Monday, April 27, 2020

Lost at Sea: Norman Vandivier and the Battle of Miday

The first telegram from the U.S. Navy Department arrived at the Franklin, Indiana, farm of Fred and Mary Vandivier early in the morning on June 17, 1942. On it were the words that every parent who had a family member serving in the armed forces during World War II feared—their eldest son, Norman, had been killed in action.

The navy pilot had been flying a mission from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise against the Japanese somewhere in the Pacific thirteen days earlier in an engagement that became known as the Battle of Midway, a smashing and needed triumph for American forces. While the grief felt by the parents of the Franklin College graduate was still fresh, they received a second dispatch informing them that the first telegram has been mistaken; their son was not dead, but instead had been listed as missing in action.
  
The scrambled communications from Washington, D.C., had the pilot’s frantic parents searching for answers from anyone they could find who knew their son. Following up on a letter from Lieutenant L. A. Smith, the commanding officer of Bombing Squadron 6 (the group in which Norman flew), which had confirmed that Norman had been forced down at sea, Fred Vandivier wrote Smith on June 29 noting that “this uncertainty and anxiety of waiting is very distressing.”
  
Fred wrote that his wife, who suffered with a stomach ulcer, “has so reacted to this news that she is seriously ill.” Norman had not been home for a visit since Christmas 1940, so his father sought some personal information from his squadron mates in order to ease the pain felt by him and his wife. “Did he fit in?” Fred asked about his son. “Was he happy? Did he have ability? Did he have confidence in himself? Does anyone know of his last flight? Did he fly alone? If he doesn’t show up within the next few days, what do you think was his most probable fate?”
  
The anxious Hoosier father had to wait some time for answers to his questions. What has emerged over the many years since the end of the war is a picture of a young man who had a talent for his chosen profession, especially the difficult task of flying the navy’s Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber against the enemy’s ships and shore installations. What he had little use for, however, was the navy’s spit-and-polish traditions. He wrote his sister, Rosemary, a Rushville teacher, during his training that he had become tired of what he called “this ‘Yes, Sir,’ business.”
  
In the sheaf of letters he wrote to his family, now part of the Indiana Historical Society’s William Henry Smith Library’s collection, another aspect of his character shines through—a sincere desire to spare his parents from the real danger he faced, even while undergoing training at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. He went as far as hiding from them the death of a classmate, who went into a spin while in the air and never recovered, slamming into the ground. Much later, while serving in combat, he broke down and admitted to his mother and father, after the death in a crash of a friend from Johnson County, that he, too, preferred to be killed instantly in such a manner. “When the time comes, I really think that is the best way there is to go,” he wrote on May 27, 1942, just a week before his own disappearance. “Of course, we all hate to think about it, and we all want to put it off as long as possible, but when the time comes, I’m sure that is the way I’d choose.”
  
Born on March 10, 1916, in Edwards, Mississippi, Norman Francis Vandivier spent little time in that state, as his father left his position as superintendent of the Southern Christian Institute, a school for African American students, to move to Franklin in Johnson County, Indiana, running a farm located about six miles southwest of the city. Graduating from high school in 1934, Vandivier attended Franklin College, where he joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and starred as an end on the football squad and first baseman, pitcher, and captain for the baseball team. During his time at the college, Vandivier also displayed an interest in the military, serving with the Indiana National Guard as a member of Battery A, 139th Field Artillery. Mary Vandivier said her son had a longtime interest in the military, as well as airplanes—an interest he followed after graduating from Franklin by enlisting with the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1939.
  
The five-foot, ten-inch, 174-pound Vandivier reported for elimination flight training as a seaman, second class, at the U.S. Naval Air Reserve Base at Grosse Ile, Michigan, on July 15, 1939. He received from the navy its standard allotment to aviation recruits of four pairs of underwear, three shirts, three pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, one new pair of shoes, a flight jacket, a helmet, and goggles. After just a few hours of instruction, Vandivier expressed his confidence that he had the necessary aptitude and skills for flying. “I believe I could take one (plane) up and land it by myself,” he boasted in a letter to his parents, “although I haven’t ever done it yet. I have had all the controls on a flight or two but the instructor would join in once in awhile when he thought he was needed. I don’t think I’m going to have any trouble and I sure do like flying.”
  
In addition to getting used to being in the air, Vandivier and his other classmates endured learning Morse code and the tedious task of cleaning all the airplanes after flights, using gasoline “to take off the oil and bug spots.” Every third night, he had to go on watch from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., staying in the hanger to answer the telephone that, thankfully, seldom rang. On August 4 he successfully soloed and received the ritual dunking in a nearby lake to mark the occasion. “You now have an aviator in the family. Boy! Do I feel good,” Vandivier wrote.
  
After surviving his initial training regimen, Vandivier received orders to report to the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida, for further training as an aviation cadet with the U.S. Naval Reserve. His orders came shortly after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which had sparked declarations of war from the allied powers, Great Britain and France, starting World War II. As American opinion vacillated from aiding Great Britain to remaining neutral in the conflict, Vandivier arrived at the Florida base in late October 1939 to be greeted with an unusual welcome. When Vandivier and other cadets walked up to the barracks that served as their home for the next several months, suitcases in their hands, someone opened a window on the third floor, beat on the screens with his fists, and screamed: “Let me out of here! I want out of here! I’m starved!” Other faces appeared at various windows to yell at the newcomers “sucker,” “so you want to be a birdy,” and other choice expressions.
  
In addition to the harassment from his more experienced classmates, Vandivier had to suffer through a long day of lectures on seamanship, naval leadership, fundamentals of the naval service, and naval command and procedure. His day started at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. “That’s about as long as it is on the farm,” he noted. “There is a lot of pressure on you all the time, too.”
  
The pace never seemed to let up over the next few months, as Vandivier practiced his marksmanship with machine guns, learned how to fly a variety of maneuvers (snap rolls, loops, wing-overs, cartwheels, and figure eights) in a Stearman built NS1 airplane, developed a knack for formation flying, took to the skies in actual combat aircraft used by the navy, and had his normal flying senses challenged by learning to fly only by instruments in a blacked-out cockpit. “Their speedy program has made it really a case of survival of the fittest,” Vandivier wrote to his parents on November 19, 1939, “and fellows keep busting out [failing] every few days. I still have plenty of confidence that I’ll get along all right, but I see how a few members of the class could break out and not be missed, at least by the standards that I judge by.”
  
As Vandivier progressed further and further into his training, his schedule tightened. In May 1940 he outlined a typical day’s schedule as part of the advanced training in Squadron 5. Roused out of sleep at five in the morning, Vandivier had to eat, bathe, and shave before reporting to work at his squadron at 6:30 a.m. He and his classmates pushed their airplanes out of their hangers to warm up their engines. For about two hours he flew his low-wing aircraft by instruments, before returning to the station for an hour solo flying in a North American Texan T-6 advanced trainer (an SNJ in navy parlance), which Vandivier called “the best kind of airplane they have down here,” with retractable landing gear, flaps, and a closed cockpit. At 12:15 p.m. he spent an hour of flight simulation on the ground in a Link Flight Trainer before another hour of solo flying in the SNJ followed by an additional hour in the Link Trainer. During this time, he was also supposed to sandwich in a radio operations exam, with eight minutes of sending and eight minutes of receiving without more than five mistakes. Although his day’s work ended at 4:30 p.m., Vandivier said he much preferred an “easy day down on the farm digging ditches or pitching wheat. It wouldn’t be nearly the strain.”
  
