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TMIH: The Sinking of the Lusitania: May 7, 1915

May 4, 2015 by | 26 Comments

RMS Lusitania
On May 7, 1915, the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 passengers and crew and sparking outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.

When the Lusitania set out on its final voyage on May 1, World War I had been raging for almost a year (though America was still neutral), and Germany had begun unrestricted submarine warfare around the British Isles. Still, despite a warning placed in newspapers by the German embassy that anyone traveling on a British or Allied ship did so at their own risk, many felt that the Germans would never sink a ship with so many civilians and that the Lusitania was much too fast for a submarine to catch anyway. So the Lusitania left New York, headed toward Liverpool, with about 2,000 passengers and crew—and munitions intended for the British war effort—on board.

One account of lifeboats and lifevests being used on the Lusitania
The Lusitania’s crossing was uneventful, though as the ship neared Britain it received a few general warnings about German submarines operating nearby. Then, at 2:10 p.m. on the 7th, only 11 miles off the coast of Ireland, the ship was struck by a torpedo fired by a German submarine, U-20. The torpedo hit amidships on the starboard side and was quickly followed by a secondary explosion (the cause of which remains a mystery today, though there are many theories). As water rushed into the lower portion of the Lusitania, the ship began to list severely.

Though there were enough lifeboats and lifejackets for everyone, the ship sank far too rapidly (in just 18 minutes) for most people to make use of them. Only 6 of the 48 lifeboats were successfully launched; everyone else was trapped in the ship or forced to fend for themselves in the frigid water. Rescue boats took about 2 hours to reach the survivors. Despite the rescuers’ best efforts, only about 760 people were saved—a little over a third of the number of those originally on board.

Opinion that America will not go to war over the Lusitania
The sinking of the Lusitania caused international outrage toward Germany, especially in America, which had lost 128 of the 159 of its citizens on board. Though the sinking of the Lusitania didn’t directly cause America to enter the war (it wouldn’t enter for another two years), it did turn public opinion against Germany, and when America finally entered the war, Germany’s submarine attacks were a leading reason.

Want to learn more about the Lusitania? Start a search on Fold3.

150th Anniversary (1865–2015) This Month in the Civil War: Battle of Palmito Ranch

May 4, 2015 by | 27 Comments

Civil War Collection 150th Anniversary

On May 12–13, 1865, 800 Federal troops under Colonel Theodore H. Barrett engaged Colonel John S. Ford‘s 350 Confederates outside Brownsville, Texas, in the Battle of Palmito (Palmetto) Ranch, the last battle of the Civil War.

Although an informal agreement to avoid conflict had existed between the Federals and Confederates along the Rio Grande since March, Barrett (who had only recently taken command) decided to launch an attack. A few hundred of his troops advanced on White’s Ranch on May 12, only to find it deserted, so the Federals continued on to Palmito Ranch, skirmishing along the way. The Federals successfully took Palmito Ranch, but Confederate forces returned later that day, causing the Federals to fall back to White’s Ranch.

Fred F.B. Coffin fought in the Battle of Palmito Ranch for the Union with the 62nd USCT
The next day, the Federals were reinforced by another few hundred men, and they set off again for Palmito Ranch, destroying what remained and again skirmishing with Confederates. However, later that afternoon, Ford and his Confederates (who had also been reinforced) launched an attack of their own. The Confederate artillery forced the Federals to retreat, leaving the Confederates the victors.

There were relatively few killed or wounded on either side, though about a hundred Federals were captured. The conflict is significant almost entirely because of its status as the final battle of the war.

Want to learn more about the Battle of Palmito Ranch and the final days of the Civil War? Start a search on Fold3 or explore our Civil War Collection.

Free Access to the World War II Collection

May 1, 2015 by | 4 Comments

WWII Documents
This May 8 marks the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day in 1945. If you have family members who served in World War II, or are just interested in the time period, take a look at Fold3’s World War II Collection, which you can access for free from May 1st to 15th.

