Monday, October 06, 2014

America’s Worst General: William Hull and the Surrender of Detroit (War of 1812)


On August 13, 1812 Major General Isaac Brock and a British force of 400 regular and militia troops supported by 700 lightly armed Native American auxiliaries arrived before the American stronghold at Detroit.  Brock intended to subdue Detroit, garrisoned by 2,500 men securely situated behind 22-foot ramparts and a palisade of 10-foot hardwood spikes all defended by 33 cannons and an 8-foot moat.  How was he to do this?

Brock attacked the American “center of gravity”, which in this case was the mind of the American commander, Brigadier General William Hull, whom contemporaries described as, “a short, silver-haired, pleasant, old gentleman, who bore the marks of good eating and drinking.”
Having captured some of Hull’s dispatches, Brock knew that American morale was low, and that Hull was discouraged.  Playing on Hull’s almost hysterical fear of Indians, Brock began a campaign of psychological intimidation.  The British played on Hull's fear of the Indians by arranging for a letter to fall into American hands which asked that no more Indians be allowed to proceed as there were already no less than 5,000 at Amherstburg and supplies were running low. Brock sent a demand for surrender to Hull, stating:

“The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences…”

Additionally, to trick the Americans into believing there were more British troops than there actually were, troops marched to take up positions in plain sight of the Americans then quickly ducked behind entrenchments, and marched back out of sight to repeat the same procedure.

Brock’s demand for surrender was rejected.  The British began bombarding Fort Detroit.  The Americans returned fire.  Seven Americans were killed and two British gunners wounded in the exchange.  On the night of August 15, some five hundred Native American warriors paddled across the unguarded river and landed below Detroit.  The British infantry and militia followed at daylight.


Hull, who had led a heroic bayonet charge at the Battle of Stony Point in 1778, was totally out of his depth in overall command and began to crack, seemingly besieged by overwhelming British forces and Indians “numerous beyond example.” At 10:00 A.M. a white flag appeared over the fort.  Despite the vehement protests of his officers and men, William Hull surrendered his command without a fight. The British captured an American army of 2,500, some thirty-three cannon, four hundred rounds of 24-pound shot, one hundred thousand cartridges, 2,500 rifles and bayonets, and a newly built 16-gun brig Adams.




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Sunday, October 05, 2014

“Bundling” in Early American courtship


Despite the best efforts of the clergy, European travelers during the second half of the eighteenth century often commented on the widespread custom of “bundling” in the northern and middle colonies among the rural and “lower people”. Andrew Burnaby, a young Englishman who toured Massachusetts in 1759, wrote about the custom, “At their usual time the old couple retire to bed, leaving the young ones to settle matters as they can, who, after having sat up as long as they think proper, get into bed together also, but without pulling off their undergarments, in order to prevent scandal.”


Johann Schoepf, who toured the region in 1783, assured his readers that “the young woman’s good name is in no ways impaired.” Visits took place neither “by stealth” nor only after the young couple was “actually betrothed”: “on the contrary, the parents are advised, and these meetings happen when the pair is enamored and merely wish to know each other better.”


European visitors were amazed by the openness with which young men and women spent the night together. “I have entered several bedchambers,” wrote Alexander Berthier, “where I have found bundling couples, who are not disturbed and continue to give each other all the honest tokens of their love.”  The degree of intimacy enjoyed during these nocturnal meetings must have varied from one couple to the next.  Although couples were supposed to keep their clothes on and to abstain from sex, the record indicates a significant number of early babies among the firstborn children of these couples after marriage. Often a couple was forced to confess their sin publicly in church before their baby could be baptized.




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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Plan Red - America's Plan to Invade Canada

     After World War I the British Empire was at the height of its world-wide power. The rivalry between the United States and Great Britain during the 1920s and 1930s over who would control the world’s oil supply led American strategic planners to envision the day when America might be at war with Great Britain. War Plan Red (“Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plan – Red”), formulated and approved in 1930 and declassified in 1974, set out America’s plan to eliminate Great Britain as a significant economic rival. Most of America’s plans revolved around the annexation of Canada and the islands of Jamaica, Barbados and Bermuda. These were American imperial dreams dating to the time of the American Revolution, when American forces were repulsed in their attempt to conquer Canada. American attempts to annex Canada during the War of 1812 were similarly repulsed.

     Plan Red contemplated the immediate seizure of Halifax to deny the British an Atlantic port from which they could reinforce Canada. U.S. forces would then launch a three pronged attack, (1) an attack from Vermont to take Montreal and Quebec, (2) an attack from North Dakota to seize the strategic rail center at Winnipeg, splitting the country, and (3) an attack launched against the province of Ontario from Detroit and Buffalo. Mopping up on the West Coast was to include the seizure of Vancouver and Victoria.  Congress appropriated money to build three secret air bases near the Canadian border to be used for surprise attacks on Canada in the event of war.  Information regarding the secret air bases was accidentally leaked, and the New York Times reported the story on the front page of the May 1, 1935 issue, much to the chagrin of the Roosevelt administration.

