Rousseau's Raid
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Rousseau's Raid on East Alabama

By Winston Smith T

Confederate Monument - Ave C, S. 8th & Geneva St.
confederatemonument.jpg
"From the Collection of Henry J Stern"

Confederate

Monument

 

The Robert E. Lee Chapter, U.D.C. dedicated the confederate monument at Opelika, Alabama on April 6, 1911 in the presence of approximately 3,000 People.  It was dedicated on the anniversary of the battle of Shilo.  The Gala rewarded the efforts of women in Lee County who worked for the Monument’s creation.  The monument still stands in the center of a triangular Area created by the intersections of Avenue C, South 8th Street and Geneva Streets.

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Rousseau's Raid on East Alabama 

[ By Winston Smith T ]


In downtown Opelika, at the corner of South Railroad Avenue and Eighth Street, is a historical marker which reads:

ROUSSEAU'S RAID TO EAST ALABAMA
With orders from Gen. Sherman, Gen. Lovell Rousseau left Decatur with 2,700 cavalry, beginning his raid into East-Central Alabama. That raid ended successfully in Opelika July 19, 1864, after miles of track were destroyed along with railroad equipment, two depots and several warehouses brimming with supplies for Confederate forces defending Atlanta. They then turned northeast to join Sherman's army advancing toward Atlanta.

I have, for some time now, been intrigued with the account of General Lovell Rousseau's Civil War cavalry raid into East Alabama. Here we are in Lee County today on the site of a genuine battleground of that war. So what if it wasn't much of a battle. We did have twenty-five hundred hostile troops occupying Opelika- even if they were here for only half a day.

Whose ancestors saw these Union soldiers come through? Whose ancestors watched while they burned the depots and set fire to freight cars and warehouses? My great-grandmother was living about where Jeffcoat Funeral Home is today. Did she see any of them, or was she like so many who made a hasty exit from Opelika and Auburn when they learned the arrival of enemy soldiers was immanent?

We should credit Rousseau was being pretty good about trying to prevent looting and the destruction of private property. Especially so when stacked up against his commanding officer- William Tecumseh Sherman. Still, any horses or mules the Federals encountered were fair game to replace the lame and disabled mounts of the troopers. And any food stuff they found was seized and consumed by the hungry men and their steeds.

One example- on the day when Gen. Rousseau reached his destination at Loachpoka, his troops had earlier crossed the Tallapoosa River and entered Dadeville just before noon. It was a Sunday, and wagons, buggies and "carryalls" taking the unsuspecting citizens to church were seized, the animals unhitched and impressed into the Yankee army. Pious churchgoers had to make it home that day on foot.

Rousseau's raid came as a result of orders from General Sherman who was, in the summer of 1864, inching down toward Atlanta. The Montgomery and West Point Railroad, which connected to the Atlanta and West Point line, was a vital link in delivering supplies from central Alabama to Joe Johnson's outnumbered defenders of Atlanta. General Rousseau at this time was located in the Tennessee Valley at Decatur, and his orders were to take a large raiding party- all mounted cavalry- and proceed at breakneck speed southward until he reached the railroad. His objective- to destroy any supplies he could find, but- most important- to render the rail line inoperative by destroying the tracks between Loachpoka and Opelika.

It was a daring plan. It involved a foray of some 250 miles into enemy territory. The raiders could take only a small portion of what they would need with them and would have to live off the land much of the way. Speed and surprise were essential. They achieved both. In fact, the raid was, in every aspect, a success and contributed in no small way to the capture of Atlanta later that summer.

On the other hand, by the summer of 1864, the South was pretty much beaten although we were loath to acknowledge it. The Mississippi River was totally under the control of Union forces cutting the Confederacy in two. Lee was holding his own in Virginia, but Sherman was forcing open the Confederacy's back door as he pushed into Georgia.

Short of men, short of materials, Southerners were having to largely make-do with single shot, front loading muskets, while Union troops were daily being equipped with new carbine rifles. The home guard troops which Rousseau would be facing were a picked over contingent of the very young, the elderly, and convalescing sick and wounded.

The surprise that Rousseau achieved is hard to understand until you realize how primitive communications were in those days and how sparsely the country was settled. Still, it took him over seven days to get from Decatur down to Loachpoka. And he was pressing his troops hard all the way- breaking camp before dawn and riding until after dark.

