Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Who is the Least Qualified and Most Divisive President in U.S. History?

Candidate Lincoln

Some regard the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as the least qualified and most divisive president in United States history, but oddly enough the honor actually goes to the man considered by most historians as the greatest U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was a dark horse candidate to become the nominee of the Republican Party in 1860.  Although one of the highest paid lawyers in America, with a gift for connecting with the common man in his speeches, Lincoln had little formal education or political experience, having been largely self-educated and having served only two years in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Lincoln defeated an impressive line-up of opponents for the nomination which included four Senators and a Governor.  Lincoln won on the third ballot.  His principal opponent William H. Seward was aghast, but fell in behind the party’s nominee.

Lincoln won the presidency by convincingly winning the Electoral College vote.  However, Lincoln won less than forty percent (39.8%) of the popular vote, with the balance being spread amongst three other candidates.  In the original #NotMyPresident movement, seven southern states seceded from the United States between Election Day and Lincoln’s inauguration.  Shortly after his inauguration four more states seceded and the nation was plunged into four years of bloody civil war.  That was "resistance" with a capital R.

Although now universally beloved and acclaimed, throughout the Civil War Lincoln was derided as unqualified for office by prominent Northerners.  George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer wrote that Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.”  The abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher blasted Lincoln’s lack of refinement.  Some Northern newspapers called for Lincoln’s immediate assassination.  General George B. McCllellan called Lincoln “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla.”  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the famous abolitionist, called Lincoln “Dishonest Abe” and bemoaned the “incapacity and rottenness” of his administration.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton vowed that if Lincoln “is reelected (1864) I shall immediately leave the country for the Fijee Islands.” Lincoln was re-elected.  Stanton did not move to the Fiji Islands (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

Although we now regard Lincoln as the original “Great Communicator”, during his own lifetime editorial writers sometimes described Lincoln’s speeches as, “… involved, coarse, colloquial, devoid of ease and grace, and bristling with obscurities and outrages against the simplest rules of syntax.”

A Pennsylvania newspaper had this to say about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” A correspondent for the Times (London) wrote, “Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”

This is what media savants had to say about Lincoln’s words now carved in marble at the Lincoln Memorial ("With malice toward none, with charity for all …"), contained in the second inaugural address, “a little speech of ‘glittering generalities’ used only to fill in the program.”(The New York Herald), and “We did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip-shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp.” (The Chicago Tribune).

Democracy is rowdy and has not become less so with the passage of time.

The main reasons given for the South’s decision to secede from the Union, thus provoking the American Civil War, are often given as slavery and state’s rights. Both answers are correct in so far as they go. But underlying both are economic self-interest. 

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.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Civil War Wedding

Esther Alden expressed the attitude of many young women in the South as the war progressed, “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow. Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace . . . seemed charming.” The famous diarist, Mary Chestnut of South Carolina, was appalled when she saw women of her own class flirting openly with strangers in public.  The diaries of hundreds of women of the time attest to the “marrying craze” sweeping the South.  “Every girl in Richmond is engaged or about to be”, wrote Phoebe Pember Yates in February 1864.  Fear of spinsterhood and natural desire heightened by the immediacy of war led to many unconventional matches, many reflecting the truth of a phrase common to the time, “The blockade don’t keep out babies.”  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Kings of Haiti

From 1791-1859, the island of Haiti made three separate attempts at establishing monarchical government.

Slaves rose against their French masters on the colony of St. Dominique in 1791.  After a pro-longed period of struggle, the French abandoned the colony.  On January 1, 1804, the ancient Carib name of Haiti was restored to the colony and French rule renounced forever.  Haiti became the first nation in Latin America and the second in the New World to win its independence.  The decision to make Haiti an empire came in July after Napoleon Bonaparte was offered the Imperial crown of France.  A proposal that General Jean Jacques Dessalines should be nominated as Emperor of the Haitians circulated among the leading generals.  Thus, on October 8, a Breton missionary anointed Jean Jacques Dessalines as “The Avenger and Deliverer of his fellow citizens”, Emperor of Haiti.  Dessalines’ reign lasted two years and ended in his murder.

The establishment of two separate republics, in the north and south, followed the collapse of the empire.  By 1811 the northern republic had turned into the Kingdom of Haiti, ruled over by King Henri I.  (“Henri, by the Grace of God and the Constitutional law of the state, King of Haiti, Ruler of the islands of La Tortue and Gonave, and other adjacent, Destroyer of Tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian nation, Creator of its moral, political and military institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the Faith, Founder of the Royal and Military Order of St. Henry.”)

Many of the institutions of the new kingdom were copied from the monarchies of Europe.  The court ceremonial was designed to exalt the person of majesty in the style of Louis XIV.  Of the numerous royal castles and palaces, the palace of Sans Souci, at Millot, near the foot of the Pic de la Ferrier, was the favorite residence of Henri I.  It was at the palace of Sans Souci, named in honor of Frederick the Great’s palace, that Haitian opulence reached its apex.  San Souci, the Versailles of Haiti, with its delicately carved cornices, dancing fountains, marble floors, arcades, terraces, sumptuous furnishings and perfectly drilled troops, was the king’s crowning glory.

The ruins of Sans Souci

The ruins of San Souci

Henri I struggled for a decade to modernize the country, while simultaneously fending off the encroachments of his neighbor to the south.  In 1820 the king suffered a stroke and was soon battling his own ambitious generals.  As a rebel army and thousands of scavengers descended on the Palace of San Souci, the king killed himself.  The kingdom collapsed and was incorporated into the Republic of Haiti.

Haiti’s last experience with monarchy came in the person of General Faustin Soulouque.  After seizing power in a bloody coup, Soulouque invaded the neighboring Dominican Republic in 1849, where his army was totally routed.  To distract attention from this military fiasco, Soulouque decided to create the second Haitian Empire.  On August 26, 1849 Soulouque proclaimed himself Faustin I, Emperor of Haiti.  The second empire lasted ten years before Faustin I was overthrown and forced into exile.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

United States Colored Troops (USCT)

Arlington National Cemetery was segregated until 1948.  Veterans of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were buried in Section 27.  The 175 regiments of the USCT made up some ten percent of the Union Army.  The unit seen here was stationed near Arlington. Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African-American intellectual of the Civil War era, wrote, “[He] who would be free must himself strike the blow.” The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was the answer to that call.  Some 40,000 gave their lives for the cause.  Douglass wrote, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”After the Civil War, soldiers in the USCT fought in the Indian Wars in the American West. 

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

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.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Is the Arc of History Nonsense?

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is a rhetorical conceit, or what historians call a “meta-narrative”, that dates from the mid-nineteenth century.  What is a meta-narrative you ask?  It is a made up proposition adopted by a group of people by which they make sense of events.  Meta-narratives are to history what cosmologies (theories on the nature of the universe) are to religion.  In order to accept this meta-narrative you must: (1) accept that there is a moral universe as opposed to an impersonal universe, (2) accept that there is one universal standard by which to determine “justice”, and (3) accept that history progresses toward some purpose.   If you do not accept these underlying propositions, the meta-narrative is meaningless.

Other historical meta-narratives have included, The Mandate of Heaven (i.e. kings have a divine right to govern), The March of Progress (i.e. all technology is good), The Triumph of Civilization (i.e. Western civilization), Manifest Destiny (i.e. American expansion across the North American continent), and Marxist “class struggle” which must ultimately end in the establishment of worldwide communism because of the “forces of history.”

The British historian Alan Munslow sums the issue up as, “The past is not discovered or found. It is created and represented by the historian.”

The history represented by historians is a reflection of power relationships within a society, and different historical perspectives represent the vying for power of different groups within that society.

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, January 16, 2017

Fake News in the American Civil War

Confederate President
Jefferson Davis (1861)

Apparently the news media has been in the habit of producing “fake news” for a very long time.

In late 1861, the New York Herald reported: “Our latest telegraphic advices from Louisville, Washington and Fortress Monroe assure us positively of the death of Jefferson Davis….Considering that his health has been in a very shattered condition for several years, and considering his extraordinary labors, anxieties, and exhausting excitements of the last five months, we think it remarkable that he was not carried off three or four months ago.”

This was a case of wishful thinking.  Davis was alive and active.  Indeed, he lived another twenty eight years, dying at the age of 81.

Southern editors lambasted the article as “Yankee delusion and unreliability,” denouncing the Herald as a “mendacious journal…(with) a record for lying second to none.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jefferson Davis Funeral (1889)

In 1860, disgruntled secessionists in the deep North rebel against the central government and plunge America into Civil War. Will the Kingdom survive? The land will run red with blood before peace comes again.

