Friday, July 25, 2014

"This is my stand:" "Soggy" Sweat's Whiskey Speech

Noah Sweat, Jr. came from a long line of Alcorn County and northeast Mississippi folk, and a long line of “Noahs” too. His great grandfather, Noah Sweat, was born in South Carolina and moved to Georgia, where his son Laney Noah Sweat (right) was born in 1857. Like his father, he was a farmer. He died at age 44 in 1901 in Kossuth, Mississippi. Two of his sons, William Commodore and Noah Spurgeon Sweat, became lawyers and practiced in Corinth. Commodore Sweat (1878-1960) was the attorney for the Alcorn County Board of Supervisors and served as secretary/treasurer for the Union Mill Gin and Warehouse Company in Corinth. * 

Commodore Sweat’s brother, Noah (left), was born in 1892. He was also an attorney and was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1923 at age 31. A Baptist, a Mason, and a member of the American Legion (he was a World War I veteran), Noah S. Sweat, Sr. (1892-1978) was elected as a city judge in Corinth after his service in the Legislature. He lived to the ripe old age of 86. His son – the fourth Noah Sweat in as many generations – was born in 1922. Like his father, Noah Spurgeon Sweat, Jr., was an attorney and was elected to the Mississippi Legislature at age 24, serving a single term in the House of Representatives. Although he would later serve as a respected judge and law professor, he is best known by his nickname, “Soggy,” and remembered most for a speech he gave in 1952 on the subject of liquor.  

In 1952, as in other years, the legalization of whiskey and other liquors was a topic of spirited debate in the Legislature. While the Senate had passed legislation for local option for legalized liquor sales, the House had not moved the legislation along. Not only were there moral objections to the sale of whiskey, but state legislators, and perhaps Gov. Hugh White as well, feared the loss of tax revenue from “black market” liquor sales which the state collected. On Friday, April 4, 1952, Rep. Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat (right), still just 28 years old and in his final year as a legislator, was invited to give a speech on the subject at a banquet for legislators and other state elected officials and their wives. Sweat, it seems, had let it be known that he had been working on a “universal approach” on the liquor question. The following speech was delivered that night at the King Edward Hotel in Jackson:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

The next day, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that “Soggy” Sweat delivered a “somewhat powerful, hesitatingly unequivocal speech…in which he sort of emphatically described his ‘universal approach’ to our current controversial issue.” Sweat called his oration “The Whiskey Speech,” and apparently had spent some bit of time composing it. The reception from the assembled crowd of dignitaries was silence during the first half of the speech, followed by a “tremendous burst of applause” by those opposed to liquor. The second half of the speech was similarly received. Sweat recalled in later years that “The drys were as unhappy with the second part of the speech as the wets were with the first half.” Throughout, the newspaper reported, “‘Soggy’s’ youthful eyes twinkled at both the silences and the applauses.”
Although it has at times been incorrectly attributed to other politicians, “The Whiskey Speech” is today considered among the most iconic speeches ever delivered in American political circles. Similar arguments - those which seem to take both sides of a controversial issue - are known as “If by whiskey” speeches. Lauded by William Safire and other writers for its brilliant composition, “The Whiskey Speech” remains a part of Mississippi’s political landscape, so much so that it was reenacted by Rep. Ed Perry of Oxford during the centennial observance of the “new” state capitol in 2003. In 1952, however, the speech apparently had no effect on the issue at hand. In fact, it took another fourteen years for Mississippi to finally approve local options for legal liquor sales. The first legal liquor store in Mississippi was in Greenville, and opened on August 6, 1966. In reporting the opening of the “Jigger and Jug,” the Delta Democrat-Times’ ran a front page photo (above right) with a caption that read: “Happy Day.”
Noah “Soggy” Sweat, after serving just one term in the Mississippi Legislature, went on to become a judge and then taught in the law school at the University of Mississippi and was founder of the Mississippi Judicial College at Ole Miss. John Grisham, the acclaimed novelist, was once his assistant. Judge Sweat died in 1996 and is buried, along with most of the Sweat family, in the Henry Cemetery in Corinth. Despite a long and distinguished career as an attorney and a jurist, he will forever, and perhaps rightly so, be known for his famous “Whiskey Speech.”

* William Commodore Sweat’s youngest child was Jonathan Mitchell Sweat. Born in 1925, he was a graduate of both Vanderbilt University and Julliard and was a prominent member of the Millsaps College music faculty for 38 years. Dr. Sweat died in 2009.  