Coming down off Sand Mountain and headed toward the Coosa River they passed a lone cabin. Two of the troopers reined in their horses and asked the woman standing in the door of the cabin for a drink of water. She bought them a drink and also some cornbread to eat.

"And who might you'uns be", she asked.

They admitted to being Yankees, but she insisted they certainly were not.

"I know you'uns ain't no Yankees. You'uns ain't got no horns."

"Oh", one of the men assured her, "We are young Yankees. Our horns haven't grown yet. The horned Yankees are behind and will be coming past shortly."

When they arrived in Ashville, most of the townspeople had fled. They found much needed flour, bacon and corn. They were ordered to go to work immediately re-shoding their horses. They freed a young girl from jail who claimed to be a Union sympathizer . As became their regular practice, they "liberated" the local post office and scattered and destroyed what mail was there, but did not burn or loot. They reset the type of the front page of the newspaper so that the next edition would read:

"Maj. Gen. L.H. Rousseau...paid our town the honor of a visit this morning,
accompanied by many of his friends and admirers. The General looks well
and hearty. It is not known at present how long he will sojourn in our midst.
He expressed himself much pleased with the hospitality and kindness of the citizens..."

On arriving at the Coosa River, Rousseau found himself faced with his first armed opposition. General James Clanton with a couple of hundred men had hurried from his camp at Blue Mountain and was waiting on the opposite bank. As the Union forces were being ferried across or fording the river at Ten Island, Clanton attacked. The Confederates fought bravely but were beaten back, and Rousseau continued his march toward Talladega where Major William Walthall could only scrape together some 200 men and boys to defend the place. Walthall dispatched the teen-age boys to Wilsonville to guard the vital railroad bridge there. Even after enough guns were located to arm the remaining defenders, it was discovered that the proper caliber ammunition was not available. Then Walthall got a message from General Clanton telling him to pull out of Talladega and bring his force to Oxford and Blue Mountain. Oxford had important iron works, and Blue Mountain was the terminal of the Alabama and Tennessee Railroad.

Clanton believed Rousseau would veer east against those targets. Walthall expected the Yankees to continue south through Talladega, but he obeyed Clanton and ordered the Wilsonville Bridge defenders back to Talladega and then loaded up his entire command for the twenty-five mile trip by freight train to Blue Mountain.

Walthall got there about 6 p.m. Clanton rode into town three hours later. Walthall eventually persuaded Clanton to let him return to Talladega. When the travel weary troops got back after midnight, they learned the Federals were only nine miles north of town and headed in their direction. At this point, Walthall decided to abandon Talladega and move his entire command to the west to protect the Wilsonville bridge.

It was probably a good thing he did. His minuscule force could never have stopped the 2,700 man Union cavalry force. By evacuating Talladega, the Confederates
avoided a useless battle that would have inflicted needless casualties on both sides as well as destroying homes and buildings. Rousseau entered Talladega unopposed.

Talladega was the largest town the Federals had come to since leaving Decatur. Various departments of the Confederate government had offices there. Once again Union soldiers were permitted to appropriate any and all foodstuffs as well as any horses or mules they found. The city jail was emptied and the post office "liberated" with all the mail. The warehouses were burned along with large quantities of cotton, flour, bacon, shoes, nitre, and other materials. But the officers did attempt to prevent indiscriminate looting.

South of Talladega, Union troops began to run into lush and prosperous plantation country. One story, perhaps apocryphal, has General Rousseau riding up to the front porch of a large farm home and demanding of the owner that he give him a number of the mules grazing in the nearby pasture. The planter protested that he had given the Confederate government ten mules just last week.

"Then to be fair, you need to donate to the other side." Rousseau replied.

The planter looked more closely at the dust covered uniforms.

"Ain't you on our side?" he asked.

"No, I am General Rousseau and these men you see are all Yanks," was the reply.

"Oh no!" the planter moaned, "What in the hell are you Yankees doing down here in Alabama?"

From then on it was ride, ride, ride. From before dawn as long as they could see a bit by moonlight Rousseau pressed his command southward. The rear guard got practically no sleep at all. By the time they reached camp, reveille was awakening the weary troopers to another day of hard riding.