In June 1940 Vandivier received a commission as an ensign and the navy assigned him to become a member of Bombing Squadron 6 on the USS Enterprise, a 19,800-ton Yorktown-class aircraft carrier originally commissioned by the navy in May 1938 and a ship that provided stellar service in Pacific battles throughout World War II. To reach his new assignment, Vandivier had to travel to San Diego, California, and from there ship out on the battleship USS Utah for a two-week cruise to the Hawaiian Islands, where the Enterprise, known lovingly by its crew as the “Big E,” was then stationed. “I get a big kick out of standing on deck and just looking at the water, with the snow-white foam about the boat and the water that looks exactly like ink, it is so dark blue” said Vandivier, who also told his parents he had not suffered yet from any sea sickness on the voyage.
  
By August Vandivier had joined the Enterprise’s more than two thousand-member crew and had begun one of the most difficult aspects of his training as a naval aviator—learning the intricacies of landing and taking off of a ship underway at sea. At first, he practiced with a landing signal officer (the crewman who guided pilots to their landings using reflective paddles) at a small airfield. The first time he witnessed a landing on his new ship, Vandivier expressed amazement at how much a ten-thousand-pound aircraft could bounce (six feet in the air) before finally coming to a halt, snagged by the ship’s arrester cables. “You bring the plane in on full power at a very low speed, about two miles per hour above stalling speed,” he explained the proper procedure in a letter to his parents. “Then, when the signal officer gives you the cut, you cut the gun and practically fall through the deck. There are nine wires stretched across the deck at 10 [foot] intervals, each about a foot above the deck, and fastened to a hydraulic cylinder, so that they will give when your hook catches. There is a hook about four feet long in the tail of the plane which we let down to catch the wire. It usually catches before any other part of the plane touches the deck and it just stops it in mid-air.”
  
To qualify, Vandivier had to make seven landings and takeoffs on a deck made of Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest and measuring approximately sixty feet wide and 180 feet long. “I made a fairly good approach,” Vandivier said of his first landing, “got the cut [signal from the LSO], and started to settle towards the deck without any idea of what was going to happen next. I was a little too high; and got a cross wind which drifted me across the deck straight towards the tower.” While only forty feet away from the tower, and traveling at seventy miles per hour, Vandivier thought he might be headed for a crash when the tailhook on his plane caught the cable “and really jerked me to a stop. Boy, was that a relief.” Just a few weeks later, Vandivier had sixty-five hours of flight time and twenty carrier landings to his credit.
  
As a member of Bombing Squadron 6, Vandivier also had to learn how to control his plane when dive bombing, practicing this specialized skill on a target raft towed by another ship. In an October 14, 1940, letter to his parents, he outlined the “interesting problem” of targeting a bomb on a moving object. “You have to allow for the trail of the bomb, depending on the steepness of the dive and the altitude at which you release,” he said. “You also allow for the distance the raft will travel after the bomb is released and the amount and direction of the wind, with its effect on the path of the bomb. All in all, you are fairly busy as you travel down at 300 miles per hour. We start our dives at 10,000 [feet] and pull out at 1,000.” He called such training “fun, and an interesting game. Of course I’m glad it’s just a game instead of something more serious.”
  
To Vandivier, that something more serious that might bring him into combat involved what was going on in the Atlantic Ocean, where the American navy had established a Neutrality Patrol in the Caribbean and 200 miles off the coasts of North and South America to deter German U-boats from interfering with shipping. If called into action there, however, Vandivier expressed doubts about the navy’s chances. “As for us, we would be out of luck trying to compete with any of the modern planes being used in Europe with the planes we have,” he wrote. “The U.S. has sold all of its modern planes to England and let the Navy use planes from four to ten years old. We expect to get some modern planes pretty soon.” As for the threat of a possible attack by the Japanese in the Pacific, Vandivier believed that once the United States called “the Japs bluff they will back down again. They seem to be scavengers who will take whatever they don’t have to fight to get.”
  
Throughout 1941 the Enterprise and its crew ferried men and material from the West Coast of the United States to the Hawaiian Islands. By that spring, Vandivier’s squadron had begun training and getting the bugs out of the aircraft they would take to war—the Douglas SBD Dauntless, which could be used as a scout plane or dive-bomber. The Dauntless became “the most successful and beloved by aviators of all our carrier types,” according to naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, as the plane sank more Japanese shipping than any other aircraft in World War II. The two-man SBDs (aircrews said the letters stood for “slow but deadly) were equipped with two fixed, forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns in the cowling and a twin .30-caliber machine gun operated by the rear gunner/radioman. “The new planes are really much easier to handle . . . and they will be a much nicer carrier plane,” said Vandivier. “They will also carry a 1000 lb [pound] bomb and 310 gallons of gasoline. In fact, I could probably fly from here [San Diego] home with only one stop for gas, and could probably do it in the daylight hours of one day.” The Dauntless proved to be a dependable combat aircraft, able to sustain considerable damage yet still bring its aircrew home safely to their ship.
  
Vandivier did have some trouble with his new plane. In a May 21, 1941, letter he outlined an “interesting experience” he had during a landing on the Enterprise at sea off of Oahu. When he was only 250 feet from the ship’s stern, his engine cut out while flying seventy-five feet above the water. “Under the circumstances,” Vandivier said, “I couldn’t do much to get it running again before it hit the water.” Calling it “an embarrassing predicament,” he had to make a crash landing in the water, wrecking his new plane (which he estimated cost the American taxpayers $30,000); it sank within three minutes. His crew member managed to make it into a life raft, but Vandivier had to inflate his Mae West life jacket and dogpaddle in the warm water while waiting to be picked up by a nearby destroyer. Despite his crash, Vandiver tried to minimize the dangers he faced. Writing from Pearl Harbor, the main navy base in the Hawaiian Islands, he noted that if war came “this is the safest place I can imagine to be. It is so well fortified and guarded that it would be almost impossible to take it, and it would be practically worthless to another power anyhow. The Atlantic side of the U.S. is the bad spot now.”
  
Vandivier proved to be very wrong in his prediction. Early in the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, nine-year-old Joan Zuber, the daughter of a U.S. Marine officer stationed at Pearl Harbor, started her day by opening the pages of a favorite book. She had just settled back to begin her reading when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a “grayish-black column of smoke. Something was burning.”
  
 Zuber dropped her book and ran outside to see what was happening. Looking over the bushes in her yard toward Luke Field, the navy’s airbase on Ford Island located in the center of the harbor, she could see smoke and flames rising into the sky, filling it with a large, black cloud. Although her first thought was to run back inside the house to tell her mother what was happening, she instead remained outside. “Just then a strange plane with red balls on the sides of its body swooped low over my head, diving toward the masts of the [battleships] West Virginia and Tennessee,” Zuber remembered. “What plane was that? What was it doing flying so low?”
  
The plane Zuber saw streaking toward the American ships was part of a force unleashed in two waves from six aircraft carriers from the Empire of Japan. The surprise attack—undertaken without a formal declaration of war—by the enemy aircraft aimed to quickly swoop down and destroy the 130 vessels of the United States’s Pacific fleet—ships that Japanese Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, in charge of planning the strike, called “a dagger pointed at our [Japan’s] throat.” That “dagger” Yamamoto had been so worried about suffered horribly from the enemy onslaught on December 7. An armor-piercing bomb slammed into the battleship USS Arizona. The bomb sliced through the ship and ignited its forward ammunition magazine, setting off a huge explosion, killing 1,177 crew members. Although unprepared for the onslaught, American forces shot down twenty-nine Japanese aircraft. They suffered, however, the loss of two battleships (the Arizona and Oklahoma) and severe damage to another six battleships, as well as having approximately two hundred airplanes destroyed on the ground and approximately 3,500 servicemen either killed or wounded.
 
