by the Yankees. From Raleigh, Grierson’s men moved to Westville for the night, but an advance party rode ahead to seize the ferry across the Pearl River.  As on other occasions, the “Butternut Guerillas” (men disguised as Confederates and serving as scouts) did their job and captured the ferry boat. Just before crossing the river, Capt. Forbes, sent earlier with his detachment to east Mississippi (where they bluffed an entire garrison at Enterprise) rejoined the column after an exhausting ride. Crossing the Pearl at Georgetown, Grierson’s men rode on to Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst was located on the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad line. When Grierson’s “Guerillas” suddenly appeared there, they were recognized by the Smith County sheriff, who had managed to escape his captors the night before. Sounding the alarm, the sheriff tried to rally several soldiers loitering around the depot. When the lead company of Union cavalry thundered into town, however, they scattered. As the rest of the column entered Hazlehurst, Grierson’s men went to work burning train cars and the depot. Although it was pouring down rain, some of the sparks ignited other buildings in town and the cavalrymen put down their rifles and joined the citizens in a bucket brigade to put out the fire. Some of the men also took advantage of a local hotel and got a bite to eat. The raiders almost captured a train here too, but the engineer, whose train was approaching from the north, caught sight of the Yankees and put the engine in reverse. It was one of the few missed opportunities for Grierson during the expedition.

Now alerted that Grierson’s column was astride the railroad south of Jackson, Pemberton directed all available forces in that direction. From Jackson, Pemberton sent the fiery Col. Robert V. Richardson after the Yankees. A native of North Carolina, Richardson was raised in Tennessee and practiced law in Memphis and engaged in business with Nathan Bedford Forrest. Elected colonel of the 12th Tennessee Cavalry earlier in the war, Richardson (left) by April 1863 was a wanted man. Sought by Federal authorities as a war criminal and accused by Confederate officials of bribery and defrauding citizens, Richardson showed up in Jackson despite a warrant for his arrest issued by both Pemberton and Joseph E. Johnston. Just before Grierson's raid began, Richardson was so soundly beaten in battle by the Sixth and Seventh Illinois that fled across the Mssissippi River in a canoe with a bag of money stolen from local citizens. Far from arresting Richardson, though, Pemberton directed him to take up the chase against Grierson (sometimes it just pays to be in the right place at the right time). No longer a wanted man, Richardson loaded his men on the train and headed south to try and intercept Grierson at Hazlehurst. By that time, however, the Federals had gone west toward Union Church and Grand Gulf.

After leaving the railroad, Grierson hoped to ride across country and reach the safety of Grant’s army. However, as he approached the little town of Union Church in Jefferson County, he could hear the deep boom of naval guns firing at the Confederate fortifications at Grand Gulf, meaning no landing had yet been made. He also discovered that Wirt Adams' Confederate cavalry had set a trap for his men in the Union Church vicinity. As such, Grierson once again changed direction and headed for Brookhaven, where the depot was set afire and several rail cars were burned. As with Hazlehurst, the troopers again had to serve as a fire brigade when other buildings caught fire. After Brookhaven, Grierson, with Richardson’s Confederates close on his heels, moved down the railroad to Bogue Chitto and Summit, destroying rail cars and bridges along the way. Wirt Adams, meanwhile, moved toward Natchez in the mistaken notion that Grierson was heading there.
After leaving Summit, Grierson again turned west, as he feared too many Confederates would be guarding the town of Osyka, where there were several large warehouses filled with supplies. In fact, Confederate cavalry units were now converging on the area from the north, south and west. Hoping to slip through the net, Grierson pushed him men hard to get to Baton Rouge, where there was a large Federal garrison. Riding along back roads and woodland trails, the column made its way to the Tickfaw River at Wall’s Bridge, narrowly avoiding several Confederate patrols. At Wall's Bridge, on May 1 (the same day that Grant’s army finally set foot on the east bank of the Mississippi), Grierson found his first combat of the expedition. Guarding the bridge at the river were three companies of the 9th Tennessee. When Grierson’s lead company came into view and charged onto the bridge, a volley rang out and several of Grierson’s men went down, including one of the “Guerrillas,” Sgt. Richard Surby. Shot in the thigh, Surby later wrote that he “began a feel a faintness creeping over me.” Also wounded was Col. William Blackburn. All totaled, the Federals suffered eight casualties at Wall’s Bridge. While few in number, the loss of Surby – who was left behind and captured – and Blackburn (who died from his wounds) were keenly felt. Bringing up the rest of the brigade, the outnumbered Confederates were pushed aside and Grierson crossed the river. Continuing to push his men forward, the Union raiders crossed into Louisiana and manage to get across the Amite River at midnight, many of the men sound asleep in their saddles. Meanwhile, Confederate units from Port Hudson, Osyka and Liberty searched in vain for the Yankees. In time, realizing their quarry had escaped, Richardson and Adams turned around and headed north to face the next challenge: Grant.

Finally, on May 2, Grierson’s weary Union cavalry approached the garrison at Baton Rouge. As the riders were covered in dust and grime (and coming from the wrong direction), few of the Union soldiers guarding the approaches to the city could believe these men were actually Federals. Once they were finally convinced, the exhausted men filed into Baton Rouge to the cheers of their Federal comrades (the image to the right shows Grierson's men at Baton Rouge). Grierson’s raid was finally over. During the expedition (which was later very loosely depicted in the movie “The Horse Soldiers'" starring John Wayne), Grierson and his men covered more than six hundred miles, dodging Confederate patrols, burning trestles, bridges, depots and warehouses. News of the raid threw the whole state of Mississippi into a panic, especially the Confederate high command, and particularly John C. Pemberton. With his attention focused for a time on Grierson, Pemberton shifted too many resources away from the river, allowing Grant to land his army on Mississippi soil without opposition. That, in the long run, is the lasting legacy of Grierson’s Raid.

(1) Magnolia Mound:
(2) Pemberton:
(3) Grierson:
(4) Map:
(5) Richardson:
(6) Union Church:
(7) Wall's Bridge: