Sunday, January 25, 2015

Martha Washington's Slave Half Sister


Martha Washington

Sexual relations between masters and slave women were common during the eighteenth century and later.  Famed Southern diarist Mary Chestnut would observe in the 19th century, “Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children--and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.”

One very prominent Virginian well known to George and Martha Washington was engaged in sexual relations with a slave.  Rumors began to circulate that Thomas Jefferson had sired children by a beautiful young slave at his Monticello plantation named Sally Hemings.  Jefferson’s political opponents made much of the rumors at the time, but over the centuries historians largely dismissed the story which was preserved largely through an oral tradition handed down in the Hemings family.  In 1998, however, the British science journal Nature published the results of a DNA study linking a member of the Jefferson family, not necessarily Thomas Jefferson, to the descendents of Sally Hemings. Subsequently, in January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the custodians of Monticello, issued a report concluding that based on all available evidence, Thomas Jefferson was, in all probability, the father of at least one and perhaps all the children of Sally Hemings. 

Author Henry Wiencek, in his 2003 book An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, argues that Martha Washington had a slave half sister, Ann Dandridge Costin, sired by her father John Dandridge.  This supposed half sister was about Martha’s age and lived at Mount Vernon according to Wiencek.  Other historians deny the existence of Martha Washington’s half sister and assert that Wiencek has accepted “lore” as fact.






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The Stolen Election and the Corrupt Bargain


     Viewers of the political thriller House of Cards will probably not be surprised to learn that political intrigue is as old as the Republic.

 

     The presidential election of 1824 was one of the most hotly contested elections in the nation’s history.  The Federalist Party had dissolved and the United States found itself in the unique position of having only one political party, the Democratic Republicans.  Sadly, this brief period of political unity within the country would be short-lived as members of the Party began to divide into factions.

     What made the election of 1824 so unique was that the four top contenders for the highest office of the land were all favorite son candidates.  Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, was supported by the South, West, and mid -Atlantic.  Henry Clay found some support in the West, but hoped to garner support in the South and East.  William Crawford was supported by the East, while John Quincy Adams was supported by New England. 

     When the final vote in the Electoral College was made, Andrew Jackson had the most votes with ninety-nine.  John Quincy Adams came in second with eighty-four.  William Crawford came in third with forty-one and Henry Clay rounded out the list with thirty-seven.  The presidential election went to the House of Representatives for a decision, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.  As it was written in the Constitution, only the top three candidates could have their names submitted to Congress for a vote to determine the next president of the United States.  Since he came in fourth place, Henry Clay was automatically eliminated.

     To the surprise of most, the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams president of the United States.  Rumors of a “corrupt bargain” spread over the capital city.









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Thursday, December 18, 2014

George Washington's Christmas Camel


George Washington had a life-long interest in exotic animals, at one time or another in his lifetime commenting on seeing a “Lyoness”, a “Cugar” and a “Sea Leopard”.  In 1787, two years before his death, the retired President Washington paid 18 shillings to have a camel displayed at Mount Vernon for Christmas.  The Mount Vernon Estate hosts a camel every year during the Christmas season to commemorate the event.







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Civil War Ghosts: Fact or Fiction?


     Do ghosts from the American Civil War still walk amongst us, or are reported spectral visions and unearthly things that go bump in the night the product of over active imaginations?  Trained lawyer and paranormal researcher Arthur S. Berger points out that paranormal research is not unlike legal advocacy.  In a criminal court both sides present evidence, but evidence is not proof.  It is up to the jury to decide if the evidence presented represents “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”.  If juries have difficulty making decisions even in some fairly straightforward criminal cases, how much more difficult must it be to establish “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” of ghosts. 
     More useful is the standard of evidence used in civil cases, “preponderance of the evidence”.  Preponderance of evidence is based on the quality of the evidence presented and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence presented. Thus, one clearly knowledgeable witness may provide a preponderance of evidence over a dozen witnesses with hazy testimony.  If a sceptic provides a demonstrable scientific explanation for a seemingly paranormal event, the explanation represents a higher standard of evidence than a dozen sightings by individuals of the paranormal event. 
     Take for example, what are known as “rare atmospheric phenomena.”  In March 2005 a man in Clifton, Virginia reported, “We had a power outage last night and my wife was awakened by the answering machine clicking on and off as the power tried to recover, and then it went out completely. She went to the front door to see if it was raining or windy and saw a very large object hovering over a nearby house about 1/8 of a mile from our house. It was larger than the house, seemed to be at an angle to her view with the bottom exposed and had lights all around it evenly spaced. When it began to move away, several lightning flashes were seen and then it was gone. The power returned two hours later”. The appearance lasted just a few seconds, from the “balls of light” formation to the vertical lightning flash. The woman thought she was seeing a UFO, but was actually witnessing a natural, “rare atmospheric phenomena” involving multiple ball lightening, which, while an extremely rare event, is scientifically demonstrable.