The WWII Collection, currently with over 72 million records, has a diverse array of resources to mine, whether you’re interested in historical aspects of the war or are searching for specific individuals who fought in it. A few of the most popular titles in this collection are

If it’s been a while since you’ve taken a look at our WWII Collection, you might be unfamiliar with its new and updated titles, which include

WWII Photos
If you’re interested in learning more about VE Day, simply search for “VE Day” on Fold3 to find thousands of matches. Some interesting VE Day finds in the World War II collection include

  • A photo of US airmen in England attending a VE Day ceremony
  • A photo of US soldiers at the front lines on Okinawa listening to news of Germany’s surrender by radio
  • An account of how US Atlantic Fleet Bombing Squadron 127 celebrated VE day
  • An account of Allied servicemen participating in VE Day celebrations in Bermuda
  • The VE Day issue of the newspaper of the XIII Air Force Service Command Asiatic Press

Ready to explore the World War II Collection? Get started here.

Find: Lincoln’s Assassination

April 20, 2015 by | 36 Comments

Abraham Lincoln
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He was shot on April 14 around 10 o’clock at night while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC.

The assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, entered the Lincolns’ box and shot the president in the back of the head before jumping out of the box and escaping the theater. President Lincoln, who never regained consciousness, was taken to a boardinghouse across the street, where he died nine hours after being shot, at 7:22 in the morning.

About the same time as Lincoln’s assassination, one of Booth’s co-conspirators seriously wounded Secretary of State William Seward. Vice President Andrew Johnson was also an intended target, but his would-be assassin lost his nerve and did not attack. The final target was allegedly Ulysses S. Grant, though no successful attempt was made on his life.

Sgt. Boston Corbett, who shot John Wilkes Booth
Booth was shot and killed less than two weeks later, on the 26th, after being tracked down in Virginia by Union troops. Eight others suspected of being involved in the plot were tried before a military tribunal that began in May, and the four sentenced to death were hanged in July.

If you’re interested in learning more about Lincoln’s murder and the conspiracy surrounding it, explore Fold3’s Lincoln Assassination Papers, which are part of the Civil War Collection. Here, you’ll find documents from the investigation into the plot, as well as records from the military tribunal that tried the conspirators. These documents include:

  • Letters received by Colonel H. L. Burnett (who was specially assigned to investigate the assassination and later appointed as an assistant judge advocate to the military commission)
  • Letters and telegrams sent by Colonel Burnett’s office, as well as a register of letters received by that office, a record book (of synopses of possible evidence for the trial), and an endorsement book (of letters forwarded from Burnett’s office to other people or offices)
  • Conspirators in the death of President LincolnLetters received and statements of evidence collected by the military commission
  • Issues of the Daily National Intelligencer (a Washington DC newspaper) related to the trial
  • Proceedings of the trial
  • Exhibits used in the trial
  • Defenses of S. Arnold, E. Spangler, L. Payne, M. O’Laughlin, and D. Herold (five of the alleged conspirators)
  • Argument of J. A. Bingham (who was also appointed an assistant judge advocate to the military commission), delivered at the trial

And, of course, additional information about Lincoln can also be found elsewhere in Fold3’s Civil War Collection. So if you want to learn more about Lincoln’s assassination and the trial that followed, search or browse the collections on Fold3.

Free Access to the Civil War Collection

April 16, 2015 by | 1 Comment

Gun squad at drill
April was a big month in the American Civil War. Not only did the conflict begin in April 1861, but this year marks the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant, as well as Lincoln’s assassination, in April 1865. In commemoration of the Civil War and Confederate History Month, Fold3 invites you to explore all records in its Civil War Collection for free April 13th to 30th.

There are currently over 43 million records in the Civil War Collection, including everything from military records to personal accounts and historic writings.

Soldier records include (among others):

Other record types include things like photographs, images of artifacts, and original war maps. Items such as the Lincoln Assassination Papers, Sultana Disaster documents, letters to the Adjutant General and Commission Branch, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, and the 1860 census are also contained in the Civil War Collection.

Confederate-specific records in the collection include documents like:

200 lb Gun on Morris Island
Join Fold3 in its commemoration of the Civil War and Confederate History Month, and discover information on famous participants as well as your own Civil War ancestors through documents, photos, and images that capture the experiences of those involved in America’s deadliest conflict. Get started searching the Civil War Collection here.