 For Vandivier’s family, some of the first words about their son’s safety came from a Globe Wireless telegram from Honolulu, which read: “SAFE AND SOUND LETTER FOLLOWING LOVE NORMAN VANDIVIER.” In a December 18 letter Vandivier said that due to “unforeseen incidents,” there had been a delay in his letter writing and warned that there might be periods in the future where it would be impossible for him to send any mail home for months at a time. He also warned them to expect “disaster rumors of all kinds floating around, almost all of which die when any attempt is made to verify them. Mothers worrying about me bothers me a lot more than any of the things that have happened or are going to happen out here.” Even if he had wanted to pass along information on his experiences, he could not do so because mail had to be scrutinized by navy censors and “must contain no reference to what I am doing, where I am going, nor what I have seen. That doesn’t leave me a lot to write about.”
  
What Vandivier could not tell his family was that the Enterprise had been involved in the tail end of the Pearl Harbor attack. The carrier had been on its way back to its base after delivering Marine Fighter Squadron 211 and its complement of Grumman F4F Wildcats to Wake Island. Although scheduled to arrive at Pearl Harbor on Saturday, December 6, bad weather delayed the Enterprise’s return until Sunday, December 7. The ship’s Dauntless scout planes were soon under fire by Japanese Zero fighters. “Pearl Harbor is under attack by the Japanese. This is no shit!” Lieutenant Earl Gallaher radioed back to the Enterprise, which lost eleven pilots and nine aircraft, some brought down by panicked American anti-aircraft crews. “Before we’re through with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell!” vowed Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey Jr., who had selected the Enterprise as his flagship.
  
The men of the Enterprise made good on Halsey’s threat, hitting back at Japanese installations in the Marshall Islands, while the USS Yorktown struck enemy positions in the Gilbert Islands on February 1, 1942. The mission marked the first time many of the young American pilots had been in combat. Over a fourteen-hour period during the Marshall Islands mission, the Enterprise launched 158 sorties against the Japanese, sinking one ship and damaging eight others, including a submarine. In addition, a navy pilot had dropped a bomb that killed Rear Admiral Yatsushiro Sukeyoshi—the first member of the Imperial Navy’s flag staff to be killed in the war.
  
During an attack with Bombing Squadron 6 against Kwajalein Island, Vandivier, despite heavy antiaircraft fire, was credited with scoring a near-miss on a cargo vessel and a direct hit on a small Japanese barracks, winning an Air Medal for his efforts. Vandivier and his crewmates almost ran out of luck as their ship started to steam away from the danger zone. The Enterprise came under attack from five Japanese twin-engine bombers, one of which, heavily damaged, attempted a suicide dive into a deck crowded with planes, only to barely miss the ship.
  
The Enterprise’s aircrews continued to hone their combat skills with raids against Japanese bases on Wake and Marcus Island. In April the carrier provided air support for a secret strike against the Japanese home islands. On April 18 a force of sixteen normally land-based North American B-25 Mitchell bombers led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle flew off the pitching deck of the USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo, Japan’s capital city. Although the bombers did little damage, the raid boosted morale in the United States and shocked Japanese citizens, who started to doubt, as one of them remembered, that “we were invincible.”
  
Vandivier could relate little about his combat experiences in his letters to his parents. In a March 14 letter, he noted that the job of the Enterprise involved keeping the Japanese from “running wild” in the Pacific. “At present the odds are a little in favor of the enemy,” he wrote, “but the odds are continually swinging to our favor. . . . When we finally get this new army into the field to stop them on land, the navy will complete wiping up their navy and the war will be over. Sounds easy, doesn’t it.” He appeared proud of the navy’s early work against the enemy, and wondered why his service chose to keep reports of these actions under wraps from the American public. “I guess it is really our job to make the news rather than to publish it,” Vandivier admitted.
  
On May 27, 1942, in one of the last letters he ever sent, Vandivier wrote to his college friend and Franklin neighbor Harold E. Van Antwerp, who was stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia. Again, Vandivier could not give any details about his exploits in the air against the Japanese but did tell his friend that even though he had yet to fill his quota, he could claim “a few in the old game bag. It’s even more fun, and much more interesting than shooting rabbits, cause these little rascals can shoot back at you.” He added that he had approximately 1,250 hours in the air and had made 175 carrier landings. The Dauntless had proven to be a “very good carrier” plane, but Vandivier lamented its limited bomb load that necessitated additional sorties against the enemy. “I would much rather make only a few trips, and really drop something when I unload,” he told Van Antwerp. “We have found that these Japs are nothing to be sneezed at, but they are really not very good shots. But even knowing that the guy is a poor shot, you still get nervous when the party lasts too long.”
  
Incensed by the Doolittle raid, the Japanese sent a large fleet to capture Midway Island, an American possession located about a thousand miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition to capturing Midway, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto hoped to draw out the American fleet for a decisive battle. On May 30 the American fleet responded to the threat, sending the Yorktown to sea to join the Enterprise and Hornet, on station about 235 miles northeast of Midway. A PBY Catalina flying boat spotted the Japanese invasion force about 700 miles from Midway on the morning of June 3.
  
The next morning, the Japanese carriers, including four of the six that had attacked Pearl Harbor, were discovered. At about 7 a.m., the Enterprise launched its planes, including that of Vandivier and his crewman, Seaman First Class Lee Edward John Keaney. Led the carrier’s group commander, Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, the attack formation began with thirty-three Dauntlesses; fifteen from Bombing Squadron 6, loaded with one thousand-pound bomb each, and eighteen from Scouting Squadron 6, loaded with one 500-pound bomb and two 100-pound bombs. A few hours later, the American planes had yet to find the enemy carriers. Although low on fuel, McClusky made the momentous decision to turn his group northwest to hunt down the enemy, finding the Japanese at about 10 a.m. “I knew, and most everybody knew,” said Ensign Lew Hopkins, who flew in the squadron’s second division, “that we didn’t have enough fuel to get back.”
  
Vandivier, who flew in the third division, and other pilots from the Enterprise screamed down in dives to drop their bombs onto the Japanese carrier, Kaga, while a smaller group targeted the flagship for the Pearl Harbor attack, the Akagi. The Japanese fleet’s air cover of Zero fighters had just decimated an attack by American Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers and were at a low altitude, unprepared to tackle the dive-bombers as they hurtled downward. Watching the attack, American fighter pilot Jimmy Thach described the sight as looking “like a beautiful silver waterfall, those dive-bombers coming down.” It is unknown if Vandivier managed to hit the carrier, or if his bomb missed the target that day.
  
The Dauntless dive-bombers from the Enterprise proved their worth, however, blasting the Akagi and Kaga with their ordnance, leaving them burning wrecks that had to be abandoned by their crews. Meanwhile dive-bombers from the USS Yorktown hit a third carrier, the Soryu, dooming it as well. “Arizona, I remember you!” cried Earl Gallaher, a member of Scouting Squadron 6. Later in the day, Dauntless aircraft from the Enterprise and Yorktown found and crippled a fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu. Japan had been put on the defensive and “the Americans had avenged Pearl Harbor,” noted a Japanese government official.
  
The victory did not come without a cost. After his attack run, Vandivier had joined up with other aircraft to try make it back to the American fleet. Low on fuel, however, and perhaps suffering from damage from the fierce Japanese anti-aircraft fire or relentless attacks by Zero fighters, Vandivier radioed that he intended to put his plane down at sea.
  
In an October 22 letter to Fred Vandivier from Tony F. Schneider, a fellow member of Bombing Squadron 6, the navy pilot said witnesses had seen Vandivier land his Dauntless in the ocean. “Whether he was seen to get into his life raft I do not know,” wrote Schneider. “But from that time on there has been no word so far as I know. I checked every day for the first several weeks hoping for news.” Schneider, who enclosed $8 he owed Vandivier in his letter, said the Hoosier had been his best friend and roommate on the Enterprise. “I was forced down at sea on that date myself,” he noted, “and though I was fortunate enough to be rescued on the third day, the news I have been able to get about other friends less fortunate than I has been very sketchy and incomplete. I’m sorry I cannot relieve your mental anguish.”
  