(1) Laney Sweat: http// 
(2) Noah S. Sweat, Sr.: From Mississippi Official and Statistical Resister, 1924-28
(3) Noah S. Sweat, Jr.:
(4) King Edward Hotel:
(5) Speech:
(6) Delta Democrat-Times: 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Scandal in the Delta!

In May 1943, Axis troops in North Africa were defeated by Allied forces and taken prisoner. As a result, both German and Italian soldiers from the famous "Afrika Korps" were transported to the United States to prisoner of war camps, a number of which were located in Mississippi. There were four main P.O.W. camps in Mississippi during World War II, including Clinton and Como and at the military installations at Camp Shelby and Camp McCain. Of these, Camp Clinton was used to house higher-ranking German officers, including Erwin Rommel's replacement as the commander of the Afrika Korps, Gen. Jurgen Von Arnim (right). Officers, unlike enlisted men, could not be forced to work, although many chose to anyway. At Clinton, the Germans helped build a model of the Mississippi River for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study flood control. In other parts of the state, however, work was chiefly agricultural in nature. That was especially true in the Delta, where there were ten satellite camps. Most of the prisoners in these camps found themselves planting and picking cotton.
Among the German prisoners assigned to a work detail in the Delta was a Luftwaffe officer named Helmut von der Aue. Variously described being either six feet tall or 6'3", the 26-year-old pilot had been shot down and captured in Italy in September 1943. With dark hair, blue eyes and sporting a small mustache, von der Aue was not only considered handsome but was fluent in English, French and Italian, in addition to his native German.  After escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Italy, von der Aue was transported to the United States and sent to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky (named for the former U.S. Vice President and Confederate general John C. Breckinridge). On January 18, 1944, he escaped while working on a road near the camp. After being recaptured, he was sent to Camp McCain, Mississippi, and thence to a smaller camp at Rosedale, where he was assigned to work on a plantation. 
Along with several other prisoners, Helmut von der Aue was sent to work on a plantation owned by Joseph Henry Rogers near Beulah.  Joe Rogers was a 43-year-old planter and was apparently away from home on a regular basis tending to business matters.  His wife Edith, who at age 37 was five years younger than her husband, was described as "pretty." The couple had one daughter, Joan.  To pass the time, Edith frequently invited the German prisoners working in the fields to have lunch at her home.  Over a period of months, it seems, she developed a particular attachment to Helmut von der Aue, the tall, handsome pilot.  On one occasion in early January 1946, he stayed behind while the other prisoners returned to the fields. After he and Mrs. Rogers enjoyed a few drinks – and possibly as much as a fifth of whiskey – the two decided to escape together.  Before leaving, she furnished von der Aue with some of her husband’s clothes and then they took her car to Memphis.  When interviewed later, von der Aue claimed he was “tired of looking at fences, fences, fences,” but he also said he had fallen in love with Edith, who had been very kind to him. Although he said he was also fond of Joan, the couple did not take her with them. They left the Delta behind with $10 cash.
After heading to Memphis, the couple drove east all night with the intent to go all the way to Washington, where he hoped to find work with some acquaintances.  Arriving in Winchester, Tennessee, they realized they were quickly running out of money.  With only $3 remaining and a half-empty gas tank, Edith sold her watch for $5 to buy food and then wired some relatives in Rosedale for more money.  Continuing to Nashville, the couple tried to check into a hotel but was promptly arrested by the F.B.I., who had been alerted of the escape and no doubt knew the make and model of the car.  Mrs. Rogers was charged with “aiding and abetting the escape of an enemy of the United States” and held in the Nashville jail. Her bond was set at $2,000.  Helmut von der Aue, as an escaped prisoner of war, was turned over to military authorities and eventually sent back to Camp McCain.  
Meanwhile, the story went “viral.” Newspapers across the nation picked up the affair between the German P.O.W. and the planter’s wife, no doubt to the dismay of Mr. Rogers. The press spared no details.  In an article in the Kansas City Star, for example, Helmut von der Aue claimed his undying love for Edith.  “Her husband was seldom at home,” he said, “I fell in love with her and I wanted to marry her. I still do.”  Edith’s bond was posted by none other than her husband and she returned to Bolivar County, where she was to stand trial in Clarksdale in May.  During her bond hearing, Mrs. Rogers, who was “smartly dressed except for her bare legs,” refused to have her photo taken and did not speak. The only sound she made during the hearing was an audible laugh when asked “Have you talked to your husband yet?” 
No doubt the next few months were a bit uncomfortable at the Rogers household.  By the time of the trial in May, however, Joe Rogers and his attorney Walter Sillers (right) - who just happened to the Speaker of the House in Mississippi - had convinced Federal Judge Allen Cox to give her two years’ probation, thus sparing the family any further embarrassment.  Helmut von der Aue was sentenced with thirty days of solitary confinement at Camp McCain.  And thus the matter passed into history.  What ultimately happened to either of the lovebirds is unknown, but within a short time German prisoners of war were returned home.  As such, it’s likely that the handsome von der Aue again found romance in his native land.  As for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, there is no indication there was ever a divorce.  In time, perhaps the whole affair was chalked up to “unforeseen circumstances” and life returned to normal. Given the national exposure the story received, however, that’s difficult to imagine.
Joe Rogers died in 1974 and is buried in Cleveland, Mississippi.  Edith Rogers lived until 1991 and is buried with her family in Tennessee.  

