This letter to the Providence Evening Press from a member of the 2nd RI infantry, published 7/20/1861, raises a couple of questions. For one, who was and what is a Tockwotton? For another, what’s this comet he talked about watching during the regiment’s first night under the stars?
Well, for now I don’t know who Tockwotton was. It wasn’t uncommon for soldier correspondents to assume a nom de guerre – literally a name of war, or war name – in their dispatches home. Hopefully I’ll turn up something on his identity, but I really haven’t had time to dig into it yet. Volume III of The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations says that Tockwotton is a cove in Washington County, and a hill at Indian Point in Providence. Also, The Tockwotton Home is a non-profit assisted living center in Providence that was established in 1856.
Now, as for this comet:
At dark we turned aside into an open field, about twelve miles from Washington, and lay down for the night on the ground. This was new business to some of us and gave us a fine opportunity to study the moon, stars and the comet.
Notice Tockwotton didn’t say a comet or a shooting star, but the comet. And he said this in such a way that implies readers would know what he was talking about, which doubtless they did. Above is a rendering of the comet by a fellow named E. Weiss.
When I read Tockwotton’s comet comment, I was immediately reminded of the final chapter of Adam Goodheart’s outstanding 1861: The Civil War Awakening, which I can’t recommend highly enough and from which I’ll borrow liberally below. Goodheart used the Great Comet of 1861 – known also today by its geek-given name C/1861 J1 – as a device to describe what was happening during the period in which the comet was visible to the naked eye in North America, from roughly late June, 1861. Mary Chesnut wrote about the Great Comet in her “diary”:
Heavens above, what philandering there was, done in the name of the comet! When you stumbled on a couple in the piazza they lifted their eyes – and “comet” was the only word you heard.
Julia Taft Bayne, a playmate of the Lincoln children in the White House, recalled seventy years later how, while watching the comet’s pyrotechnics, a Negro woman of Washington predicted:
You see dat big fire sword blazin’ in the sky? De handle’s to’rd de Norf and de point to’rd de Souf and de Norf’s gwine take dat sword and cut de Souf’s heart out. But dat Linkum man, chilluns, if he takes de sword, he’s gwine perish by it.
Julia repeated the story to Willie and Tad, but had the good sense not to mention the bit about their father. The boys ran off to their father to repeat the part of the story they knew. Julia continued her story:
I noticed him [Lincoln], a few evenings later, looking out of the window intently at the comet and I wondered if he was thinking of the old woman’s prophecy.
On the Fourth of July, the New York Herald ran this:
The present is a year productive of strange and surprising events. It is one prolific of revolution and abounding in great and startling novelties. Our own country is resounding with war’s alarms, and half a million of Northern and Southern men are preparing to engage in a deadly conflict. And meanwhile all Europe is threatened with one tremendous revolution, growing out of our own, which will shake thrones to their foundations. The premonitory symptoms of change are already observable here and there. Even Russia will not escape; for the troubles in Poland and the emancipation of the serfs have already made her empire ripe for revolt. In China and Japan, too, the hand of revolution is also busy. This is indeed a wonderful year; for while all the world is more or less filled with apprehension and commotion, a luminous messenger makes its appearance in the heavens, to the consternation of astronomers…That we are entering, to say the least, upon a new and important epoch in the history of the world, all these wars and rumors of wars, these miracles on earth and marvels in the sky, would seem to indicate.
For the average American the Great Comet disappeared in August, though a Russian astronomer caught the last official glimpse in April 1862. “And then”, Goodheart notes, “it was gone, continuing on its own mysterious errand toward some incalculable future rendezvous, beyond human sight.”