Readers familiar with this area will recognize the route they took by names like Sylacauga, Deep Cut Gap, Weogulfka, Hatchet Creek, and Socopatoy. They crossed the Tallapoosa after dark at a place called Stowe's Ferry, but most had to ford the river at a particular treacherous spot a half mile upstream.


LOACHAPOLKA and AUBURN


Advance units of Rousseau's party reached Loachapoka around 6:00 p.m. Sunday evening and commenced the job they had come some 250 miles to accomplish.

Just a word about my understanding of the nature of the railroad tracks themselves. I may not have this exactly right- but I think the rails were not the heavy "T" rails we are familiar with now days. Apparently, if I got this right, the roadbed- back then- consisted of pitch pine cross-ties with a pair of heavy wooden stringers fasted perpendicular across them. On top of these wood stringers lay a fairly thin strip of iron on which the trains ran.

It was, in fact, a fairly simple matter to pry up the track on one side, place it on the other track, pile on brush and kindling to light the cross ties and wait for the heat to warp and bend the thin metal strips rendering them useless.

The raiders set to work at once destroying the rail line at Loachapoka in this manner. When sparks from the burning cross-ties threatened to engulf stores and homes in flames, Rousseau ordered troopers onto the roofs with wet blankets to try to save the village. One widow lady, whose home was saved, expressed her gratitude and surprise over the gallantry exhibited by these Yankee "vandals". Rousseau proved once again that he was no Sherman. War may be "hell" all right, but it doesn't need to be made more hellish than it already is.

By this time, and in the most round-about way imaginable, word had already reached Auburn of the likelihood that a Union force was moving in their direction. Nothing better illustrates the primitive conditions of communications than to realize that on Sunday afternoon, with Rousseau already south of Dadeville, a Confederate major from Montgomery, who had talked to a courier near Tuscaloosa, arrived in Auburn with the news that a Federal force was headed south toward Auburn from Talladega.

One Auburn lady remembered that it was "an unusually quiet Sunday...I could hardly credit the news. But...in an hour church alarm bells commenced ringing...wagons were thundering through town- carriages, buggies, barouches, conveyances of all kinds containing women and children were rushing through the streets, excited people talking and crying on the corners, and the greatest confusion and noise possible..."

Perhaps the unsung hero of Auburn was a Major W.C. Price in charge of the Confederate's Nitre Bureau there. He and his crew labored tirelessly all night long loading wagons and saving all of their precious supply of gun powder and other supplies- except for a large quantity of lead.

Monday morning a number of things were happening simultaneously. Rousseau sent units of his force as far west as Chehaw station- north of Tuskegee- to act as a blocking force as well as to destroy the railroad by working their way back toward Loachapoka. Other units were dispatched in the opposite direction toward Auburn.

The initial word that reached Montgomery as early as noon Saturday was that the Yankees were on their way to burn the capitol and destroy the city. Mobile was telegraphed to immediately return Alabama Reserve forces recently sent down there. These reserve troops consisted of men older than forty-five and younger than eighteen.

A Montgomery citizens committee was formed. A mass meeting held. Every man who could bear arms was expected to gather at designated points in the city by
7 a.m. Sunday. Banks emptied their vaults and loaded the contents onto a train fired up and ready to roll southward at the first sign of the enemy. A provost guard was sent out to round up any recalcitrants.

News of the impending danger to Montgomery reached Greenville by Sunday morning. Methodist minister J.C. Davis, on completing his morning sermon, announced, "And now, my brethren, I have discharged one duty, but I still have one other to perform. Our enemy, the enemy of our country, is threatening the capital of our state. It is my duty and yours to go to its defense. I shall. And I want every man here to go with me. All who are willing and ready, hold up your hands."

We are told that every man there that morning "raised his hand and followed the good Reverend out the door."

One of Rousseau's greatest advantages was that no one was precisely sure of his objective. General Pillow wired Braxton Bragg of his hunch that Rousseau was out to try to free the thousands of Union prisoners interned at Andersonville.

The only really serious effort to engage Rousseau and thwart his raid came from the checkered group that had been assembled in Montgomery that weekend. On Sunday evening the telegraph line from Opelika went ominously dead; and, at the same time, reports filtered into Montgomery that Federal forces had diverted their march away from Wetumpka earlier that day and were now headed in a southeasterly direction toward Loachapoka.

