Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Eighteenth Century Courtship

Courting took place at organized functions such as dances, horse races and church. Dancing was an important courting ritual among the wealthy. It was considered a good way to determine a potential marriage partner’s physical soundness, as well as the state of their teeth and breath. Dancing taught poise, grace and balance, especially important to women who had to learn to remain in their “compass”, or the area of movement allowed by their clothing. Balls often lasted three to four days and took all day and most of the night. 

Women, then as now, had ways of making themselves more alluring.  Among the elite, cosmetics were commonly worn.  Almost everyone had a pock marked face due to the widespread scourge of smallpox, but a handsomely pocked face was not considered unattractive, only an excessively pocked one.  Flour, white lead, orrisroot and cornstarch were common bases to produce the esthetic of a pure white face. Over these red rouge was used to highlight cheekbones, in a manner that would be considered exaggerated by modern standards, but was most effective in the dim light afforded by candles in the eighteenth century. Lip color and rouge were made from crushed cochineal beetles. Cochineal was an expensive imported commodity; country women substituted berry stains. Carbon was used to highlight eye brows and lashes, which were groomed with fine combs.  The key aspects of the 18th century cosmetic look were a complexion somewhere between white and pale, red cheeks, and red lips.  The ideal woman had a high forehead, plump rosy cheeks, pale skin, and small lips, soft and red, with the lower lip being slightly larger thus creating a rosebud effect. Although bathing one’s entire body was not a regular occurrence in the eighteenth century, the daily washing of one’s face and hands was the norm in elite social circles.

An almanac essay entitled Love and Acquaintance with the Fair Sex assures us that men were incapable of “resistance” against a woman’s, “attractive charms of an enchanting outside in the sprightly bloom of happy nature; against the graces of wit and politeness; against the lure of modesty and sweetness.”  Of course some men felt uneasy about female allurements which could account for the introduction of a bill before the British Parliament in 1770 entitled, “An Act to Protect Men from Being Beguiled into Marriage by False Adornments”. The proposed act read, “All women, of whatever rank, age, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty's subjects, by the use of scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.”  To the everlasting regret of some the Act did not become law.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Sneak Attack! (Four Alternative History Stories)

Sun Tzu, the Master of War, once said, “Those who are skilled in producing surprises will win. In conflict, surprise will lead to victory. ” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

1.The Hostage, in which Abraham Lincoln is kidnapped by the rebels.
2.The German Invasion of America of 1889, in which Germany unexpectedly launches its might against the United States.
3.The Invasion of Canada 1933, in which the new American dictator launches a sneak attack on Canada.
4.Cherry Blossoms at Night: Japan Attacks the American Homeland (1942), in which Japan attacks the American homeland in a very surprising way.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Ivy Hill Cemetery and Wernher von Braun

Ivy Hill Cemetery

The thousands of headstones at Alexandria’s Ivy Hill Cemetery are a portal to the city’s rich past.  Here lie descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Union and Confederate soldiers, members of some of the city's oldest families, and the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

Dr. Wernher von Braun is best known as the father of the American space program.   His NASA team developed the Redstone booster, which launched America's first satellite, and the giant Saturn V, which launched America’s missions to the Moon.

Although he worked on Nazi military rocket development during the first half of his career, Wernher von Braun claimed his work on military rockets was ultimately motivated by his dream of utilizing the technology for peaceful space exploration. 

In 1949 von Braun wrote a science fiction story, Project Mars: A Technical Tale,  based on detailed science.   He wanted to inspire people to embrace the challenge of human space exploration.  This story was only published some thirty years after his death and fifty seven years after it was written.

Some readers have noted an odd coincidence in this early work of science fiction which relates to today’s foremost proponent of Mars exploration, Elon Musk.  Von Braun writes on page 177, “The Martian government was directed by ten men, the leader of whom was elected by universal suffrage for five years and entitled “Elon.” Two houses of Parliament enacted the laws to be administered by the Elon and his cabinet. The Upper House was called the Council of the Elders and was limited to a membership of 60 persons, each being appointed for life by the Elon as vacancies occurred by death.”