     Preponderance of evidence cuts both ways.  For thousands of years Europeans believed all swans were white.  Black swans were thought to be as mythical as unicorns.  There were “no such things as” black swans.  It only took the discovery of the first black swan in Australia in 1790 to topple thousands of years of European scientific “knowledge”.  Similarly, those who said that tiny invisible organism were swimming in a clear glass of water and causing disease were laughed to scorn until 1676 when Anton van Leeuwenhoek observed bacteria and other microorganism using a single-lens microscope of his own design.

Manassas Battlefield Ghosts





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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Cusco: Temple of the Sun

"Know, whoever you may be who may chance to set foot in this land, that it contains more gold and silver than there is iron is Biscay."           

The Spaniards conquered Peru over the course of several decades in an atmosphere of civil war and chaos.  The Incas had just concluded a war between two brothers, Atahualpa and Huascar when the Spanish arrived on the scene.  Atahualpa had just captured Huascar and was heading south to enter his capital, Cuzco, when he himself was made hostage by the Spanish.  Atahualpa then had Huascar murdered.  After extorting the proverbial king's ransom, the Spanish, in turn, murdered Atahualpa.  The Spanish next marched on Cuzco, the capital and Holy City of the Inca Empire, installing a puppet emperor.  Throughout the period the Incas scurried about trying to hide the most sacred religious items from defilement.        

Gold and silver had no monetary significance to the Incas.   They were considered sacred, with gold regarded as the sweat of the sun and silver as the tears of the moon.  Religious items were made of gold and silver, but they had no worth, other than artistic, to the common man.              Because of their religious significance, gold and silver objects were well hidden and well guarded for generations, never being turned into cash to satisfy short term needs.         

Cuzco's Temple of the Sun, was the most revered shrine in the empire.  Only three Spaniards ever saw the Temple in its full glory.  These men were sent by the Spanish commander, Francisco Pizarro, to speed up the collection of the royal ransom.  The temple had gardens in which everything.....trees and grass and flowers, animals, birds, butterflies, cornstalks, snakes, lizards and snails were all made of hammered gold.  The main room of the temple held the high altar which was dedicated to the sun.  The four walls of the room were hung with plaques of gold, from top to bottom, and a likeness of the sun topped the high altar.  The likeness was made of a gold plaque twice as thick as those that paneled the walls and was composed of a round face, surrounded by rays and flames.  The whole thing was so immense that it occupied the entire back of the temple, from one wall to the other.  The disc was positioned to catch the morning sun and throw its rays into the gold-lined temple, filling it with radiant light.  


On either side of this enormous golden sun were kept mummies of former Inca kings, which were so well preserved that they seemed alive.  The mummies were seated on golden thrones and looked directly out at the visitor.


Where was the Garden of Eden?

General Gordon

The Seychelles are a group of islands and islets in the Indian Ocean. Praslin Island, the second largest of the group, is unique in all the world...distinguished for being identified as the original earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden.

Praslin is a sun drenched paradise, with lush vegetation and a climate that ranges from 68 o to 88 o Fahrenheit year round. Over a century ago, British General and biblical scholar Charles George Gordon (Gordon of Khartoum) visited the island and became convinced that it was the location of the Garden of Eden.

Gordon developed his extraordinary idea after studying the unique vegetation in the Valle de Mai. Here in this Valley, in the center of Praslin Island, Gordon discovered a unique palm tree that is found nowhere else in the entire world. The male palm is distinguished by a catkin that dangles from a confluence of giant palms and resembles the male sexual organ. The female palm produces a fruit (the Coco de Mer), a giant coconut that resembles the female pelvis.


The island was uninhabited when discovered by Europeans in 1744. Since then an island myth has grown up that on windy nights the tall palms, male and female, sway against each other and entwine to procreate. Anyone foolish enough to venture into the forest to watch the nighttime “mating” will be struck dead on the spot.




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Monday, December 08, 2014

The Original Builder of Mount Vernon


Rippon Lodge

     Richard Blackburn (1705-1757), although little noted in national history, stands out as a kind of “representative” man of the colonial period in northern Virginia.  Born in Ripon, England, Blackburn came to America to make his fortune, and according to his gravestone, because, “He was a man of consummate prudence, frugality and indefatigable industry…he made a large fortune in a few years.”  Among his other talents, Richard Blackburn was a master builder, who built his own house, Rippon Lodge, and the first Truro Parish church at Falls Church.  It was to master builder Richard Blackburn that George Washington’s father turned to build a house on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River, the house that was later to be known as Mount Vernon.  The survival of this early structure within the fabric of the present house is confirmed by a diarist who in 1801 identified the central portion of the house as having been “constructed by the General’s father.” 
     Colonel Thomas Blackburn, the son of Richard, was the contemporary and comrade-in-arms of George Washington.  Thomas Blackburn was a representative to the second, third, and fourth Virginia Conventions in 1775 and was elected Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Virginia Regiment in 1776.  Colonel Blackburn served as an aide on George Washington’s military staff until he received a disabling wound at the battle of Germantown, after which he returned to Rippon Lodge, where he continued to support the patriot cause, feeding and clothing a regiment of Continental troops at Rippon Lodge one entire winter.  In the spring he sent them back to the army free of expense.
      In the time of Col. Thomas Blackburn, the Washington and Blackburn families were on close terms, and George Washington’s diary speaks of his visits to the Blackburns at Rippon Lodge, and frequently of entertaining the Blackburn family at Mount Vernon.  Thomas Blackburn’s daughter Ann married George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington, and a granddaughter (Jane Charlotte Blackburn) married John Augustine Washington. These ladies of Rippon Lodge thus became, in time, each in turn, the first lady of Mount Vernon.





