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Belleair man's work on ancestor, a Mexican-American War veteran, going to Smithsonian

BELLEAIR — Amid shelves of weapons in a private warehouse at the back of the Smithsonian museum, Daryl May held two pieces of history.

He had spent 15 years researching the life of his ancestor Col. Charles Augustus May, an eccentric and headstrong man who fought in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. In June, he stood in a private section of the Smithsonian with gloved hands, holding two guns custom-made for his ancestor by Samuel Colt and inspecting the worn inscriptions in the metal.

"It was the thrill of my life," said May, 75.

It began with a stack of leather-bound history books May found in his father's house in Illinois in 1995. May, a former Pinellas County sheriff's deputy and professional entertainer, was wiping the dust off their covers when he first discovered Charles A. May within their pages.

"I dropped one, and it fell open, and there was a brief mention of Capt. Charles Augustus May and his charge at the battle of Resaca de la Palma," he said. "I looked at that and I thought, 'Who's this guy?' "

After poring over books and diaries and corresponding with historians, May now answers that question with a 200-page manuscript he wrote that will become part of the Smithsonian's files.

• • •

He rode a horse up three flights of hotel stairs and claimed he could raise the dead. Sometimes described as "flamboyant and remarkable," sometimes as "a liar and a coward," Charles Augustus May gained fame in his time — even having a dance step, the Captain May quick-step, named after him.

Charles May was born into an affluent family in Washington, D.C., in 1817. At the age of 19, he joined the United States Second Dragoons, which was soon deployed to Florida to fight against the Seminole Indian tribe.

"He was a devil-may-care type of guy," May said.

He stood 6-feet-5, May said, and liked smoking cigars. A daguerreotype of Charles May shows him with dark hair to his shoulders and a curled mustache, which May said the Army forced him to cut short.

In 1846, Charles May fought in the Battle of Resaca de la Palma in the Mexican-American War, leading the charge against the Mexican artillery — a daredevil strategy at the time, May said. Although some sources report Charles May captured the Mexican army's general, others disputed this story, criticizing Charles May's character and credibility, May said.

Charles May's reputation now is often based on these critics, who May said clash with more acclaimed accounts of the colonel's bravery.

"I've taken these guys on who were critical of Charles May," he said. "He's my relative, and I have every right in the world to defend him."

According to a story May cites from the Army & Navy Journal, Charles May was not only known for his brawn. Several years after the Mexican-American war ended, he attempted a prank on a group of Comanche Indians.

Claiming he had the power to restore the dead to life, Charles May used chloroform — a relatively new substance then — to put a dog to sleep, cutting off part of the dog's tail. The Indians, convinced the dog was dead because it remained quiet, were amazed when the dog awoke from its anesthetic 10 minutes later.

Charles May resigned from the Army just before the Civil War started in 1861, choosing not to fight against friends in the Confederacy, May said. He died in 1864 of a heart attack.

• • •

While researching his "Uncle Charley," Daryl May reached out to several historians who studied related subjects. He struck up a correspondence with Ed Longacre, a retired historian for the U.S. Department of Defense and an author specializing in the Civil War.

Longacre, who wrote the foreword to a book about Charles May's regiment, was familiar with the colonel before May contacted him. He recommended that May publish his work because he said the period prior to the Civil War has been neglected by historians.

"Charles May is one of the landmarks of that period of American military history," Longacre said. "Daryl's (work) is an attempt to restore to him some recognition and notability that's been lacking since 1846."

May said he hopes to have his manuscript published, whether a publishing company accepts it or it is self-published. But for now, it's still a work in progress, he said.

"Just the other day, I was browsing the Internet and, lo and behold, I came across a little blip about Charles A. May I didn't know about," he said.

After his June visit, the Smithsonian contacted May asking for a copy of his manuscript to provide a better understanding of its collection. May plans to visit the Smithsonian again in October to deliver the manuscript.

"I will be quite honored for the Smithsonian to have a copy," he said.

As May's work on the manuscript comes to a close, reminders of his ancestor linger in his home. There's the replica of Charles May's saber, nicknamed "Wristbreaker," and the replica of the Colt revolver engraved with the colonel's name. And there are the dusty history books in which May first discovered his ancestor's name.

"I'm as familiar with him as anybody can be," May said. "I know that man."

Katie Park can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or kpark@sptimes.com.

Belleair man's work on ancestor, a Mexican-American War veteran, going to Smithsonian 08/13/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 1:36pm]
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