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.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Why the Allies Won World War II

Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995

Richard Overy asks the question: Why did the Allies win the Second World War? Overy’s argues that, contrary to the conventional answer that the overwhelming material resources of the Allies won the war, “the outcome had not just a material explanation but also important moral and political causes”. Additionally, Overy argues that it was not Axis mistakes that led to Allied victory, but “on a very great improvement in military effectiveness of Allied forces.” Overy cautions, “…statistics do not simply speak for themselves; they require interpreters”. For example, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviet Union fielded some fifteen thousand tanks compared to 3,648 German tanks, and yet it was the Germans who won the initial victories. Similarly, an American fleet defeated a greatly numerically superior Japanese fleet at Midway. In terms of productive capacity, Overy notes that during the critical middle years of the war the balance of economic resources was not yet weighted heavily in the Allies’ favor. (P.181) The outcome of the war was not inevitable. “Materially rich, but divided, demoralised, and poorly led, the Allied coalition would have lost the war….” (P. 325)

Overy focuses his discussion of the War on what he considers the decisive parts of the conflict. He identifies four main zones of combat: the war at sea, the Eastern front, the bombing offensive, and the reconquest of Western Europe. Success in combat in these zones was determined in great measure by issues of production, scientific discovery, military reform and social enthusiasm. Activities in each combat zone influenced and was influenced by activity in each of the other combat zones. The bombing campaign against Germany, for example, resulted in German forces being denied approximatley half their battle front weapons and equipment in 1944. “It is difficult not to regard this margin as decisive.” (P. 131)

So why did they Allies win the war? Overy points out that the Allies were more agile in adapting to changing circumstances, quickly instituting reforms that covered both the organization of forces, their equipment and operational skills. These reforms achieved improvements in the qualitative performances of all Allied forces and technology in the middle years of the war, “without which later quantitative supremacy would have availed little”. (P. 318) While the gap between the two sides narrowed in every sphere of combat, Axis forces did little to alter the basic pattern of their military organizations and operational practice, or to reform and modernize the way they made war. They responded more slowly to the sudden swing in the balance of fighting power evident in 1943. In Germany and Japan much greater value was placed on operations and on combat than on organization and suppply. (P. 318) Industry was central to the Allied view of warfare. Germany and Japan did not consider economics as central to the war effort, focusing on willpower, resolve, and endurance as the prime movers in war.( P. 206) Eventually, factory for factory, the Allies made better use of their industry than their enemies thereby winning the long war of attrition.

How effective is Overy’s argument? Overy’s description of the organizational skills and adaptability of the Allies is extremely compelling and perfectly captures the concept of the so called “Boyd Cycle” (a concept applied to the combat operations processes by military strategist John Boyd). According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain a military advantage. In short, the one with the shortest Boyd cycle wins. Overy’s insistence on the importance of the moral cause for which the Allies fought is less compelling. “The moral forces at work on the Allied side kept people fighting in a common cause; but as the war went on Axis populations suffered a growing demoralisation, a collapse of consensus….(P. 286)” Overy himself acknowledges that “Words like ‘will’ and ‘courage’ are difficult for historians to use as instruments of cold analysis. They cannot be quantified; they are elusive of definition….” One might postulate that if the war had been going more favorably for Germany and Japan, the populations of the Axis powers would have had higher morale.

Overy’s analysis of the roots of Allied victory, a complex and highly interrelated topic, is brilliant in both its nuance and treatment of hard, quantifiable numbers. His dismissal of gross statistics and mastery and interpretation of specific statistics, such as the shipping losses in the Atlantic (“After years of painful attrition the U-boat threat was liquidated in two months.” ( PP. 58-59)) is eriudite and compelling. In the final analysis, even Overy, however, acknowledges that victory was won by a very narrow margin and that the element of chance was an important variable. “If war had not started until the mid-1940s Germany might well have proved unstoppable” (P. 200) “The decisive engagement at Midway Island was won because ten American bombs out of the hundreds dropped fell on the right target.” (P. 320) “…if Eisenhower had decided at that critical moment to wait for the next brief period when the moon and tides held good the invaders would have been swallowed up by the great gale….”(P. 178)

A first person account of the Normandy campaign from D-Day + 1 to the liberation of Paris. 

War from the perspective of the average citizen soldier.