This never-before-printed science fiction novel by the original "rocket man," Wernher von Braun, combines technical fact with a human story line in the way that only a true dreamer can realize. Encompassing the entire story of the journey, this novel moves from the original decision for a Mars mission, through the mission planning, the building of the mighty space ships, the journey, the amazing discoveries made on Mars, and the return home. The author's attention to the actions and feelings of the characters—both those who went and those who stayed behind—makes this an adventure of human proportions, rather than merely another fanciful tale. This exclusive von Braun treasure comes complete with an appendix of his original technical drawings, made in the late 1940s, on which the story's plot is based.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Mutiny on the Bounty and Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island was sighted on 3 July 1767 by the crew of the British sloop HMS Swallow. The island was named after Midshipman Robert Pitcairn, who was the first to sight the island.  The island is best known as the final refuge of the mutineers from HMS Bounty.

On April 4, 1789, the Bounty embarked on the return journey to England from Tahiti. Three weeks later the crew, led by first mate Fletcher Christian, mutinied against Captain William Bligh.  Bligh and eighteen loyal sailors were set adrift in a 23-foot open boat, finally reaching safe harbor seven weeks later.

After the mutiny, Christian and the other mutineers returned to Tahiti, where sixteen of the twenty-five men decided to remain. Fletcher Christian, with eight others, their Tahitian women, and a handful of Tahitian men then sailed in search of a safe hiding place from the British fleet that was sure to scour the Pacific in search of them.  They arrived at Pitcairn Island on January 23, 1790. The island’s location had been incorrectly charted and was therefore an ideal refuge.  The Bounty was burned to prevent detection and the fugitives settled into their new home.  The British navy spent three months searching for the mutineers but never found Pitcairn Island.  The mutineers who had remained on Tahiti were quickly captured and brought to trial in England.

It was not until 1795 that the first ship was seen from the island, but it did not approach. A second ship appeared on the horizon in 1801. The American trading ship Topaz was the first to visit the island and make contact in February 1808, eighteen years after the mutineers first landed. 

The Americans discovered that eight of the nine mutineers had been either murdered, committed suicide, or died of illness during their eighteen years on the island.  Fletcher Christian had not created a paradise on earth.  Mr. Christian had three children by his Tahitian wife but was killed along with four of the other mutineers by the Tahitian men who had accompanied them to the island.  The Tahitian men had grown disillusioned with Christian and the others for treating them little better than slaves.

The remaining four mutineers and the Tahitian wives of the murdered men turned on the Tahitian men and killed all of them.  Four European men now remained, along with ten women and their children.  In the succeeding years, one of the men was executed for the “well-being” of the community, one died a natural death, and one committed suicide by leaping off a cliff.

Pitcairn flourished under the leadership of the last surviving mutineer, John Adams. As leader of the community of ten Polynesian women and twenty-three children the former able seaman, John Adams, showed himself to be capable and compassionate.  Adams insisted on Sunday services, family prayers and grace before and after every meal. Adams saw to it that the land was cultivated and the livestock tended.  The small community prospered in amity.

In 1814 HMS Briton and HMS Tagus rediscovered the island.  The British commanders were charmed by the simplicity and piety of the islanders. Favorably impressed by Adams and the example he set, they agreed it would be “an act of great cruelty and inhumanity” to arrest him.

In 1825, a British ship arrived and formally granted Adams amnesty, and on November 30, 1838, the Pitcairn Islands (which also include three uninhabited islands–Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno) were incorporated into the British Empire.

Today Pitcairn Island is a British possession.  The eighteen square mile island has a population of sixty seven, most descendants of the Bounty mutineers. Pitcairn Island does not have an airport or seaport; the islanders rely on longboats to ferry people and goods ashore across Bounty Bay. A dedicated passenger/cargo supply ship, chartered by the Pitcairn Island Government, is the principal transport to and from the outside world, via Mangareva, Gambier Islands, French Polynesia.  The islanders speak a dialect that is a hybrid of Tahitian and eighteenth-century English.

Phrases in the Pitcairnese Dialect:

I starten. – I'm going.

Bou yo gwen? – Where are you going?

I gwen down Farder's morla. – I'm going down to Father's place tomorrow.

Bou yo bin? – Where have you been?

I gwen out yenna fer porpay. – I'm going out yonder for red guavas.