Later that Sunday evening, July 17th, a freight train pulled out of Montgomery loaded with the city volunteers, a battalion of the Alabama Reserve and some fifty-four cadets from the University of Alabama. Little did these latter young volunteers appreciate the significance that might, years later, be attached to an effort by Tuscaloosa students to rescue Auburn from danger.

Poorly armed- with little or no training and with only a couple of old, defective cannons- the Confederates reached Chehaw station at eight o'clock Monday morning. At just about the same time, Rousseau's contingent arrived from the other direction.

A full description of the Battle of Chehaw Station is beyond the scope of this report. It lasted until around noon. There was fierce fighting in which the hastily assembled, rag-tag units from Montgomery gave as good as they got from the veteran Union cavalrymen. The Capstone Cadets acquitted themselves with honor. But when the fighting finally broke off at noon, the Confederates had failed to penetrate the Union cover guarding the western end of Rousseau's operation. As a result, the work of destroying the railroad went on.

While the Battle of Chehaw Station was being waged, other units of Rousseau's command were entering Auburn practically unopposed. One lady, a guest at the Railroad Hotel there recalled how weary and hungry Union troops ordered the innkeeper's wife, Mrs. Martha Moore, to begin baking quantities of bread for them. If she refused, they threatened to burn the place down. Mrs. Moore told the soldiers to see the cooks in the kitchen if they wanted something to eat- but she had no intention of cooking for any Yankees. Before they left his hotel that Monday evening, theUnion soldiers had dispossessed owner James S. Moore of his considerable store of corn and fodder, plus most of the dining room utensils, plus pots and pans from the kitchen, plus all the food they could eat or carry with them. The General himself visited the hotel for a few hours during the afternoon and napped in an upstairs room until sundown when he ordered his men to mount up and head for Opelika.

COLUMBUS

Montgomery was not the only nearby city to experience alarm and panic at the news of this- the war's first Yankee incursion into the deep South. Columbus, Georgia, got word of Rousseau's approach very early Monday morning. The city awoke to the pealing of church and fire alarm bells.

With a population of some fifteen thousand, Columbus was a major manufacturing center for the Confederacy. The Naval Iron Works was located there as were important textile mills, arms factories, an armory and arsenal, wagon works, ammunition manufacturing, railroad shops, a brass foundry, and all sorts of other vitally important concerns.

Columbus already had a Home Defense Force organized into a number of individual companies- each manned by workers from a particular industry or business. In addition, somewhere around a thousand sick and wounded convalescent soldiers capable of at least limited duty were mustered from the city's hospitals. All in all, Columbus was able to field a force probably equal in number to Rousseau's- who were, at that time, fighting at Chehaw Station.

What would have been the result if, on Monday, this contingent from Columbus has been entrained and moved to Opelika and entrenched? Who knows if Rousseau might not have been stopped dead in his tracks? One thing for sure. A pitched battle would have taken place here between a couple of thousand soldiers on both sides. Maybe a 'Battle of Opelika' would have been written up in Civil War history books. As it was, there were only a few shots fired and no battle at all.

The sizable force mustered in Columbus decided their primary mission was to protect that city and that could best be accomplished from the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee. So, Monday, the Columbus defenders were marched over the bridges, through Garrard and some five miles out the Crawford road where they set up a defensive perimeter. At some point their commanding officers realized they were too far away from Columbus to be of much use in defending it. So they ordered the men to march back three miles. As might be guessed, this action invoked considerable complaints from the men- city workers- not accustomed to marching- especially when "we went eight miles just to move two miles."

The following day with Rousseau's troops playing havoc with the railroad and destroying military supplies in Opelika, the Columbus home defenders lounged around in the shade of rural Russell County.

OPELIKA

At 4 a.m. Tuesday morning General Rousseau headed toward his final and most important objective- Opelika. Opelika was a railroad junction point where the line from Columbus joined the main line from Montgomery to Atlanta. One of Rousseau's troopers described Opelika as "a pretty country town apparently of some importance." Indeed it was. There was an express office here, three large Confederate warehouses, two depots, a turntable and, of course, the all important "Y" joining the two lines.

The first units to arrive hit the Columbus Railroad a couple of miles south of the depot, and began their work of systematic destruction. Other units burned the depots and destroyed the switching yards.