     Canada, not unaware of America’s historical aggressive designs, had earlier developed “Defence Scheme No. 1” which, in the event of hostilities, called for flying columns to quickly enter American territory. These small mobile forces were to capture such cities as Seattle, Minneapolis and Albany, and then fall back in a scorched earth retreat that would slow down the American invaders, giving Great Britain time to re-enforce Canada.


    America had developed similar plans in case of hostilities with other countries.  Plan Orange was to be used in case of a war with Japan (or in conjunction with Plan Red in case of war with both Britain and Japan).  Plan Black was to be used in case of war with Germany.  Plan Green was for Mexico.  Plans Orange and Black were, in fact, used as the blueprints for victory over Japan and Germany in World War II.




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The Grave of the Female Stranger

The grave of the Female Stranger, in Alexandria, Virginia, remains a place of romance and mystery. 

In 1816, a young couple arrived in the port town.  The beautiful young woman soon tragically died of an illness and was buried in a grave bearing these strange words:
"To the memory of a Female Stranger
Whose mortal suffering terminated on the 4th day of October, 1816 Aged 23 years, and 8 months.
"This stone is erected by her disconsolate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost to soothe the cold dull hour of death.
"How loved, how honor'd once avails thee not, To whom related or by whom begot, A heap of dust remains of thee
'Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be."

All of the town folk who interacted with the couple swore themselves to secrecy as to the identity of the Female Stranger.  They honorably kept the trust, and the identity of the young woman remains a mystery to this day.  Who was she?  A thwarted young lover? A European royal?  Might she have been the missing Theodosia Burr Alston?  The mystery remains.


The ghost of the Female Stranger is said to haunt Room 8 in Gadsby’s Tavern where she died.


The Female Stranger: An Archibald Mercer Colonial Detective mystery



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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Domestic Slave Trade in the Old South

The production of cotton in the Deep South demanded labor, and with the termination of the African slave trade, this demand for labor fueled an explosion in the price of slaves and the proliferation of the domestic slave trade.  Virginia became the single largest exporter of slaves to the Deep South exporting some 400,000 slaves during the antebellum period, (1820-29: 76,157, 1830-39: 118,474, 1840-49 : 88,918, 1850-59: 82,573).





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Thursday, June 26, 2014

John Carlyle of Alexandria, Virginia

     John Carlyle of Alexandria, Virginia stands out as a kind of “representative” man of the colonial period in Virginia.    Born in 1720 in Scotland, Carlyle, came to Virginia as the agent of a merchant at the age of twenty-one in hopes of making “a fortune sufficient...to live independent.”  He achieved success within seven years.  Carlyle’s extensive business activities included import and export trade to England and the West Indies, retail trade in Alexandria, an iron foundry in the Shenandoah Valley, milling and a blacksmithing operation.  In 1749, Carlyle became one of the founding fathers of Alexandria.  In 1753 he built a grand home in Alexandria, overlooking the Potomac.
     Carlyle used slave labor in all of his business ventures and was one of the area’s largest slave owners.  If Carlyle had any reservations about slavery he did not voice them.
     John Carlyle’s life was repeatedly marred by the type of personal tragedy common to the 18th century.  Of his eleven children, only two lived to adulthood.  His first wife Sarah bore seven children, five of whom died in childhood.  Sarah died in child birth.  Carlyle’s second wife, Sybil bore four children, only one of whom lived to be fifteen years old

     Appointed commissary of the Virginia militia in 1755 John Carlyle had a close view of the British attitude toward the colonies and complained that the British troops “by some means or another came in so prejudiced against us [and] our Country . . . that they used us like an enemy country and took everything they wanted and paid nothing, or very little, for it. And when complaints [were] made to the commanding officers, they [cursed] the country and inhabitants, calling us the spawn of convicts the sweepings of the gaols …which made their company very disagreeable.”


     Relations between Great Britain and the colonies continued to deteriorate over the years.  In 1774, Carlyle joined the newly formed the Fairfax County Committee of Safety.  When war came, Carlyle risked everything and warmly supported the Revolution. 





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Courtship in the 18th Century

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. They were the primary means of socializing in the south.

Outsiders observing the eighteenth-century southern elite commented on the sharp contrast between male and female standards of behavior. Timothy Ford, a New Jersey lawyer who moved to Charleston in 1785, wrote that “the ladies” there were “circumscribed within such narrow bounds” of acceptable behavior that they “carry formality and scrupulosity to an extreme.” Young gentlemen, in contrast, were expected to be “abandoned” and “debauched.”


Women within the southern elite were by no means “privileged to do anything.” They were expected to embody decorum and self-restraint.  In June 1734, the South Carolina Gazette printed a prayer for young ladies that called on “Virgin Powers” to defend them against “amorous looks” and “saucy love.” When tempted to commit an indiscretion, respectable women should arm themselves with “honour” and “a guard of pride.”  Avoiding company and behavior that might compromise one’s reputation did not require prudery or self-isolation. Conduct manuals appearing in the late eighteenth century advised young women to steer a middle course between undue familiarity, which was dangerous, and cold reserve, which made them undesirable. 




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Sunday, June 15, 2014

George Washington: Farmer and Slave Owner

Washington’s relationship to slaves was that of a straightforward businessman,   Washington insisted on turning a profit from his slaves.  The pattern of life at Mount Vernon followed a pattern familiar throughout Virginia.  The work day was from sunrise to sunset, with two hours off for meals.  Sunday was a free day.  Slaves received several days off at Christmas, and the Mondays after Easter and Pentecost.  Slaves received a weekly food allowance, which they supplemented by keeping their own gardens, fishing and hunting (in essence they subsidized their own enslavement in their free time).  Slaves were issued clothes once a year.  Most of the slaves were field hands, while about seventy were skilled craftsmen and household servants. 


Slave flight, “running away,” the most common form of slave resistance, called into question the notion of benevolent paternalism and struck particularly hard at the idea that slaves were basically happy.  Most running away was not permanent running.  It might better be termed “absenteeism” and was a statement of resistance.  Most slaves who sneaked away overnight or for a few days did so to avoid immediate punishment or to visit nearby wives, husbands, or other family members. This absenteeism was so common that most masters dealt with it by inflicting only mild punishments.   The more serious form of running away, which involved staying away from the plantation for weeks or months was labeled “lying out”.  These runaways lived by fishing, hunting, stealing and trading.  They camped near towns and cities, along rivers or in dense forests.  They often formed small groups.  Masters dealt with this type of behavior more harshly.  White farmers throughout the South complained about blacks “lurking about near the plantations” and doing “mischief”. Few runaways remained permanently at large, however, the Great Dismal Swamp between Virginia and North Carolina was home to several thousand permanent runaways.   Runaways from Washington's estate were not uncommon.



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Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Battle of the Little Bighorn


In his book A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - the Last Great Battle of the American West, James Donovan details what are clearly manifestations of Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder among the survivors.  The case of Captain Thomas Weir is illustrative.  Weir died less than six months after the battle, “rapidly destroying himself with alcohol (Weir) spent most of his days in a state of depression and nervous exhaustion.”  Donovan attributes Weir’s condition to “battle fatigue, the traumatic loss of so many close friends, the method of their destruction, (and) the slander of Custer’s good name….”(Donovan, 348)  Captain Thomas French appears to have suffered a similar fate.  In 1879 French was found guilty of three counts of drunkenness and one count of conduct unbecoming an officer.  He was suspended at half pay for a year.  In 1880, he was determined to be “mentally unfit and physically incapable to perform any military duties.”  He died two years later.  “Like Weir, his breakdown was likely brought on by ‘soldier’s heart,’ the era’s phrase for combat fatigue or shell shock.”(Donovan, 365) 




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Alfred Terry: The True Villain of the Battle of the Little Bighorn


According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, George Armstrong Custer was the victim of another man’s devious scheming at the battle of the Little Bighorn.     The villain of the Little Bighorn was General Alfred Terry and his flawed battle plan.  According to Philbrick, General Terry “wanted Custer to attack if he found a fresh Indian trail.”  He says, everyone knew perfectly well what Custer was going to do once Terry,” in the words of Major Brisbin ‘turned the wild man loose.’”(Philbrick, 99)  General Terry was protective of his own military reputation however and was spinning an invisible and cunning web.  “Terry had a lawyer’s talent for crafting documents that appeared to say one thing but were couched in language that could allow for an entirely different interpretation should circumstances require it.”  Terry’s ambiguously worded orders to Custer, allowed him to protect his reputation no matter what happened.  “If Custer bolted for the village and claimed a great victory, it was because Terry had the wisdom to give him an independent command.  If Custer did so and failed, it was because he had disobeyed Terry’s written orders.”  Philbrick continues, “As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn.  But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces.  Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.” (Philbrick, 102-103)  Custer was a simple soldier, doing his duty, being manipulated by forces beyond his understanding or control.  “After September 11, 2001, and the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, it (is) possible to recognize…that no matter how misguided the conflict, soldiers such as Custer were only doing their duty.” Philbrick continues, “As it turns out, Custer’s Native opponents had known this all along.”  The warrior He Dog summed it up, “Washington was the place all the troubles started.”(Philbrick, 305)


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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Travel Advisory for Georgia, USA


On April 24, 2014, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed a broad expansion of gun carrying rights into law, tacitly admitting that law enforcement agencies in Georgia can no longer protect residents of the state or visitors to the state, anywhere in the state, day or night.  The law will take effect on July 1, and encourages gun owners to arm themselves in a wide range of locales from bars to churches.  The new law also authorizes schools to arm staff members to protect children in elementary and secondary schools, but curiously does not permit guns on college campuses.

Most recent statewide statistics indicate that there is a gun murder every twenty hours on average in Georgia and that the state has the third highest rate of armed robberies with firearms in the U.S.

Those considering travel to the state of Georgia, should evaluate their personal security situation in light of the continuing high rate of violent gun crime in the state.