extremely rare, sawfish are curious marine creatures that use their unusual bladed
snout to find food and then make it bite sized. But even stranger is how one Texas
sawfish indirectly aided the Union Army during the Civil War.
months after the start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed into law a measure
creating the United States Sanitary Commission to coordinate volunteer endeavors
to improve the health of Northern soldiers. Patterned after a similar organization
set up by the British during the Crimean War, the Sanitary Commission worked with
citizen groups to collect donations that funded a variety of military support
efforts, including nursing care, supplies, kitchens in Army camps, hospital ships,
and 30 soldier’s homes or overnight stops for traveling wounded soliders along
with other activities designed to help the men fighting for the Union.
way the commission raised money was by staging what it called sanitary fairs.
Another contemporary term was relief bazaar. The first such event, held in Chicago
in the fall of 1863, netted nearly $100,000. The fairs featured exhibits, produce
sales and auctions. Other bazaars brought in donations in Boston, Brooklyn, New
York, Philadelphia, and Albany, New York’s capital city.
A few years back,
Blanco rare book dealer Maggie Lambeth offered an intriguing publication for sale,
“Catalogue of Rare and Valuable Curiosities, Contributed for Exhibition.” The
catalog, which listed and described more than 700 unusual items, came off the
press of the Albany publishing house of Weed & Parsons in 1864.
the items listed in that long-ago publication was the “saw” from a sawfish “captured”
in Corpus Christi Bay in October 1859. The saw (biologists call it a rostrum)
measured 13 feet, six inches long. That would have made the shark-like ray that
swam behind that saw a giant. Indeed, sawfish are known to get as long as 23 feet.
Also donated from the mid-Texas coast was a set of rattles from a rattlesnake
killed on Mustang Island.
The contributor of both was listed as one H.V.
Scattergood. A cursory Internet check doesn’t reveal too much about him. Not surprisinginly,
he seems to have been from Albany but apparently had done business in the then
small coastal community of Corpus
Christi prior to the Civil War. The Corpus Christi Public Library has a document
showing Scattergood paid $2,000 to one John C. Riddle in September 1856 toward
the purchase of the equipment used to dredge the Aransas Pass ship channel.
sawfish used to inhabit Texas’ muddy coastal shallows,
someone must have caught a particularly big specimen and removed its snout as
a trophy. Somehow, Scattergood came into possession of it. And like most folks
with white elephants in their closets, a few years later Scattergood apparently
felt more than happy to donate the remnant of a Southern fish to the Northern
The Albany Relief Bazaar opened Feb. 22, 1864, George Washington's
birthday. Goods sold by 30 vendors, plus the “curiosities” offered in the catalogue,
raised just shy of $82,000 – a huge chunk of money in those days and not insignificant
even today. Some of that money – how much has not been determined – came from
the Texas sawfish “saw” and the rattlesnake rattles.
The biggest ticket
item was the original manuscript of Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation,
a document issued Sept. 22, 1862 to warn the Confederacy that the president intended
to free all slaves in 100 days, assuming the rebellion continued. The South, of
course, was not about to stop fighting or willing give up its slaves, so on Jan.
1, 1863 the president made good his threat and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
That marked the beginning of the end of the so-called peculiar institution in
Gerrit Smith, a noted abolitionist, won the manuscript of the
preliminary proclamation in a lottery on the last day of the Albany event. So
that more money could be raised, Smith gave the proclamation back to the Sanitary
Commission. The commission held it for the remainder of the war. In April 1865,
less than a month after the war and only three days after the assassinated Lincoln’s
funeral train rolled through Albany, the New York legislature bought the document
for the New York State Library.--------------------------- Made even more valuable
by the fact that the original manuscript of Lincoln’s actual proclamation was
burned in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
has remained in the library ever since.
What happened to that sawfish
snout from Texas remains a mystery.
© Mike Cox
Tales" November 18, 2010 column