PHOTO AND IMAGE SOURCES:                                                              

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Baptized in blood at Gettysburg

As the sun rose on the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, the morning light revealed scenes of almost indescribable horror across the field and farms. Thousands of bodies, killed in the fighting the previous two days, littered the ground, turning the otherwise pastoral landscape into a vision of hell. The day before, many of the dead were killed during Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s attack, which was aimed at turning the Union left flank. Longstreet’s attack ultimately failed, but the carnage which took place at Gettysburg on July 2 forever etched names like Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top into American memory. 
One of the bloodiest actions of the day occurred on a part of the Rose family’s farm known as “The Wheatfield.”  Here, heavy columns of Confederate infantry - men from Semmes', Kershaw's and George "Tige" Anderson's brigades - hammered the Union defenders for much of the day and control of the field swayed back and forth between the two armies. About 5:30 p.m., Union Brig. Gen. John Caldwell, whose division had borne the brunt of the attack in the Wheatfield, looked for help to try and stem the tide and found Col. Jacob B. Sweitzer’s brigade, which included the 4th Michigan Infantry, Sweitzer was ordered into the fight against overwhelming odds, which now included Brig. Gen. William Wofford’s brigade of Georgia troops. Plunging into the fight, the 4th Michigan was hit from all sides and nearly surrounded by the oncoming Confederates. The unit’s commander, Col. Harrison H. Jeffords (left), was at the head of his troops when he saw the colors of the regiment fall into the hands of some of the Georgians. Rushing to defend the flag, which had only recently been presented to the regiment, Jeffords shot the Confederate soldier holding the flag and then grabbed the colors himself. In the hand-to-hand fighting which ensued, Jeffords was grievously wounded by a bayonet thrust, a wound which caused his death early the next morning. Jeffords, who was just twenty six years old, would be the highest ranking officer in the Civil War to die from a bayonet wound. His final words were said to have been "Mother, mother, mother." 
After fighting all afternoon for control of the Rose farm, Confederate troops from Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ division, almost all of them from Georgia and South Carolina, finally took the Wheatfield for good. The other brigade in the division, Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, composed of the 18th, 13th, 17th and 21st Mississippi Infantry regiments, fought an equally ferocious battle in the nearby Peach Orchard. The cost of the struggle for the Wheatfield was heavy indeed. On the afternoon of July 2nd, six Confederate brigades and thirteen Union brigades* were engaged in the relatively small area. Of the nearly 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who fought in the Wheatfield, nearly a third were counted as casualties. From the 4th Michigan, that number included the gallant Col. Jeffords and two other officers who were involved in the melee over the flag. One, a Lt. Michael Vreeland, was shot twice and then smashed in the skull with a musket. The other officer (above) was a Second Lieutenant from White Pigeon, Michigan. Enlisting in 1861, he had already been wounded at both Malvern Hill and Antietam. At Gettysburg, while fighting alongside his colonel, the 26-year-old was severely wounded in the chest, arm and in both legs. Unable to move and then trampled by Confederate troops marching through the field, he was rescued the next morning by his brother Henry, a corporal in Co. E. Over the next few months, Henry helped nurse his brother Richard back to health, and in September the two brothers took a train back home to visit their father.
Like his sons, Richard Watson and Henry Starke’s father also served in the 4th Michigan Infantry. A native of England, he was an Anglican priest before coming to the United States in the 1830s, where he eventually accepted a call to serve as pastor of a Baptist church in Michigan and settled in a village just north of the Indiana state line called White Pigeon. In 1862, he signed on as the regimental chaplain for the 4th Michigan, where he ministered to the spiritual and physical needs of the men. Soon after taking on his role as chaplain, the regiment was heavily engaged at the battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862. Among the 164 casualties suffered that day was the unit's commander, Col. Dwight Woodbury. The good reverend (left) was with the regiment throughout the next several campaigns, including the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Six months later, on June 8, 1863,  he was attacked during a chance encounter with a group of Confederate guerrillas. On that occasion, he was riding alone from Fredericksburg to Washington to deliver mail and cash bound for the families back home from the men in the regiment. When challenged by the Confederates, who identified themselves as some of John Singleton Mosby's men, the alert chaplain spurred his horse and somehow managed to escape capture. In the process, however, he was severely wounded in the wrist and chest and lost a significant amount of blood. Despite this, he made it back to the Union lines, where he was cared for by George Gordon Meade's chief surgeon. After recovering in the hospitals in Washington, he went back home to Michigan, where he no doubt happily received his two sons during their visit after the fight in the Wheatfield. Incredibly, all three men returned to active duty in the Union army. John, the father, served the longest, finally mustering out in 1866. He died in 1883 after contracting hepatitis during a visit to his son Watson’s home in New Jersey. Watson lived until 1908, no doubt suffering for many years from the wounds he received at Gettysburg. At his death, he was laid to rest beside his father in the Fountain Cemetery in Staten Island. 
Like his older brother, Henry also had an illustrious career in the army. Enlisting in September, 1861, he served throughout the Peninsula Campaign, and fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg, where he is credited with capturing a Confederate flag. Writing later about the regiment's experience at Fredericksburg, Henry recalled that "Never in the history of the Army of the Potomac was there such a pitiless, useless, hopeless slaughter. Never did men fight better, or die, alas, more fruitlessly than those thrown against these heights and stone walls, bristling with an hundred cannon."  Following the battle of Gettysburg and the months he spent taking care of his wounded brother, Henry (left) returned to the regiment and was promoted to color sergeant, after which he fought in the Overland Campaign, including the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. When the original unit was disbanded and reorganized, Henry decided not to reenlist, though both his father and brother did. During his service with the 4th Michigan, he became the de facto regimental historian and in the post-war years was active in veterans' reunions. In addition to writing accounts of the regiment's campaigns, he composed and read a lengthy poem (with a total of twenty-nine verses) during the dedication of the 4th Michigan monument at Gettysburg in June, 1889. The monument (above right), which includes another bit of his poetry, stands at the location of Col. Jeffords' valiant attempt to save his unit's flag; as such, the monument also stands on the site where Henry found and rescued his brother in the early hours of July 3, 1863. The final few verses of Henry 's poem, which has the ring of a benediction, is as follows:

