Confederate Patent Records Burned,
Sold as Newsprint at End of Civil War
Spring 1865 in Richmond, Virginia, was hard times. The Civil War had lasted four bloody years, and Richmond had been under siege by a Union army of 100,000 for nine months. Flour sold for $1,500 a barrel, a live hen for $50.00. Almost anything on two or more legs was a meal. General Robert E. Lee's Army was a tattered remnant of its former self, stretched to its limit defending Richmond from General Grant's encircling Northern Army. Meanwhile, a grim and determined Sherman had already captured Atlanta, driven to the sea and was marching through the Carolinas, laying waste to all he found. With Sherman headed north towards Richmond to join Grant, there was talk of evacuating the government to the southwest.
We can imagine that the Confederate Patent Office by this time was doing very little. Most of the staff was let go the previous year. So much of the South was now under Union control that correspondence with inventors was difficult. Surely, there were more pressing matters to the Confederacy than issuance of patents. Yet, so far as we know, the Patent Office functioned to the end, just like most of the other government agencies in Richmond.
When the end did come, it came swiftly. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, clearly saw the need to evacuate the government from Richmond. He sent his family to Charlotte, North Carolina, in late March. On April 2, Lee told Davis that his weakened army could no longer hold the Union troops at bay. Davis left Richmond by train that night for Danville, Virginia, where he hoped to establish a new capital.
The train carried Davis, his Cabinet, some other government officials and the Confederate treasury — barrels of Confederate paper money and some gold and silver coins — as well as hastily-assembled government records from a number of government agencies, including the War Bureau. In the rush to gather the War Bureau records, some of the records of the Confederate Patent Office, which shared the Mechanic's Institute Building with the War Bureau, were inadvertently taken as well.
Soon after Davis and the remaining government left Richmond, the Union army arrived and captured the city. Looting and arson were widespread, and the Mechanics' Institute was torched. Most of the Patent Office records not taken out along with the War Bureau records were destroyed in the general conflagration that swept Richmond.
A diarist, writing long after the war, remembered that "...the War Department was sending up jets of flame. Along the middle of the street smoldered a long pile, like street sweepings, of papers torn from the archives of our beloved government, from which soldiers in blue were picking out letters and documents that caught their fancy."
General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, Court House on April 9, and Davis fled from nearby Danville on April 10 - a week after he had arrived. Davis traveled by train south into North Carolina, arriving in Greensboro on April 11 and staying until April 15. It took five days for Davis to reach Charlotte, where he stayed until April 26.
While Richmond lay in ruins after being torched by U.S. Grant's Union troops, Davis and his Cabinet (still in Charlotte) held the last Cabinet meeting of the Confederate government. The Cabinet then began splitting up, each member of the government going his separate way. A sidewalk marker in downtown Charlotte, about 75 feet down the street from where this Chapter was written, commemorates this event.
During this flight south, Davis' party continued to haul along the remaining treasury and government records. When Davis left Charlotte, he and his party traveled with the train into South Carolina, passing through Fort Mill, Yorkville, Chester, Union and Abbeville on the way further south. While in Chester, the quartermaster in charge of the records chanced to talk to one F.G. DeFontaine, a former war correspondent who was publishing a newspaper in Chester. LaFontaine asked if he could have some of the papers being carried in the train on which to publish his newspaper - paper being in very short supply. The quartermaster, reasonably assuming that the papers had little remaining value, told him to help himself. DeFontaine got a cotton wagon and carried off a whole load of Confederate papers and records.
DeFontaine went through at least some of the records, because in the wagonload of papers he found both the original provisional and permanent Constitutions of the Confederate States of America, which he had the presence of mind to keep. However, he also found among his "newsprint" Confederate Indian treaties, patents and the official record of the Opinions of the Attorney General. Sadly, he printed his newspaper on the reverse side of these papers, and those patent records not left in Richmond and burned were lost to history through the misfortune of ending up on the reverse side of make-do newsprint. Only a handful of patent documents which were in the hands of the patent owners survive.
Research has thus far failed to turn up further information regarding exactly what happened to Rufus Rhodes, the Commissioner of Patents, and what he did after the war. Presumably he went back to Mississippi. His son, Rufus Napoleon Rhodes, who was born in 1856, led a distinguished life as a lawyer and later as founder and publisher of the Birmingham News. He was also a Vice President of the Associated Press and a Brigadier General in the Alabama National Guard.
The only other employee about whom any significant information is known is Americus Featherman. Featherman was an Assistant Examiner who apparently served throughout the war. He went back to his native Louisiana after the war and became a professor of Romance Languages and Botany at LSU. He published botanical surveys of Louisiana and at least one volume reminiscences about the war.
As the title suggests, this chapter examines the end of the Confederate Patent Office, but it may not necessarily be the last chapter of this short history. The author continues to read and research as time permits, and it is likely that further information will be found. Thus, additional chapters may be added later.
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