It was hot- really hot- as Alabama can be in mid-July, and the burning cross-ties and buildings only added to the intense heat. At some point during the morning men and animals were sent to a stream about a mile north of the center of town to what is described as a "branch of Saugahatchee Creek and the only source of fresh water available". This has got to be what we used to call Rocky Branch- where we played as children and which runs through the city park today.

About ten o'clock, the General and his party visited the Sledge House- a hotel near the railroad- and demanded breakfast. The owner, Nathaniel Sledge, at first refused saying he had nothing prepared but finally agreed to serve the officers and had the cooks start a meal. I have tried to find out something about Nathaniel Sledge and his hotel but have never been able to. I know that Joe and Baker Dean's ancestor, Daniel Robertson, was married to a Lucretia Sledge. They lived between Oak Bowery and Cusseta, but I have no idea if the hotel proprietor was any kin to her.

The government warehouses were filled with all kinds of provisions. After taking away all the soldiers could carry, the doors were flung open and the citizenry invited to help themselves to the sugar, flour, bacon, whiskey and tobacco there. Black and white, young and old, flocked to the warehouses and left laden down with scarce and precious food stuffs. Then the warehouses were put to the torch. There is a scene in Margaret Mitchell's book, 'Gone With the Wind'- just before the fall of Atlanta- where a similar event takes place.

All this time Gen. Rousseau was his usual amiable, courteous self- chatting with a number of locals and reminiscing about his Army career and long-time friendships with high ranking Confederate officers.

Around noon the Yankee work party destroying the line east of town was bushwhacked and a Private Kootz was shot dead. This incident plus reports of Confederate forces massing to the east and west of him apparently convinced General Rousseau that he had accomplished about as much as he could hope for and that it was time to high-tail it out of there.

One lady visiting in Opelika from Columbus says that a large number of slaves left with the Federals, and there were reports of some looting and vandalism as the troops left town.

Rousseau moved north through Rough and Ready, Mount Jefferson, and Oak Bowery reaching LaFayette late that evening. He was preparing to bivouac there when he got additional reports of large enemy forces moving against him, so he ordered his men to saddle up and they rode through the night by moonlight until they arrived at a small place north of LaFayette called Bethlehem. I have no idea where that is, but they rested there for a couple of hours until four a.m., and then mounted up again and were off in the direction of north Georgia and the protecting shelter of Sherman's advancing army.

Opelika would not see any more Federal troops until the following April when, at the very close of the war, part of General Wilson's forces marched through on a Saturday to attack West Point the next day- Easter Sunday. The Battle of West Point, along with the capture of Columbus that same day, would be the last battles of the war east of the Mississippi.

But back to July 1864 and Rousseau's raid. There is an account that deals with an aspect of this event in Alexander Nunn's book, "Lee County and her Forebears". It is informative and amusing and well worth reading to appreciate how news of the invaders affected our citizenry- as well as seeing a snapshot of what it was like in Alabama during those turbulent Civil War years.

Wilton Burton, a young man from Chambers County, got called out with the Home Guard to protect West Point and environs when news came that Rousseau had suddenly appeared a few miles to the west and was headed that way. The author of this essay is the same R.W. Burton who later moved to Auburn and started Burton's Book Store there.

A bit of what he wrote:

"At the first news of the raid all persons subject to military duty within the county of Chambers were ordered to report...at Bluffton (Lanett). This included...men...between sixteen and seventeen and fifty and sixty years.

I received my orders one morning at two o'clock and by sunrise was on my way to Bluffton...We traveled in a two horse wagon with cooked rations for a week and enough baggage to provoke the ridicule of any experienced soldier. We even had mattresses.

At noon we reached Bluffton where we found a motley assembly of old men and boys and mules and horses...As we entered...(our camp)...the noisy salutations of acquaintances and the neighing of horse and braying of mules nearly deafened us.

'What's the news from the Yankees?' was on every man's lips...the latest intelligence was that Rousseau had crossed the Tallapoosa River and was advancing in the direction of West Point...