Live honest lives. Let every one
Be faithful 'till his time shall come,
Then heaven will surely "Welcome Home"
Each Noble Son of Gettysburg.

"God of our sires," within whose hand
The Nations rest, "like grains of sand."
Bless Thou our great and glorious land
Baptized in blood at Gettysburg

 After the war, Henry settled in Lansing, Michigan and had a prominent career in the fire insurance business. He died on April 9, 1899 (on the anniversary of Lee's surrender at Appomattox) and is buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing. Along with his father and brother, Henry was proud of his service to his country and his role in preserving the Union. He was equally proud of the way the nation had reunited, however, and spoke eloquently concerning the eternal bond between the blue and the gray. In that light, Henry might be pleased to know that a descendant of his is still in the business of reconciliation and is carrying on the legacy of Henry’s father as a minister. In fact, Henry’s great great grandson, the Rev. Brian R. Seage (left), will soon become the next Episcopal bishop in Mississippi. To be sure, John Seage, R. Watson Seage and especially Henry Starke Seage would be proud to know the nation has indeed healed from the wounds at Gettysburg. 

POSTSCRIPT: Col. Jeffords' struggle to save his unit's flag in the Wheatfield was depicted by the acclaimed artist Don Troiani in the print "Saving the Flag." (right) In addition to Col. Jeffords, Troiani identified just one other Union soldier by name in the image – that of Lt. Richard Watson Seage. Brian Seage’s father, a World War II veteran, is named for him.

* While the number of regiments seems heavily weighed toward the Federals, Union regiments were typically smaller than Confederate regiments.

(1) Battle of Gettysburg:
(2) Jeffords:
(3) Saving the Flag:
(4) R. Watson Seage: http://www.4th
(5) John Seage:
(6) Henry Seage:
(7) 4th Michigan monument:
(8) Monument dedication:
(9) Henry Seage grave:
(10) Brian R. Seage: