Friday, June 24, 2016

The Top Ten Worst Generals in History


Success leaves clues.  So does failure.  Some of history’s best known commanders are remembered not for their brilliant victories but for their catastrophic blunders.  Here are history’s ten worst generals (in no particular order). 

1.     John Armstrong Jr.’s incompetence was responsible for the burning of Washington during the War of 1812.

2.     Oreste Baratieri was an Italian general responsible for the most crushing defeat ever suffered by a colonial European power by native forces in Africa.

3.     Edward Braddock’s army made so much noise the enemy always knew where he was, but Braddock didn’t have a clue where the enemy was until he was ambushed.

4.     Roman General Marcus Crassus stood his ground and hoped the enemy would run out of arrows before he ran out of men.  They didn’t.

5.     George Armstrong Custer announced to his men, “We’ve caught them napping!”, just before suffering the most stunning defeat of the Indian Wars.

6.     British Major General William Elphinstone is considered by some military historians to be “the most incompetent soldier who ever became a general”, possessed of “the leadership qualities of a sheep.”

7.     Brigadier General William Hull is the only American general to have ever been sentenced to death by a court-martial.

8.     Francisco Solano Lopez was responsible for the deaths of half of his fellow countrymen.

9.     Sir Charles MacCarthy forgot to take the ammunition and wound up having his skull used as a drinking cup at the annual Yam Festival.

10.  Alexander Samsonov didn’t feed the troops and ended up shooting himself on the battlefield.


History's Ten Worst Generals

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Victorian Cemeteries


Those who conceived the idea of the modern cemetery anticipated the movement for public parks.  Cemeteries provided the public with beautiful outdoor gathering spaces during a time when parks were scarce. Out of the movement to beautify cemeteries arose a custom of gathering in these new public spaces. Families picnicked near gravesites, and children played there. Somewhere along the way, this practice fell by the wayside.  The appreciation of cemeteries has made a comeback in the digital age.  Many genealogists have been using the Internet and GPS systems to locate the graves of long lost ancestors.  This renewed interest in cemeteries has spread to an interest in photographing tombstones, the growth of in-depth historical research, and even cemetery tourism.



Historic cemeteries are a treasure trove of art, biography and philosophy, one’s last chance to shout out to posterity “This is who I was, this is what was important to me”.  Art, symbols and inscriptions are called upon to succinctly capture the essence of life in a beautiful and meaningful way.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

U.S. History of Arresting Dangerous Immigrants



America entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Un-naturalized Germans and even first and second generation naturalized German immigrants were widely seen as the “enemy within”.

Surveillance operations, conducted by such government agencies as the Alien Enemy Bureau, led to over 10,000 arrests.  Some 8,500 arrests were conducted under presidential warrants. Most of those arrested were released after a brief period of investigation.  Almost twenty five per cent of those detained, however, were found to be “dangerous enemy aliens” and interned in two camps set up by the War Department.  In the spring of 1918, the government began interning female enemy aliens suspected of aiding the enemy.  Scores of women were arrested, but only fifteen were held indefinitely

German-speaking communities were largely erased by the war and the anti-German feeling it created.  This was done through aggressive assimilation by hitherto self-identifying German-speaking communities.

A brief look at the changing historical views (1920 to the present) on the uses and abuses of American domestic propaganda during World War I. Was this a necessary evil or a gross infringement of civil liberties? How, when, and why has opinion changed?



Monday, May 30, 2016

Veterans and the Origins of Memorial Day

Established in 1866, The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization of Union veterans.  After the Civil War many local communities organized days of remembrance for the dead.  In 1868, Union veterans adopted May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” Many southern states recognized Confederate Memorial Day on a different date, reflecting lingering sectional bitterness.

Many veterans groups sprang up in the South after the war.  In 1889 a national organization called the United Confederate Veterans was formed.  The purpose of the group was not to stir up old hatreds but to foster “social, literary, historical, and benevolent” ends.  The United Confederate Veterans (U.C.V.) grew rapidly throughout the 1890s.  Some 1,555 local organizations (called camps) were represented at the 1898 reunion. In 1911 an estimated crowd of 106,000 members and guests attended one re-union.  Meetings continued until 1950 when only one member could attend.

The above photograph shows Union veterans marching at the 36th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) in Washington, D.C. on October, 1902. The organization disbanded in 1956 with the death of the last Union veteran.

The last Union veteran, Willard Woolson died in 1956 at the age of 106. Woolson was a drummer boy.  The last Union combat soldier, James Hard, died in 1953 at the age of 109. Claims and counter-claims swirl around the age and status of the last veterans, both Union and Confederate. The last verifiable Confederate veteran is thought to have been Pleasant Riggs Crump (1847-1951), although several men subsequently claimed to be the “oldest” Confederate soldier.  Crump was from Alabama and served at the Siege of Petersburg.  


Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Civil War

 A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Strange Case of Wilmer McLean (1861-1865)

Wilmer McLean

Wilmer McLean was born in 1814, was orphaned before he was nine, was raised by relatives in Alexandria, Virginia and became a prosperous food merchant in Alexandria.  In 1853 he married Virginia Hooe Mason a wealthy widow, with extensive real estate holdings and other property. She owned Yorkshire plantation in Prince William County, Virginia, estimated to have some 1200 acres; a tract of 330 acres in Fairfax County, and two other tracts containing 500 acres in Prince William County. She also owned fourteen slaves. There were two daughters by the first marriage, Maria (born 1844) and Osceola (born 1845). Both girls lived with the Wilmer McLeans at Manassas and were described by Confederate officers as McLean’s “two pretty daughters.” Two other children were born of the McLean marriage, Wilmer McLean, Jr. (born 1854) and Lucretia Virginia (born 1857).

Following the First Battle of Manassas, Mrs. McLean and the children left the area. Wilmer McLean, however, worked diligently as a civilian with the Confederate Quartermaster Department. He worked to expedite the flow of food supplies to the troops in camp near Manassas. There was a time when the troops were down to one day’s rations. McLean’s experience as a wholesale merchant was invaluable in solving the purchasing of supplies in the fertile country around Manassas.

McLean’s most valuable contribution to the Confederacy was agreeing to let the army take over the buildings of the family plantation, “Yorkshire”, for use as a military hospital. The barn was a hospital and the dwellings and outbuildings were used as living quarters of surgeons and hospital attendants from July 17, 1861 until February 28, 1862. McLean gave his full cooperation to the establishment of this hospital. By 1862, however, he was completely disenchanted by the misconduct of soldiers and hospital personnel at Yorkshire. Large quantities of wine and whiskey were consumed by the hospital attendants. Sanitation was woefully lacking, flies covered the faces of patients. The dwellings were grossly mistreated while occupied by surgeons and attendants.

Further evidence of his disillusionment was his growing price demands on the Quartermaster. McLean apparently purchased candles and other scarce items in Richmond, had them shipped to Manassas, and then sold them to the Confederate Quartermaster for the highest price he could get.

Wilmer McLean had left the area in March 1862 as the Army retreated. From his experience as a merchant he knew that a long war would cause the price of commodities to rise higher and higher. He began to speculate in sugar and made a tidy income during the war. McLean moved his family to the quiet village of Appomattox Court House to escape the fury of war. But fate once again took a hand. The war which had virtually begun in McLean’s kitchen in Manassas, when a Union artillery shell exploded in the cookhouse at Yorkshire, ended in his front parlor in Appomattox Court House where General Lee surrendered his army to General Grant.

The McLeans left their rented house in Appomattox and returned to the Manassas area, virtually penniless. McLean still owned many hundreds of acres of land in Prince William County, but the land was virtually worthless for resale and McLean was heavily in debt.


Eventually the ever practical McLean turned his attention to politics, joined the Yankee Republican party, supported Grant in the election of 1872 and was rewarded by an appointment to a U.S. Treasury job.  Wilmer McLean died on June 5, 1882 and is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria.  


Quantico National Cemetery



   Told to expand its training capabilities during World War I, the Marine Corps began inspecting promising sites in the spring of 1917.  Some five thousand acres along Quantico Creek were leased. In 1918 a permanent Marine base was established at Quantico. 

    In 1977, the Marine Corps donated 725 acres of land to establish the Quantico National Cemetery.  The cemetery was formally dedicated on May 15, 1983.  The land has been used by the military for over two hundred years. First, around 1775 by the Commonwealth of Virginia for Navy operations, and later, as a blockade point for the Confederate army during the Civil War. 

     In 1989, a monument to Edson’s Raiders was the first memorial dedicated on the memorial pathway at Quantico National Cemetery. It is dedicated to the 800 members of the First Marine Raider Battalion, which from August 1942 to October 1943, played a key role in helping the greatly outnumbered American forces push back Japanese troops in the Solomon Islands.  The Purple Heart Memorial was dedicated August 7, 1990, in honor of Purple Heart medal recipients interred at the cemetery. Additional memorials honor: Colonel William "Rich" Higgins, who was held hostage in Lebanon; the Fourth Marine Division Memorial; the Commonwealth of Virginia Memorial dedicated to honor all of the nation’s veterans; the First Marine Division Memorial; the Sixth Marine Division Memorial to honor the division that won the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions in Okinawa during World War II. 


Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town-Book Review


Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
By John Krakauer

Missoula is not Krakauer’s best effort.  This is an advocacy piece relating to the rape “crisis” on American college campuses.  Disappointingly, Krakauer never connects the dots between the campus culture of binge drinking and substance abuse, which he dismisses as “a right of passage”, and the traumatized lives of both victims and perpetrators. 