To guard against surprise, Dalton and I were detailed to picket a road leading out in the supposed direction of the enemy. We were furnished with the best horses the camp could afford and posted about two miles from town on the summit of a hill...We were armed with double barreled shotguns...Our instructions were to keep strict watch until the enemy appeared or we were relieved. In the former event Dalton was to discharge his piece and retreat full speed to camp while I was to retire slowly, keeping in sight of the enemy, and bring in a later and fuller report. The reason alleged for assigning me to the greater peril was that being mounted on a horse celebrated for his fleetness, I could easily elude pursuit.

When we had been on post five or six hours we espied a column of mounted men approaching slowly on the opposite hill....When we discovered they wore blue uniforms, we felt sure they were Rousseau's cavalry. We...mounted our horses and Dalton prepared to fire...but...loath to imperil the lives of so many men without knowing positively they were enemies...he hesitated.

The delay was fortunate for it enabled us to see that a majority wore...gray uniforms...They proved to be Confederate cavalry bringing in prisoners from somewhere in North Alabama.

We found our camp in a state of utter confusion. Raw troops were taking their first lesson in guard-mounting. They were assisted- or impeded rather- by an officious Englishman who pretended to have seen service in the Crimea but who was as ignorant of military exercise as those he was instructing.

'Heyes right! Horder arms! 'Old your 'eads up...Forward March! 'Alt!'

In the midst of this disorder one of the shotguns with which the guards were armed was accidentally discharged. No more serious effect resulted than to nearly frighten the Englishman out of his wits.

Our scouts returned reporting that Rousseau was now destroying the railroad in the vicinity of Auburn...This prepared us for a rumor that we were to be transferred to Opelika to meet and oppose the enemy.

The boys were eager for the enterprise. The old men, on the contrary, declared their resolution not to be moved an inch across the county line.

On the following day...scouts were again sent out...Returning...(they) reported Rousseau on his way to West Point. The town was ransacked to find arms for us. I got none.

'If you want a gun', said one of my friends, 'just apply to any of the old men.' I approached a group and quietly remarked that I should very much like to have a gun. In an instant all the guns were thrust at me. I selected the best of the lot and returned to my companions...We received five cartridges apiece.

Thus armed and equipped we were marched to the breastworks...Here we were- 25 boys with five rounds of cartridges to defend a half mile of breastworks against three thousand well armed and well trained troops. We passed a quiet hour under the stars, and no enemy appearing, our courage rose rapidly...

A messenger came..(announcing)...the arrival of...a brigade of Confederate cavalry.

The wary Rousseau, sniffing danger from afar, bivouacked that night at LaFayette, twelve miles west of us, and next morning continued his course northward."

CONCLUSION

Well, what else should be said in conclusion. Certainly we need to acknowledge the daring and brilliance of Union general, Lovell Harrison Rousseau. As the British were forced to pay tribute to the achievements of Rommell, Southerners must own up to the outstanding success of Rousseau's raid. In fact, Rousseau reminds one, more than a little, of his famous Confederate counterpart, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Rousseau took more than just one page out of Forrest's book. He continued to push his troops to the limit of their endurance, and his success might well be credited as an examples of "getting there first with the most."

Let's pay him another accolade. He did not burn, pillage or destroy indiscriminately. He appears to have attempted his best to prevent civilian casualties and to have protected private property when possible.

Was any of this due to some empathetic feelings he may have harbored for his opponents? I don't know. He was a Kentuckian by birth, and no state was as divided in its loyalties as Kentucky. One example: Today the premier newspaper in Kentucky is the Louisville Courier-Journal. But in the 1860's the Courier and the Journal existed side by side in Louisville as separate newspapers. One was adamantly pro-Southern. The other just as strongly pro-Union. Units mustered in Kentucky fought on both sides.

MOST OF THE FACTUAL INFORMATION IN THIS PAPER CAME FROM A REALLY SPLENDID BOOK- 'SHERMAN'S HORSEMEN' BY DAVID EVANS. I have rarely read a book as thoroughly researched as this one and I will also pay tribute to Evans' ability to tell a fascinating and coherent story- not always an easy task when writing military history.

My thanks also to the late Alexander Nunn whose Lee County book contained the account of Mr. Wilton Burton's experience with the Chambers County Home Guard.

Finally a special word of thanks to Opelika physician Dr. Bob Patton who conceived the idea of the historical marker in Opelika. Dr. Patton is a pretty good amateur historian, and he spent not an inconsiderable amount of time and effort in researching this subject and in seeing the project through to completion.

Winston Smith T