Although his parents held out hope, nothing was ever heard or seen of Vandivier or his gunner again. A year and a day after his disappearance, Vandivier, posthumously promoted to lieutenant junior grade and awarded the Navy Cross for his part in the Battle of Midway, was declared officially dead by Navy Department officials. In November 1943 the navy decided to name an escort destroyer then under construction for Vandivier (the ship’s construction was delayed by the war’s end, and finally commissioned on October 11, 1955). His parents refused to accept the loss of their son. “Even this official status does not alter our hopes that Norman is by some chance still alive today,” said Fred Vandivier. “Our only hopes are that he either is marooned on a distant island or is a prisoner of the Japanese. Improbable as either may be, they still enable Mrs. Vandivier and myself to keep going in the face of our sorrow.”
   
No good news ever came, and Fred Vandivier died on February 20, 1958. Mary Vandivier, a Gold Star mother, soldiered on until her death, at age ninety-three, in 1987. For years, she placed flowers every Memorial Day on her son’s grave marker at Franklin’s Greenlawn Cemetery. She continued to cherish mementos from her son’s life, including the Purple Heart and other medals he received for his service in the war, as well as the silver champagne bottle holder the navy presented her after she christened the ship named in his honor. “When we couldn’t have him, this kind of took the place of him,” she said of her keepsakes.




Friday, April 10, 2020

Saving Washington: Lew Wallace and the Battle of Monocacy

Rebel Lieutenant General Jubal “Old Jube” Early found himself in an enviable position; he was just a few days’ march from what could be one of the most stunning triumphs of the Civil War. In the early summer of 1864, while Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were stuck in trench warfare around Petersburg, Virginia, Early and his Army of the Valley had slipped away from the siege and moved into the Shenandoah Valley, successfully cleared it of two Union armies, exacted $220,000 in ransom from northern cities, and even burned the home of the federal postmaster general. The way was now tantalizingly clear to the heart of the Yankees: Washington, D.C.

The only thing standing between Early’s Confederate veterans—whose numbers ranged in panicky estimates from 14,000 all to way to 28,000—and the Union capital were a handful of novice troops. Commanding these untried soldiers was an officer who had been vilified for his role in the Union near-defeat at the bloody Battle of Shiloh two years before: Major General Lew Wallace of Indiana.

Wallace, commanding the Eighth Army Corps and the Middle Department based in Baltimore—whose job it was to train soldiers, not lead them into battle—knew that a sizable rebel force was coming his way. Without any orders from his superiors, Wallace decided to move his small force from Baltimore to the Monocacy River near the town of Frederick, just sixty miles from Washington. It was there on July 9, 1864, that Early and Wallace’s forces met. Although the northern troops repulsed five separate rebel charges, they were defeated. However, Wallace and his men did delay Early’s march on the capital by one day—enough time for the city to prepare to meet the Confederate threat. Giving orders to collect the bodies of the dead in a burial ground on the battlefield, Wallace proposed a fitting memorial for those who fell: “These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.”

Who was this man who saved the Union from disaster? A yearning for martial glory had long been a part of Wallace’s life. The son of David Wallace, the sixth governor of Indiana, Lew Wallace, as a child growing up in Brookville, had little interest in school; he even ran away from home at one point to serve in the Texas navy during the Texans’ struggle for independence from Mexico. Although he studied for a career as an attorney in his father’s Indianapolis law office, Wallace failed to pass the bar examination in 1846. (Later in life he told his wife that the practice of law was “the most detestable of human occupations.”) The nineteen-year-old Wallace volunteered for service in the army during the Mexican War. He was elected second lieutenant in the First Regiment, Indiana Volunteers, but saw no battle action.

Upon his return from the war, Wallace was admitted to the bar in 1849 and opened a law practice in Covington, where he served two terms as prosecuting attorney. He married Susan Elston on May 6, 1852, and the couple moved to Crawfordsville in 1853, where Wallace was elected to the state senate as a Democrat in 1856. Also that year he organized a military group called the Montgomery Guards. After learning about the French Algerian Zouaves, Wallace converted his company to their system, emulating their colorful uniforms, theatrical drill, and commando tactics.
  
Wallace was ready when hostilities commenced between the North and South with the firing on Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861. In his autobiography, Wallace said he believed that the “conflict would be long and great, but that it would also be crowded with opportunities for distinction not in the least inconsistent with patriotism.” The day after the war’s outbreak, Wallace visited the offices of Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton, who asked him to become the state’s adjutant general. Wallace agreed and became responsible for organizing the Hoosier State’s quota of six regiments (4,683 men) for the Union cause.
  
Just four days after President Abraham Lincoln’s call for six regiments from Indiana, Wallace had raised more than twice the number needed. These regiments numbered from the Sixth through the Eleventh in honor of the five Indiana regiments organized during the Mexican War. With his task complete, Wallace resigned from his adjutant general post and received command of the Eleventh Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment as its colonel.
  
Wallace’s self-proclaimed “love of a military life” next surfaced in a dramatic way. Before leaving Indianapolis for the war, Wallace had his men march to the Indiana Statehouse, where he made them kneel and swear an oath to avenge their comrades whom Wallace believed had been unjustly accused of cowardice by General Zachary Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War. The stirring scene and oath of “Remember Buena Vista!” caught the state’s and the nation’s fancy. The influential magazine Harper’s Weekly produced a full-page illustration of the scene for its readers.
  
The Eleventh Indiana was quick to see battle. In June 1861 Wallace and his men surprised Confederate forces in Romney, Virginia, driving them from the town—an operation called “a splendid dash” by President Lincoln. Moving back to the western theater of the war, the regiment participated in the successful campaigns under Grant’s leadership to capture Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. In March 1862, at thirty-four years of age, Wallace received promotion to major general—the youngest person to hold that rank in the Union army—and given command of a division. The road to further honor and glory seemed clear. All that changed, however, at the Battle of Shiloh.
  
On the morning of April 6, 1862, rebel troops under General Albert Sidney Johnston surprised Grant’s army, which was camped at Shiloh Church, just west of the Tennessee River, about twenty miles north of Cornith, Mississippi, and pushed their blue-coated foes all the way to the river’s banks. Several miles to the north of the battlefield, Wallace received what were, to him, unclear orders from Grant. Wallace took his command on a confusing march (at one point even finding himself in the rear of the Confederate army) that essentially put his force out of action on the battle’s first day.
  
Wallace and his men, combined with reinforcements brought by Major General Don Carlos Buell, did join other Union soldiers to drive the Confederates from the field on the second day, but at an enormous cost. Of the 100,000 men who participated in the fight, 25,000 were killed or wounded, a number that exceeded all of the United States’ combat casualties in its previous wars. Indiana soldiers made up almost one tenth of the 13,000 Union losses. Wallace’s division suffered fewer than 300 casualties. After Shiloh, General Henry Halleck took to the field himself, demoting Grant to second in command.
  
Debate still rages today about Wallace’s action at the battle. The best analysis, to me, came from the Hoosier’s former commanding officer, Grant, who theorized that Wallace took the meandering route he did to “come around on the flank or the rear of the enemy, and thus perform an act of heroism that would redound to the credit of his command, as well as to the benefit of his country.” At the time, however, Wallace came in for heavy criticism for his tardiness and was eventually stripped of his command. He was informed of his removal by Governor Morton while on leave back home in Indiana. “Somebody in the dark gave me a push,” Wallace said later, “and I fell, and fell so far that I could almost see bottom.” Wallace, who regarded Halleck—a West Point graduate who was wary of “political” soldiers like Wallace—as being responsible for his removal, returned to his Crawfordsville home to await whatever fate had in store for him.       
  
Wallace was not completely “on the shelf” after the horror of Shiloh. In late summer 1862 he was called back into action to help bolster Union defenses around Cincinnati to help thwart an expected Confederate attack. The “turning point,” as Wallace termed it, in the re-establishment of his military career occurred on March 12, 1864, when he received orders from the War Department to take command of the Eighth Army Corps, and of the Middle Department, headquartered in Baltimore. “It was President Lincoln’s own suggestion—good enough in itself,” Wallace wrote of his new assignment in his autobiography. “Then, when I heard that General Halleck had called upon the President, and in person protested against the assignment, there was an added sweetness to it so strong that my disappointment in not being sent to the field was at once and most agreeably allayed.” Writing Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, Halleck lamented the decision to appoint Wallace, saying that it seemed “but little better than murder to give such important commands to such men, yet is seems impossible to prevent it.”
  
Shortly after receiving his orders, Wallace traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln about his new duties. The president, Wallace recalled later, laid his large hand upon his shoulder and told him, “I believed it right to give you a chance, Wallace.” At the meeting’s conclusion, Lincoln called the Hoosier general back into the room and noted that he had almost forgotten there was an election approaching in Maryland, “but don’t you forget it.”
  
The election, which involved a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery, was also the subject of Wallace’s subsequent meeting with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. “It is kindness,” Wallace quoted Stanton, “saying it [the election] will be your first trial.” Stanton also informed Wallace that the president favored abolition, but warned him against the appearance of using the bayonet to sway voters.
  
Wallace swung into action. Petitioned by voting precincts to send troops to police the polls, the new commander met with Maryland governor Augustus Bradford. The two came up with a plan whereby Wallace would send the petitions for troops to Bradford, who would then make a written request for the soldiers to Wallace. Troops were eventually dispatched to every doubtful precinct in Maryland and produced the needed results. Wallace noted that in many instances, “the sight of the ‘blue-coated hirelings’ a mile away, so enraged the Secessionists they refused to go to the polls. In due time, of course, the convention was held, and slavery abolished by formal amendment of the constitution.” Wallace’s skills in handling his department, however, would soon be put to a sterner test.
  
In June 1864, with his forces besieged by Grant outside of Richmond, Lee concocted a daring plan and entrusted its performance to the hard-charging, sometimes foul-mouthed Early, a veteran of campaigns from First Bull Run through The Wilderness. In his memoirs, Early said that Lee ordered his forces into the Shenandoah Valley “to strike [Union General’s David] Hunter’s force in the rear and, if possible, destroy it; then to move down the valley, cross the Potomoc near Leesburg . . . or at or above Harper’s Ferry, as I might find most practicable, and threaten Washington city.”

Early and his men set out on their mission on June 13, 1864. The Confederate raid would, Lee hoped, accomplish two things. One, the raid might alarm officials in Washington enough so that they would order troops northward to defend the city, weakening Grant’s forces enough to give Lee’s army an opportunity to drive them from the rebel capital. Or, Lee reasoned, the raid might encourage Grant into striking first, perhaps another bloody assault like the one at Cold Harbor, that would reduce his strength enough for the South to strike back. There seemed to be no expectation on Lee’s part that Early would, in fact, enter Washington. Lee’s orders to Early were merely to threaten the city, and when Early suggested to him the idea of capturing the city, Lee said such a thing would be impossible. Lee was almost proven wrong.
  
By July 1 Early’s troops had chased two Union armies—one the aforementioned Hunter and the other commanded by Major General Franz Sigel—out of the Shenandoah Valley. He also plundered Federal stores at Harper’s Ferry, extracted $20,000 in ransom from Hagerstown residents, and $200,000 from the town of Frederick. The road to Washington seemed clear.
  
The Union’s reaction to this audacious Confederate effort was confused at best; Grant even telegraphed Halleck on July Third that Early’s corps was still near Richmond. One person who did suspect what was happening was Wallace. A day before Grant’s message to Halleck in Washington, Wallace had met with John Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, at the general’s headquarters in Baltimore. Garrett’s railroad agents at Cumberland and Harper’s Ferry reported the appearance or rebel forces.
  
Without any orders from Washington, and without at first informing his superiors, Wallace acted. He did so even though he knew that his enemies, particularly General Halleck, might use any failure on his part as an excuse to be rid of him once and for all. In asking himself what the Confederates’ objective could be, Wallace could come up with only one to justify the risks involved—Washington. On the night of July 4 he and an aide took a train to Monocacy Junction (also called Frederick Junction) to survey the lay of the land. At this point the Georgetown Pike to Washington and the National Road to Baltimore both crossed the Monocacy River, as did the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In deciding whether or not to make his stand at Monocacy, Wallace ran over in his mind all of the consequences the fall of the Union capital might entail. To him, “they grouped themselves into a kind of horrible schedule,” which included the following:

At the navy-yard there were ships making and repairing, which, with the yard itself, would be given over to flames.

In the treasury department there were millions of bonds printed, and other millions signed and ready for issuance—how many millions I did not know.

There were storehouses in the city filled with property of all kinds, medical, ordnance, commissary, quartermaster, the accumulation of years, without which the war must halt, if not stop for good an all.

Then I thought of the city, the library, the beautiful capital, all under menace, . . . of Louis Napoleon and Gladstone hastening to recognize the Confederacy as a nation.

There was one thought that hardened Wallace’s resolve to hold his ground against any attack. It was, he said, “an apparition of President Lincoln, cloaked and hooded, stealing like a malefactor from the back door of the White House just as some gray-garbed Confederate brigadier burst in the front door.” In deciding to stay and meet the foe with his “raw and untried” 2,300-man force, Wallace hoped that he would be able to make the enemy disclose the size of his force and his intended objective. If it was Washington as Wallace feared, the Union general wanted to delay the rebels enough to give Grant the time to send troops north to reinforce the city.
  
Early’s and Wallace’s forces first met on July Seventh just outside of Frederick. This initial skirmish went to Wallace, as the Confederates withdrew near nightfall. The Union commander’s message to Halleck in Washington was optimistic, stating that the rebels “were handsomely repulsed.” Things seemed to be going Wallace’s way when, that night, his forces were bolstered by veteran soldiers of the Third Division of the Sixth Corps under Brigadier General James Ricketts, which had been sent north by Grant. By the night of July Eighth, however, Wallace pulled his men out of Frederick and made his stand east of the Monocacy River, positioning themselves at both turnpike bridges, the railroad bridge, and several fords.
  
On the morning of July 9, the main body of Early’s force, which doubled Wallace’s numbers, hurled itself at the federal troops. The battle raged on for nearly six hours; Union troops withstood numerous attacks before retreating toward Baltimore. The fierce fighting, and heroic resistance offered by the Union troops, is best highlighted from the fact that two of them—Corporal Alexander Scott and First Lieutenant George E. Davis—both from the Tenth Regiment of Vermont Volunteers, were award the Medal of Honor for their actions at Monocacy. The federals lost ninety-eight killed, 594 wounded, and 1,188 missing in the battle. Early estimated his killed and wounded at 600 to 900 men. Wallace reported to Halleck that he was “retreating with a foot-sore, battered, and half-demoralized column”—not a report to inspire the confidence of his superiors.
  
Despite the pessimistic tone of Wallace’s battle report, he and his men had accomplished their task—they had delayed Early’s march on Washington by one full day. Early resumed his march to the city on July 10 and reached the outskirts of the city the next day. He was too late; Grant had sent enough men north to beat back the Confederates. Even though he did attempt an attack on the city on July 12, Early knew he was too late. He began the trek back South, but kept his bravado intact, telling Major Kyd Douglas, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”
  
In his memoirs Early blamed earlier battle losses for his decision not to engage in a full-scale attack on the capital. He noted that fighting at Harper’s Ferry, Maryland Heights, and Monocacy had reduced his infantry forces to eight thousand in number. Those troops left were “greatly exhausted by the last two days’ marching, some having fallen by sunstroke, and not more than one-third of my force could have been carried into action.” The Confederate army retreated across the Potomac River at White’s Ford and returned to Virginia.
  