In Into the Wild, Krakauer deals with a man who engages is risky behavior with grizzly bears.  Unsurprisingly, the man is eventually mauled by a bear.  In Missoula, Krakauer describes multiple instances of college students drunk to the point of blackout or memory loss, engaging in risky behavior.  Unsurprisingly, bad things happen. 


Perhaps the take away from these books is to be responsible for your own behavior and not to expect predators to be other than predatory.


Friday, April 08, 2016

Flying Saucers Over Washington


The 1952 Washington D.C. UFO incident, also known as the “Washington Flap”, was a series of unidentified flying object reports from July 13 to July 29, 1952, over Washington D.C. and the neighboring vicinity. The most publicized sightings took place on consecutive weekends, July 19 & 20 and July 26 & 27. Radar picked the objects up over the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

On July 22, 1952 The Washington Post reported. “The Air Force disclosed last night it has received reports of an eerie visitation by unidentified aerial objects - perhaps a new type of ‘flying saucer’ - over the vicinity of the Nation's Capital. For the first time, so far as known, the objects were picked up by radar - indicating actual substance rather than mere light.” The article went on to report, “The airport traffic control center said [a] Capital-National Airlines Flight 610, reported observing a light following it from Herndon, Va. about 20 airline miles from Washington, to within four miles of National Airport.”

On July 28, 1952 the headlines of the Alexandria Gazette read, “Jet Fighters Outdistanced By ‘Flying Saucers’ Over Mt. Vernon And Potomac”.

The sightings prompted President Harry S. Truman to call the Air Force demanding explanations.



Mind bending stories from the Old Dominion. A collection of Virginia’s most notable Urban Legends, many include the true stories behind them.

Dr. Mary Walker: The First Woman POW/Medal of Honor Winner


The first woman POW was taken in the Civil War. Union army contract surgeon Dr. Mary E. Walker was captured on April 10, 1864. She was imprisoned in the military prison in Richmond, Virginia known as "Castle Thunder". She was released on August 12, 1864, in a prisoner exchange.

Dr. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for her service as a surgeon during the Civil War, “without regard to her own health and safety”. She is the only woman to have received the Medal of Honor. When the criteria for awarding the medal changed in 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was rescinded along with 900 others. In 1977 the Army Board of Corrections reviewed the case and reversed the 1917 decision, restoring the Medal of Honor to Dr. Walker.

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Slave Weddings


In pre-Civil War America, slave marriages were not recognized in the state codes. No state legislature ever considered encroaching upon a master’s property rights by legalizing slave marriage. Marriage was, “voluntary on the part of the slaves and permissive on that of the master.”

Slave marriages were regulated by whatever laws the owners saw fit to enforce. Some masters arbitrarily assigned husbands to women who had reached the “breeding age”. Ordinarily slaves picked their own mates, but were required to ask the master for permission to marry. Most owners refused to allow slaves to marry away from home. Men who married away from home were frequently absent and thus exposed “to temptations”.

Having obtained the masters consent, the couple might begin living together without further formality, or their masters might pronounce vows. Ceremonies conducted by slave preachers or white clergymen, were not uncommon even for field hands and were customary for the domestic servants. No slave marriage, however, was ever safe from the caprice of the master who could end the marriage by selling one or both of the partners. Thus, a slave preacher in Kentucky united couples in wedlock, “until death or distance do you part.”

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

The Civil War Wedding, an entertaining look at the customs and superstitions of weddings during the Civil War era.


Friday, April 01, 2016

The Strange Case of Montgomery Meigs and Robert E. Lee




Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs (above), commander of the garrison at Arlington House and Quartermaster General of the Union Army, who may have had a grudge against Robert E. Lee, was tasked with finding additional burial grounds for battle casualties.  Meigs and Lee had served together many years earlier as military engineers on the Mississippi River.  Lee was a 1st Lieutenant and Meigs his subordinate, a 2nd Lieutenant.  Did Meigs bear Lee a personal grudge?  Some historians think so, or perhaps he was just embittered by the war itself, or by Lee’s defection from the Union army.  Meigs wrote to the Secretary of War stating that “the grounds about the mansion are admirably suited to such a use.” Meigs reported his “grim satisfaction” of ordering twenty six Union dead to be buried near Mrs. Lee’s rose garden in June, 1864. 

Meigs had graves dug right up to the entrance to the house.  This was malicious.  Meigs intended to prevent the Lee family from ever again inhabiting the house.  More than 16,000 Union soldiers were buried on the estate’s grounds. Ironically, Meigs’ own son was sent to Arlington Cemetery for burial.                                                                             

Neither Robert E. Lee nor his wife ever set foot in Arlington House again. In 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court returned the property to the Lee family, stating that it had been confiscated without due process. General Lee's son sold the house and land to the government for its’ fair market value. 
Read more: Historic Cemeteries of Northern Virginia



A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.