Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Record $417 million awarded in lawsuit linking baby powder to cancer

    Nation

    LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles jury on Monday ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay a record $417 million to a hospitalized woman who claimed in a lawsuit that the talc in the company's iconic baby powder causes ovarian cancer when applied regularly for feminine hygiene.

    A bottle of Johnson's baby powder is displayed. On Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, a Los Angeles County Superior Court spokeswoman confirmed that a jury has ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $417 million in a case to a woman who claimed in a lawsuit that the talc in the company's iconic baby powder causes ovarian cancer when applied regularly for feminine hygiene. [Associated Press]
  2. Search under way for missing sailors; Navy chief orders inquiry

    Military

    SINGAPORE — The U.S. Navy ordered a broad investigation Monday into the performance and readiness of the Pacific-based 7th Fleet after the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in Southeast Asian waters, leaving 10 U.S. sailors missing and others injured.

    Damage is visible as the USS John S. McCain steers toward Singapore’s naval base on Monday.
  3. Told not to look, Donald Trump looks at the solar eclipse

    National

    Of course he looked.

    Monday's solar eclipse — life-giving, eye-threatening, ostensibly apolitical — summoned the nation's First Viewer to the Truman Balcony of the White House around 2:38 p.m. Eastern time.

    The executive metaphor came quickly.

    President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump view the solar eclipse from the Truman balcony of the White House, in Washington, Aug. 21, 2017. [Al Drago | New York Times]
  4. Secret Service says it will run out of money to protect Trump and his family Sept. 30

    National

    WASHINGTON — The Secret Service said Monday that it has enough money to cover the cost of protecting President Donald Trump and his family through the end of September, but after that the agency will hit a federally mandated cap on salaries and overtime unless Congress intervenes.

    Secret service agents walk with President Donald Trump after a ceremony to welcome the 2016 NCAA Football National Champions the Clemson Tigers on the South Lawn of the White House on June 12, 2017. [Olivier Douliery | Sipa USA via TNS]
  5. After fraught debate, Trump to disclose new Afghanistan plan

    War

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will unveil his updated Afghanistan policy Monday night in a rare, prime-time address to a nation that broadly shares his pessimism about American involvement in the 16-year conflict. Although he may send a few thousand more troops, there are no signs of a major shift in …

    U.S. soldiers patrol the perimeter of a weapons cache near the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan in 2003. Sixteen years of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan have left the insurgents as strong as ever and the nation's future precarious. Facing a quagmire, President Donald Trump on Monday will outline his strategy for a country that has historically snared great powers and defied easy solutions.  [Associated Press (2003)]