Wallace initially received little credit for his actions in delaying Early’s march on the capital. In fact, on July 11 he was relieved of command of the Middle Department by Major General E. O. C. Ord. That same day, an obviously upset Wallace wired Secretary Stanton: “Does General Ord report to me, or am I to understand that he relieves me from command of the Department. If so, what am I to do?”

The tide soon turned on Wallace’s behalf as officials realized his daring stand at Monocacy had saved the capital from disaster. In a July 24 letter to his friend B. J. Lossing, Wallace reported that Stanton had complimented him on the Battle of Monocacy, saying it was “timely, well-delivered, well-managed, and saved Washington. The stories about my removal are all bosh. On the contrary, you may set me down as on the rise.” Wallace was right; just four days later he received orders from the War Department, under the direction of President Lincoln, to resume command of the Eighth Army Corps and the Middle Department. Writing his brother later that fall, Wallace boasted that he could say what no other general officer in the army could—that a defeat did more for him than all the victories he had been involved in.
  
Wallace’s gallant stand at Monocacy may have faded from people’s memories as his other subsequent accomplishments took center stage. But no less an authority than Grant fully appreciated Wallace’s role on that critical day. Writing about the Battle of Monocacy in his classic memoirs, Grant noted the following: “If Early had been but one day earlier he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent. Whether the delay caused by the battle amounted to a day or not, General Wallace contributed on this occasion, by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory.”




Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Goethe Link and the Stars

During the 1930s, Indianapolis physician Goethe Link had achieved great prominence in his field, earning the respect of his fellow doctors with his skill as a surgeon. “I had several lucky breaks in my practice,” Link noted. “In fact, it seemed that if I got ready for something, opportunity soon knocked on my door.”
  
With his medical practice a success, Link sought escape from the busy city life of Indianapolis. He purchased more than fifty acres in northern Morgan County, building a country home on land that had formerly been an apple orchard. “When I got here, like Brigham Young I said, ‘This is the place!’” Link recalled. He named his property Tanager Hill after the scarlet tanagers and summer tanagers that flocked to the area.
  
Although he continued to hone his surgical skills, Link believed that pursuing other activities “rested me intellectually and thus aided progress in my life’s work.” As a young boy, Link had become fascinated by a book on astronomy he found in his father’s library. “I used to watch large birds that could fly across a valley without moving their wings,” he recalled, “and I became fascinated by ascending currents of atmosphere and astronomical facts.”
  
Years later, Link renewed his interest in the subject through a class taught by K. P. Williams, a professor of mathematics, through an Indiana University extension program in Indianapolis and membership in the fledgling Indiana Astronomical Society, founded in 1933. Planning a honeymoon to the West with his new wife, Helen (his first wife had died in 1930), Link also took with him on the trip a letter of introduction from Williams to three former IU students—Earl C. Slipher, Vesto M. Slipher, and Carol O. Lampland—all of whom worked as astronomers at the Lowell Observatory, a privately owned astronomical research institution in Flagstaff, Arizona. Link later joked that he received so much information from the astronomers that he suffered “intellectual indigestion.” During the trip Link also met with Russell W. Porter, an amateur astronomer who had helped design the Mount Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California. Porter sketched out for the Indiana physician plans so Link could build his own observatory close to his Morgan County home.
  
Establishing the Goethe and Helen Link Foundation for Scientific Research, Link began construction on his observatory in 1937. The facility received support from a variety of members of the IAS and was supervised by Victor E. Maier, a noted Indianapolis amateur astronomer who had previously advised other enthusiasts on how to build telescopes. The facility immediately attracted the attention of members of the IU astronomy department, who visited the site along with groups from Indianapolis. One fellow physician told Link after seeing the partially completed observatory: “Goethe, you are going to have to operate in all doubtful cases to pay for this.”
  
Work at the observatory centered on building a facility to securely house a telescope equipped with a thirty-six-inch mirror that had been a test pouring for the two-hundred-inch mirror provided by the Corning Glass Works for the Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar. It took ten months and the building of a special machine by Carl D. Turner, an Indianapolis engineer, to grind and polish the ribbed Pyrex mirror, which cost $385. To support the four-hundred-pound mirror and its cross-axis German equatorial mounting, which weighed 5,000 pounds, crews using wheelbarrows and shovels constructed a concrete pier resting on bedrock. “Readings were made on the concrete every hour while it was hardening,” Maier remembered, noting that measurements indicated the pier had been set within one millimeter of its correct position despite its great weight (two hundred tons) and height (thirty feet above ground level).
  
After the pier had been completed, workers used wood from a nearby forest to construct the building’s frame made of oak posts and beams, with an interior of oak hardwood floors and knotty-pine walls. The lower floor included a large auditorium that could seat 150 people, a darkroom, library, sleeping quarters, and a kitchen. To keep the large dome housing the telescope the same temperature as the outside air, the building had no central heating system; those who worked there had to rely instead on portable electric heaters. The dome itself measured thirty-four feet in diameter and included an eight-foot-wide shutter opening through which the telescope could peer into the heavens. The entire dome could be moved to different positions by using only a half-horsepower electric motor that could be operated by the push of a button. In a second, smaller dome, located on the flat roof over the auditorium, Link placed his own personal telescope, a five-inch Zeiss refractor.
  
With the observatory ready to begin operations in early January 1939, Link made the facility available to scientists at local colleges and universities. IU President Herman B Wells quickly took advantage of the offer for the university’s astronomy department. In October 1938 the university announced it would establish a postdoctoral fellowship (first awarded to Doctor James Cuffey, a graduate of Harvard University) to conduct research at the observatory on a year-round basis. Cuffey took the first celestial photograph from the observatory in August 1939.
  
In addition to the research work, the observatory also hosted field trips from IU astronomy students and regularly scheduled visitor nights open to the general public. On those nights the auditorium became jammed with people listening to presentations on the stars while another group crowded up the circular staircase waiting their turn to mount an observation platform for a glimpse through the 5,200-pound telescope at the evening sky.
  
Cuffey continued his research into star clusters at the observatory until World War II intervened, and he left in June 1941 to serve in the navy, teaching navigation at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He returned to the Bloomington campus in 1946 as an assistant professor. Following the war, IU astronomers, in cooperation with the International Astronomical Union, used the observatory to track the orbits of asteroids (called minor planets in those days) that had been lost track of during the war years. For the asteroid observations, Link and the university reached agreement with the University of Cincinnati for the permanent loan of a ten-inch diameter astrographic lens. Link funded the construction of a separate building for the telescope. From 1948 to 1967, astronomers at the observatory took more than 6,000 photographs and discovered more than a hundred new asteroids.
  
Shortly after arrangements had been made for the installation of the new astrograph, Link decided in 1948 to donate the observatory along with twelve acres to IU. He later told a reporter that as he got older he could no longer do as much work in astronomy as he wanted to because of the late hours involved. Doctor Frank K. Edmondson, chairman of the IU astronomy department, noted that Link’s generous gift greatly expanded the scope of the department’s activities. “It gave us a large telescope, a vital element which we lacked and which is necessary to support a graduate program in astronomy leading to a Ph.D. degree,” Edmondson said. In 1978 the university, with financial help from the National Science Foundation, added a control room to the main dome for the use of researchers.
  
By the 1980s, light pollution from Indianapolis’s urban sprawl had hampered use of the Link observatory’s telescopes and IU had to move its research activities to other locations. The public, however, continued to visit the site whenever possible for programs given by the university and the IAS, as well as to marvel at the numerous varieties of daffodils planted on the grounds by Helen Link—a pastime she started with a gift of bulbs from her husband. The couple continued to enjoy the beauties of Tanager Hill until their deaths; Goethe, at the age of 101, in 1981, and Helen, at the age of ninety, in 2002. For Goethe, there existed no great secret to his long life. “I never drank, never smoked, stayed physically active and always left the table a little bit hungry.”