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Friday, November 07, 2014

Civil War Railroads


      Since the dawn of history, military strategy had been dominated by logistics.  According to an old saying, “Amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.”  During the civil War, railroads were still a military novelty.  When Union Army General John Pope needed critical supplies in August 1862, packed boxcars were sitting in Washington.  The supplies could not be moved across the Potomac River because authorities were afraid that available locomotives were too heavy for the rickety railroad bridge across the Potomac.

     A single stretch of track of the Orange and Alexandria railroad connected the Union Army of the Potomac to the vast supply depots of Washington.  Confederate raiders periodically cut telegraph lines, tore up railroad tracks and destroyed railway bridges.  Keeping the trains running was an enormous tasks and essential for Union victory.


Civil War railroads




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Friday, October 31, 2014

How Stonewall Jackson Fought War


"Stonewall" Jackson

     On July 21, 1861, Federal artillery sent shells showering over raw Confederate troops at Manassas that burst in their ranks, creating terrible slaughter. The seventh Georgia and fourth Alabama regiments were very badly cut up. At length, despite all of their valiant efforts, Brigadier General Barnard Bee was compelled to give the order to fall back. 
     Attempting to rally the retreating men, Bee used General Thomas J. Jackson’s newly arrived brigade as an anchor. Pointing to Jackson, Bee shouted, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”
     “The enemy are driving us,” Bee exclaimed to Jackson.

     Jackson replied, “Then, Sir, we will give them the bayonet.”


General Jackson's Philosophy of War




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How Ulysses S. Grant Fought War


     Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign began with the Battle of the Wilderness and continued through Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and on to Petersburg.  Unlike other Union commander’s, Grant refused to allow heavy casualties to deter him from his mission, the destruction of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
     At Cold Harbor, the Confederates blocked Grant’s path to Richmond by building six miles of strong entrenchments.  Grant assaulted the entrenchments head on.  One June 3, 1864 some six thousand Union troops were killed or wounded in the space of one hour.
     Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Herald Tribune, who had thundered, "On to Richmond!", in 1861, was appalled by the losses incurred during Grant’s Overland Campaign and now wrote President Lincoln demanding negotiations, "Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country longs for peace, shudders at the prospect of fresh conscription, or further wholesale devastation, and of new rivers of human blood."

     Grant persevered despite casualties and criticism, beating the life out of the Confederacy and ending the war.


U.S. Grant: A Fighting General




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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Blackbeard the Pirate: Lost Treasure


     THE NEW YORK TIMES reported the following incident in October, 1926 concerning treasure in Burlington, New Jersey:

      "A century old legend, telling how the pirate Blackbeard buried his plunder beneath an old black walnut tree as a marker, has gained so much credence that Miss Florence E. Steward…directed a group of laborers in digging for treasure on her property....
    
     According to tradition, Blackbeard buried a Spaniard upright over the treasure chest, then sailed away never to return.  In the course of time, the walnut tree on Miss Steward's property became known as 'The Pirate Tree'.

     A human skull unearthed by school children today gave renewed zest to the hunt for buried treasure.  Believing the skull might be that of the Spaniard whom Blackbeard is supposed to have buried over the treasure, Miss Steward asked police to guard her property against further digging by volunteers until she can personally supervise the work of her own excavators."


     No treasure was found at this excavation but the legend lingers on.


More Legends of Blackbeard's Treasure





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The Legend of Mosby’s Treasure


     When famed Confederate raider John S. Mosby rode out of Fairfax Court House in March 1863 he took with him a captured Union general, two captains, thirty privates, fifty eight horses, and legend says, $350,000 (now valued at several million) worth of gold plate, jewelry, silver tableware and gold coins that Union troops had looted from neighboring southern homes.  Mosby marched his prisoners to Culpepper, Virginia where they were turned over to General J.E.B. Stuart.
     About midway between Haymarket and New Baltimore, Mosby, accompanied by only one sergeant, James F. Ames (who was captured and hanged by Union General George Custer a short time later), buried the loot between two pine trees, marking the trees with carved crosses.
      Mosby continued his activities unabated right to the end of the war when he gathered his men one last time and disbanded, never officially surrendering to Federal forces.  Mosby went on to become a distinguished railway lawyer (and attorney to the father of George S. Patton).  Shortly before his death in 1916, at the age of eighty three, he told some of his close friends:

     "I've always meant to look for that cache we buried…. Some of the most precious heirlooms of old Virginia are in that sack.  I guess that one of these days someone will find it."


Mosby's Greatest Raid





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