Foot yawly come yah? – Why did you come here?

Up a side, Tom'sa roll. – Up at that place, Tom fell down.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

American Civil War Demobilization

Grand Review of the Armies May 23-24, 1865

      With the end of the Civil War, the Union army gathered for one last grand victory parade in Washington.  Anne Frobel wrote in May 1865, “Today we see tents and camps spring up in every quarter…. The roads filled with soldiers as far back as we can see through the woods, coming-coming-coming, thousands and tens of thousands. I hardly thought the world contained so many men and the wagons, O the wagons, long lines of white wagons coming by roads and crossroads...Tomorrow there is to be a 'grand review' of the 'grand' U.S. Army at Washington and great has been the stir of preparation...Rose Hill is literally covered with Sherman's army and such immense, immense numbers of splendid horses and mules.”

      The one million men under arms in the Union army at the end of the Civil War were largely volunteers and wanted to go home. (Many professional Prussian officers derided the armies of the American Civil War as, “Two armed mobs colliding.”)  Almost all of the volunteers were mustered out by late October 1867.  Congress voted for the establishment of a regular army of 54,302 officers and enlisted men on July 28, 1866.  This number was reduced to 27,442 in 1876.  The army was scattered over a vast continent, mostly in the West.  America’s defense depended almost completely on the same thinking that existed at the time of the American Revolution, “leave it to the volunteer militias”.

     In November 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy called for the rapid expansion of the United States Navy, stating that since the end of the Civil War the fleet had been neglected and become technologically obsolete.  America stood twelfth among the naval powers of the earth.  The U.S. fleet consisted of 11 armored and 31 unarmored vessels, whereas the British fleet boasted 76 armored and 291 unarmored vessels.  The German fleet had 40 armored and 105 unarmored ships.  The American fleet was outranked by even the eleventh rate navy of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire which had 12 armored and 44 unarmored ships.  Secretary Tracy complained, “We have an exposed coast line of 13,000 miles upon which are situated more than twenty great centers of population, wealth, and commercial activity, wholly unprotected against modern weapons.  These are inviting objects to attack, with a wide range of choice as to the points to be selected.”

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Monday, February 26, 2018

George Armstrong Custer: Why All the Controversy?


     In his book, Custer and the Great Controversy, Robert Utley writes, “Almost every myth of the Little Bighorn that one finds today masquerading as history may be found also in the press accounts of July 1876.”  In the bitter election year of 1876, the Custer tragedy was a godsend for Democrats to use against their Republican opponents.  “The Little Bighorn disaster…instantly became a pawn on the political chessboard.” (Utley, 39)

     Utley writes that the New York Herald launched a vicious attack on the Grant administration, denouncing President Grant as, “the author of the present Indian war.”  On July 16 the Herald asked “Who Slew Custer?”, and in answer declared, “The celebrated peace policy of General Grant…that is what killed Custer.” The press placed the battle “…in a political context that assured its rise to a national issue of the first magnitude.”  (Utley, 39, 41) 

     After the initial wave of political hysteria abated, the press insured that the Custer controversy would be constantly reignited by readily publishing the prejudices, opinions, and grievances of officers who had served with Custer or on the frontier. Pro-Custer editor’s rushed to Custer’s defense.

     And so it continued between pro and anti-Custer partisans for half a century.  Utley concludes that it was the press that, “laid the foundations for the evolution of the history of the Little Bighorn into one of the most misunderstood, confused, and controversial events in American history.” (Utley, 48)

Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

George Armstrong Custer: Hero or Villain?

George Armstrong Custer

     Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer.  The earliest works portrayed Custer as a romantic, knightly figure, a paragon of virtue and chivalry.  Custer was the valorous paladin killed in the cause of Christian civilization and American Manifest Destiny.
     Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations.  Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces.  For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values.  Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.  
     The broader importance of the controversy that rages around the Battle of the Little Bighorn centers on the nature of truth.  The battle (which by modern standards would be classified as little more than a frontier skirmish) lasted at most six hours, and yet, after almost one hundred and fifty years, we cannot agree upon what happened, why, or who was responsible.  This roiling controversy forces us to ask, “How do we know what we know, and how do we know if it is true?”

Last Stand Hill