The “First and Second Civil War Comets”

Horace Parnell Tuttle, c. 1888. Courtesy of the U. S. Naval Observatory Library

Horace Parnell Tuttle’s career in astronomy began when failing eyesight forced his older brother, Charles Wesley Tuttle, to abandon his own fledging astronomical career. Charles redirected his academic pursuits, enrolling in Harvard Law School, and Horace replaced his older brother at the Harvard College Observatory. Educated in the early days of the Observatory by both of the Bonds, the younger Tuttle worked alongside Truman Henry Safford, Asaph Hall, and Philip Sidney Coolidge until the Civil War prompted all four assistants to leave Cambridge for other opportunities.

Tuttle dedicated the early years of his astronomical work to comet seeking. He is credited with the discovery of two minor planets, 66 Maja and 73 Klytia, and the parent comets of three meteor showers, the Ursids, Perseids, and Leonids. In the mid-19th century, when astronomy was less established in American scientific circles, and therefore underfunded (a situation that was only exacerbated by the coming war), comet seeking was strategically important. Discoveries that were visible to the American public were frequently used to garner financial support. Comet seeking also connected American astronomers to the better established international scientific communities. The ‘Great March Comet’ of 1843 instigated the public fundraising campaign that collected over $25,000 to establish the Harvard College Observatory. George Philips Bond’s famous monograph on Donati’s Comet was significantly one of his only wartime publications at a time when publication was almost financially irresponsible. Bond himself discovered eleven comets before his 26th birthday, nine of which were telescopic.

The Great War Comet of 1861. Vanity Fair, Aug. 3, 1861

The Civil War heightened public interest in astronomical events. An Australian observer in New South Wales first discovered the ‘Great Comet of 1861’ on May 13, 1861. It wasn’t visible in the northern hemisphere for another six weeks, but on July 2nd, Tuttle recorded ‘a great Comet having a tail 106 degrees long was seen tonight in the north-west’ in his notes. It remained visible in the night sky across the eastern United States for weeks, prompting widespread interest and earning the title ‘The War Comet’ in the American press as its appearance coincided with the first months of the Civil War. An article on the phenomena in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle speculated, “What means this visit – peace or war?” The New York Times reported on the comet when it appeared over a marching Union regiment in Virginia near Fort Monroe. Vanity Fair published a cartoon depicting Winfield Scott, a prominent Union general, as the head of the comet with bayonets as its tail. Scott famously advocated for war as the only response to secession. Envelopes circulated with an image of Abraham Lincoln labeled, “the star of the North or the Comet of 1861.” Private Charles F. Johnson of the 9th New York Volunteer Infantry wrote in his journal:

“I watched the comet, wondering if that mysterious little visitor was not perhaps at the same time watched by eyes that would beam gladly into mine; and I composed quite a number of beginnings of addresses to the curious thing, or whatever it may be. But the comet is not tired of his visit to these regions of space, or disgusted it may be with the appearance of things on this side of our planet, for he is now leaving in seemingly greater haste than he came, with his tail between his legs, for the unknown regions out yonder. Well, good-by and fare thee well, Stranger. And I fervently hope that thou mayst see the face of the Earth beaming with smiles where now her frowns are lowering, on thy next visit, if that should be while this little world is still in existence.”

 Comet of 1861 as seen from Portsmouth Harbor. Once a Week, volume 5, page 139. July 27, 1861.

When the comet’s disappearance coincided with the Battle of Bull Run in late July, the first major military engagement of the Civil War (and a shocking Union defeat), public speculation surrounding astronomical signs as portents of the war abounded. Tuttle commented on the wartime speculations in his notes, “With few exceptions, all of the comets which become visible to the naked eye are beforehand predicted by astronomers; but occasionally, comets arrayed in all their glory leap from out the solar rays, and show themselves to all the world.” A year later, in July 1862, a second comet appeared.

On July 18th, just after 10 p.m., Tuttle observed a comet near the North pole in Camelopardalis. It became visible to the naked-eye a week later on July 24th, and remained visible telescopically through September. Tuttle was initially credited with the comet’s discovery, though it was later reported that Lewis Swift found the same comet two days before. Swift believed he was viewing a comet George Philips Bond had discovered weeks earlier and failed to report his discovery. Initial reports of the Comet Swift-Tuttle circulated in response to the Battle of Shiloh earlier that spring, which was then the bloodiest battle in American history (though it was quickly overshadowed by the events of that fall). The second comet was similarly regarded as an omen of wartime events, or as Lucy Larcom of Boston wrote in her journal that August, a “strange freak of the sky” which might prove ominous of things past or things to come. In September 1862, the comet was again the subject of widespread superstition as its disappearance preceded the Battle of Antietam, which remains the single deadliest day in American history. The Comets of 1861 and 1862 come to be known in the latter half of the 19th century at the “First and Second Civil War Comets.”

Comet of 1862. Drawing from H.P. Tuttle’s Logbook, Aug 17, 1862

In 1866, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli connected the Comet Swift-Tuttle to the Perseid meteor shower, and in 1992, the comet appeared again, displacing Halley’s Comet as the longest predicable periodic comet. In August 1862, as reports of the Comet Swift-Tuttle circulated in the northern press, Horace Tuttle abruptly resigned from his post at the Harvard College Observatory. He enlisted in the 44th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry where he was known as ‘Old Stars’ and fought under General John G. Foster in North Carolina. The Daily True Delta, a periodical in Union-controlled Confederate New Orleans publicized their response to his decision: “In our brief reviews of astronomical discoveries in years past, we had occasion to mention [H.P. Tuttle] frequently as a discoverer; but whether we shall ever again have the pleasure is far from certain… Whether he survives this bloody fratricidal war or not, it would seem from the last report of the Observatory Committee that there was but little more for him to achieve in cometary discovery.” Eventually, former Harvard president Edward Everett intervened on Tuttle’s behalf to secure him a commission in the U.S. Navy. His job as a paymaster kept him somewhat removed from the battlefield, and Tuttle survived the war. In his post-war work with the Naval Observatory and the U.S. General Land Office, Tuttle remained avidly interested in comet discovery.

Bibliography

Schmidt, R.E. “The Tuttles of Harvard College Observatory: 1850-1862.” Antiquarian Astronomer, no. 6, 2012, p.74-104.

Spratt, C. E. “The Possible Return of a Famous Comet in 1992.” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, vol. 86, no. 4, Aug. 1992, p. 187.

Tuttle, Horace P., George Philips Bond. 1859-60 Comet Seeker. 1859-1862, pg. 96 [phaedra0264] Cambridge, MA: John G. Wolbach Library, Harvard College Observatory. Project PHaEDRA. Harvard College Observatory observations, logs, instrument readings, and calculations.

Wynn, Jake. “A Civil War Soldier Reflects on the Comet of 1861.” Emerging Civil War, 24 Oct. 2017, https://emergingcivilwar.com/2017/10/25/a-civil-war-soldier-reflects-on-the-comet-of-1861/.