Monday, April 6, 2020

"The Last Enemy is Destroyed": May Wright Sewall and Spiritualism

In the summer of 1918 Booth Tarkington, enjoying the season at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, received in the mail an invitation from an old friend from Indianapolis, who was also in Maine, to meet and discuss a manuscript the friend had written. In the letter the friend, May Wright Sewall, did not indicate the subject of her writing, but knowing of her previous work in Indiana, Tarkington assumed that the book would be “something educational.” When he finally received the manuscript, the Hoosier writer was astonished to discover “that for more than twenty years this academic-liberal of a thousand human activities . . . had been really living not with the living, so to put it.”
   
Writing her with his initial assessment of the work, Tarkington told Sewall that he had read the manuscript “very carefully and with an ever increasing interest.” Calling the book “unique,” he added that it proved “its over absolute sincerity from the first, and beyond question; total strangers to you, personally, would recognize that.” Sewall’s manuscript, eventually published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis just two months before her death in July 1920 as Neither Dead nor Sleeping, detailed her extensive experiences in the shadowy world of spiritualism—the belief in the possibility of the living communicating with the dead. 

Sewall’s communion with the deceased, which included extensive conversations with her late husband Theodore, shocked many who knew the no-nonsense teacher, suffragette, and peace advocate. This proponent of spiritualism had played a leading role in helping to establish such Indianapolis institutions as the Girls’ Classical School, the Indianapolis Woman’s Club, the Contemporary Club, the Art Association of Indianapolis (today's Indianapolis Museum of Art), and the Indianapolis Propylaeum. She also worked tirelessly to promote rights for women in the United States—and around the world—during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, serving as an invaluable ally to such national suffrage leaders as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Sewall also gave the woman’s movement an international focus through her pioneering involvement with the International Council of Women and the National Council of Women. In addition to her work on behalf of suffrage, Sewall had been a leader in the American peace movement, serving as a delegate on HenryFord’s ill-fated peace mission to end World War I.

Anton Scherrer, a columnist for the Indianapolis Times, said that nothing “rocked the foundations of Indianapolis quite as much” as had the appearance of Sewall’s publication, because nobody in her old hometown knew about her contacts with the spirit world. In fact, only a dozen or so people knew about this side of her life. During Sewall’s communications with her departed husband, he had warned her, she told a reporter from the Indianapolis Star, not to relate them “to the world until she had them in such form the world could understand them.” Also, those to whom she related her experiences often expressed the belief that Sewall suffered from a mental delusion. Perhaps realizing that she would be ridiculed by many for her otherworldly experiences, which first occurred in 1897, she decided to relate her spiritualist story to the world only when “extreme feebleness” had taken her once and for all out of public affairs.

Sewall began her commune with the spirits during a visit to a spiritualist camp meeting at Lily Dale, New York, in 1897. The seeds for her communications with the deceased, however, had been planted a few years before during some of the darkest days of her life. A fortnight before her husband’s death from tuberculosis on December 23, 1895, he had told her that his death was inevitable. “I wish now only to say that if I discover that I survive death,” said Theodore Sewall, “the first thing I shall do will be to ascertain whether or not Jesus ever returned to earth after His crucifixion. You know we have not believed it; but, if I find that He did return to His disciples, I shall do nothing else until I shall have succeeded in returning to you, unless before that time, you have come to me.” 

Although her husband’s memory remained fresh in Sewall’s mind during the next few years, she claimed to have forgotten his deathbed promise to communicate with her from the spirit world. In fact, when some Indianapolis friends advised Sewall to visit a local medium in order to see and talk again with her husband, the proposal shocked her. “It seemed to me grossly to violate both reason and delicacy,” she said. Instead of taking them up on their offer, Sewall continued to give her time to her school and work with both the National and International Council of Women. During a speaking engagement in Nova Scotia in June 1897, she received an invitation to give a talk at a “Woman’s Day” program at what she later learned was a spiritualist camp in Lily Dale, New York. “I had held myself so aloof from all means of information about spiritualism,” she said, “that I did not know there were such camps.”

Sewall arrived at Lily Dale’s assembly grounds on August 9, 1897 and was greeted by the chairman of the press committee for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who asked her if she wished to tour the facility and be introduced to some of the famous mediums gathered there for the meeting. “I told her,” said Sewall, “that I did not wish to meet any ‘medium’ however ‘famous’; that to me the word was offensive, being synonymous in my opinion, with the words, deceiver, pretender, charlatan and ignoramus.” Although her audience the next day proved to be “attentive, responsive and sympathetic,” Sewall wanted nothing more than to depart the place for her next speaking engagement at Chautauqua, New York.

A series of unexpected difficulties, however, caused Sewall to stay over at Lily Dale for a time. Giving in to a “compelling impulse which I scarcely realized until I acted upon it,” she participated in a sitting with a famous independent slate writer, a medium who used slates to convey messages from the spirits to their intended recipients. During her meeting with the slate writer, Sewall claimed that the blank slates never left her possession, but when she returned with them to her hotel she discovered that they were covered with “clear and legible writing” and contained “perfectly coherent, intelligent and characteristic replies to questions which I had written upon bits of paper that had not passed out of my hands.”

Through this experience, Sewall said she had acquired “actual knowledge, if not of immortality, at least of a survival of death—I had learned that the last enemy is destroyed, in that he can destroy neither being nor identity, nor continuity of relationship.” Through subsequent sittings with slate writers, trance readers, a trumpet medium, and other psychics, Sewall communicated with several of her deceased loved ones, including her husband, father, mother, half-sister, great-grandfather, niece, and two sisters-in-law.

As she became more attuned to the spirit world, Sewall managed to communicate with her husband herself through automatic writing. Equipped with only a tablet and pencil, she sat in her library and her husband’s spirit would guide her hand to produce written answers to her questions about life beyond the grave. These amazing messages, she later told the Indianapolis Star, came to her as impressions upon her mind. Sewall noted that the experience was as though she received “a blow on the brain—not physically of course—but clear and distinct and without warning. And in an instant comes a complete train of thought—swift—immediate—not arrived at by the slow and ordinary sequence of ideas—a complete train of thought solving some heretofore unsolvable riddle of the universe.” These thoughts—an extensive series of lectures from Theodore Sewall on how spirits return and communicate with the living—could not have come from her own mind, she insisted, for they often concerned themes that she had never imagined in her entire life.

Sewall’s remarkable account of her communications with the spirit world became known to the living through the unstinting efforts of an Indiana writer who had his own experience with unexplained phenomena: Tarkington. When he was fourteen years old and living in Indianapolis, Tarkington discovered that his sister, Hauté, had psychic powers. The Tarkington family hosted séances at its home that drew such distinguished visitors as James Whitcomb Riley. Although Hauté’s powers faded away after her marriage, her devoted brother remained convinced of the reality of his experiences. Throughout his life, noted Tarkington biographer James Woodress, the writer “was tolerant of other persons’ alleged supersensory experience.” When May approached him for assistance in finding a publisher for her spiritualist manuscript, Tarkington proved eager to help.

In the fall of 1918 Tarkington had a stenographer make a copy of Sewall’s manuscript to present to possible publishers. He wrote her that he needed to find a firm willing not only to print the book, but also effectively promote it as well. “I assure you that I will do everything within my power not only to get it printed,” he said, “but to get it ‘pushed’!” Tarkington reiterated his belief that Sewall’s manuscript stood as a “unique document with the air of a classic in human experience.”

By March 1919 Tarkington had decided to place the manuscript with the Bobbs-Merrill Company, which could trace its roots in Indianapolis back to the 1850s and was the publisher for such Hoosier literary lions as James Whitcomb Riley, George Ade, Meredith Nicholson, and Maurice Thompson. Tarkington passed along Sewall’s manuscript to Bobbs-Merrill with the understanding that he would write an introduction for the book. He did warn Sewall that a decision on whether to publish her work might take some time.

Tarkington’s warning proved to be prophetic. During the spring and summer, he exchanged a series of letters with Sewall discussing the lack of a decision from Bobbs-Merrill on the book. Although the firm’s literary adviser and trade editor Hewitt H. Howland had told Tarkington he was in favor of accepting the book, and Tarkington wrote Sewall that he was tempted to push the firm about the manuscript, he feared doing so because a “very little push upon a publisher sometimes turns him aside from the right path.” A final decision on the manuscript depended upon the opinion of William C. Bobbs, the company’s president, “and that must take its own time not ours!” said Tarkington.  By the end of July, Tarkington’s patience had been tried enough for him to suggest to Sewall that she write a note to Howland “and hint that you can wait no longer.”

Sometime in August Bobbs-Merrill finally agreed to publish Sewall’s spiritualist book. One of the reasons for the firm’s acceptance might have been its eagerness to add Tarkington to its list of authors. For his part, Tarkington continued to advise the suffragist, sending her suggestions on how to conduct contract negotiations with the Indianapolis publishing firm. “I am sure he [Howland] will be fair and the terms will be customary—it is always about the same thing: 10% gross, I suppose, on sales up to 10,000 and 15% thereafter—some such arrangement,” he told Sewall. “I should let him propose the terms and, if they are like this, accept at once.” The Hoosier writer went on to try to convince Sewall not to believe that his “small” contribution had induced Bobbs-Merrill to accept the book. His efforts on her behalf did perhaps peek the firm’s interest in reviewing the manuscript, but it was the work “itself, and nothing else whatever, that has brought them to their favorable decision.”

During her exchange of letters with Tarkington about her manuscript, the seventy-five-year-old Sewall, who had been in ill health, had been making plans to leave the east coast and return to live in Indianapolis. She had even written her old suffragist friend, Grace Julian Clarke, to seek advice on possible places for her to stay. Clarke wrote back expressing her delight at Sewall’s decision to live again in Indianapolis but reported that the three places she had in mind as possible locations for Sewall to take up residence were unavailable. Undeterred by Clarke’s bad news about lodgings for her, Sewall remained resolved to return to Indianapolis, the scene of many of the triumphs and tragedies in her life. Writing from the Aloha Rest home in Winthrop Highlands, Massachusetts, she expressed to Howland, the editor for her book, her gratitude for accepting her manuscript, adding that it pleased her to have the book published in the city where many of the experiences took place. 

Although Sewall consented to Howland’s request to shorten the second part of the book, she did ask him one favor. She indicated she was quite anxious to have the book come out as soon as possible because numerous publishing firms, including the most conservative ones, were issuing books on spiritualism in order to take advantage of the huge surge in interest in the subject from families who had lost loved ones during World War I. “The war has terribly increased the number of bereaved and bleeding hearts and often the skepticism of the intellect can be broken down only through the agony of a yearning heart,” she said. “I, who have suffered, want to help those who do suffer.”

In early October 1919 Sewall finally returned to Indianapolis, taking up residence at a convalescent home at 1732 North Illinois Street. Although so ill with heart disease that she had trouble breathing and had to be propped up in bed by pillows, Sewall, looked after by some of her former students at the Girls’ Classical School, managed to make corrections on galley proofs of her book.

In spite of her illness, Sewall remained confident about the worth of her manuscript. “I think I never did a better piece of proof reading—and I am perfectly delighted with the book,” she told Howland in December. “I know it will have an ultimate great success.” Sewall’s confidence may have been inspired by the rapport she established with her editor. She apologized to Howland for hindering the work on her book because of her illness but promised to keep herself well enough to correct proof as fast as it arrived.

As winter turned into spring and her book remained unpublished, Sewall began to be apprehensive about the future. “I beg you to believe,” she said in a dictated letter to Howland, “that I am distressed at feeling the need of troubling you, but I have been very ill for several weeks with the prospect of continuing so, or worse; and I am beginning to be very anxious about the possibility of holding out until my book is out.” She went on to say that she did not know if he could do anything to hurry the process, but was sure that if “you could know my distressing situation you would be sympathetically anxious to try and hurry it.” By the time Howland could present Sewall with a complimentary copy of her book on May 8, she had been moved from her Illinois Street residence to Room 131 at Saint Vincent’s Hospital. 

Bobbs-Merrill placed its considerable promotional muscle squarely behind Neither Dead nor Sleeping. Calling the work “The Wonder Book of the Ages,” and labeling its author “one of the best known among the pioneer progressive women of the country,” the firm issued a first printing of three thousand copies and promoted it to book dealers as “a sure-fire seller from the start. It’s the kind the dealer will take home and read and reread himself!”

The Indianapolis company had Sewall autograph copies of the book, which sold for $3 per copy, to be sent to influential literary editors representing such publications as the Literary Digest, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist, as well as newspapers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. She also prepared signed copies for such influential figures as William Randolph Hearst and his wife. These promotional efforts paid off; Howland reported to Sewall that ten to twelve newspapers had printed a full-page story on the book and as of early June one-third of the first printing of three thousand had been sold.

To help ease the reader into the story of Sewall’s astonishing experiences, Tarkington had contributed a compelling and open-minded introduction for Neither Dead nor Sleeping. In reading Sewall’s story, Tarkington said it seemed to him that her struggle to cure her illness and make herself a proper messenger for the dead were recorded not as a person living in the modern world, but as “some medieval penitent, feeding upon snow by day and lying prayerful upon a bed of cinders at night, seeking to become a spirit.” 

In pondering the validity of Sewall’s spiritualist beliefs, Tarkington had three possible explanations for her story: Sewall was hallucinating her experiences; the communications from the dead were really the work of “an inner self of hers, sometimes called a subconscious”; or the communications were, as Sewall believed them to be, actually from the deceased. For Tarkington, the truth of the matter rested somewhere between the second and third explanations.

Many reviewers echoed Tarkington’s sympathetic treatment of Sewall’s book. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Elia W. Peattie claimed that the book had been written in “good faith” by a “gentlewoman of high veracity.” The author had found, Peattie added, an “escape from illness and sorrow, and there remains but to extend to her sincere and deeply felt congratulations.” 

Reviewing several books on psychic experiences for the New York Evening Post, J. Keith Torbert wrote that both for those who believe and for those who scoff at spiritualism May’s book “has essentials to reveal.” Neither Dead nor Sleeping had, Torbert added, something that raised it above the ordinary. “This is the very human touch to the writing,” he wrote. “The strong, admirable character of Mrs. Sewall appears on every page.” Sewall’s work even received a positive notice in the New York Times Book Review. In reviewing eleven books that discussed the question of what happens after a person dies, the Review highlighted May’s as “one of the most striking—amazing is hardly too strong a word.”

These vindications of her work came as Sewall, now seventy-six years old, lay gravely ill in her room at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, where she finally died at 11:15 p.m. on July 22, 1920. The Indianapolis Star reported that her advanced age, taken in connection “with a gradual physical decline manfesting [sic] itself in the last three months convinced her physicians some time ago that her recovery was impossible.” 

After funeral services at All Souls Unitarian Church, overseen by Reverend S. C. Wicks, May was buried alongside her beloved husband, Theodore, at Crown Hill Cemetery. In the death of May Wright Sewall, the Indianapolis News said on its editorial page, the world lost a citizen. Throughout her life, the newspaper said, “Mrs. Sewall possessed the faculty of transmitting her boundless enthusiasm and her original ideas to the world around her. One could not slumber in her presence for her vitality was contagious.”