Lee Surrenders to Grant: April 9, 1865

April 1, 2015 by | 78 Comments

Map of General Lee's Surrender
On April 9, 1865, 150 years ago this month, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, signaling the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

After Lee’s hold on Richmond and Petersburg broke, he hoped to take his army to meet up with Joseph E. Johnston‘s troops. But things came to a head with the Union Army as Lee neared Appomattox Court House. On April 6, he lost 8,000 men to the Federals in engagements at Sailor’s (Sayler’s) Creek. Grant, aware that Lee’s already dwindling army was now at an even further disadvantage, sent him a message suggesting surrender. Lee was not ready to surrender but did ask Grant for his terms.

Appomattox Court House
Lee hoped to break through the Union troops that were blocking his army’s progression and planned a last ditch attempt for the morning of the 9th. When it became clear that this attempt would fail, Lee, having already dismissed the possibility of resorting to guerrilla warfare, arranged to meet with Grant to surrender his army.

The two generals met in a home in Appomattox Court House later that day. Lee dressed in his best, while Grant, whose baggage had gone astray some days prior, arrived in a mud-stained uniform. The terms of surrender stated that all arms, artillery, and public property (except officers’ side arms and horses) were to be turned over, and that the paroled men, both officers and enlisted, were to return to their homes and not take up arms again until properly exchanged. Grant also allowed Lee’s two requests: that the enlisted men also be permitted to keep their own horses and that rations be provided for his starving army.

Description of what constituted the Army of Northern Virginia at time of surrender
The official surrender ceremony occurred a few days later, on the 12th. Though Lee’s army had surrendered, the war wasn’t over. There were still other Confederate troops in the field. But the Army of Northern Virginia had not only been the most successful of the Confederate armies, it—and Lee—had also taken on a symbolic power. So as other Confederate generals heard of Lee’s surrender, they too began to capitulate over the next month. President Andrew Johnson officially declared an end to hostilities on May 9.

Interested in learning more about Lee’s surrender or about other aspects of the Civil War? Explore Fold3’s Civil War Collection.

150th Anniversary (1865–2015) This Month in the Civil War: Sultana Disaster

April 1, 2015 by | 18 Comments

Civil War Collection 150th Anniversary

In the early morning of April 27, 1865, boilers on the steamboat SS Sultana exploded, killing more than a thousand recently released POWs in what is often called the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

Toward the end of the Civil War, huge numbers of paroled military prisoners needed to be sent home, which was often done via steamboats with government contracts. Imprisoned Union soldiers at Cahaba (Alabama) and Andersonville (Georgia) prisons were sent to Camp Fisk, near Vicksburg, Mississippi, to be released. Because steamboat captains were paid per head, more than 2,000 of these soldiers were crammed aboard the Sultana, which had the legal capacity to carry only 376. Between the private passengers (including women and children), the soldiers, and crew, some estimates place the number aboard the boat as high as 2,600. There were so many people that the decks of the multi-level steamboat had to be reinforced to keep them from collapsing under the weight.

Sultana Inspector's Certificate
After leaving Vicksburg, the now overcrowded and top-heavy Sultana made its way up the Mississippi River toward Cairo, Illinois, picking up and letting off a few private passengers along the way. Shortly after leaving Memphis, however, around 2 a.m. on the 27th, the boat’s boilers exploded (though some later suggested it was sabotage), releasing scalding steam and setting the boat on fire. Most of the people jumped into the water, but since many of the POWs were in a weakened condition, they quickly drowned.

About an hour and a half later, the first survivors drifted downriver to Memphis, where their cries summoned help. Rescue parties were sent out, but by the time they were called off that afternoon, only about 700 had been saved, 200 to 300 of which died soon after from injuries and exposure. Estimates vary, but one commonly accepted death toll for the disaster is 1,700.

No one was ever really held responsible for the Sultana‘s fate. Captain Frederick Speed, assistant adjutant general for the region, was found guilty at a court-martial for his role in overcrowding the boat, but the verdict was later reversed.

To learn more about the Sultana Disaster, browse Fold3’s Sultana Disaster collection to see original documents and records.