Friday, November 16, 2012

The Union Spy Ring in Richmond: Black Spy in the Confederate White House


Elizabeth Van Lew

The White House of the Confederacy

Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, although from a good family, was an ardent Unionist who refused to leave town even as the Confederate government took up residence. Her continued devotion to the Union cause was considered just another of the eccentricities of the woman her neighbors came to call “Crazy Bet”. Van Lew began to accentuate her eccentricities. As she walked along the street, she mumbled and hummed to herself, head bent to one side, holding imaginary conversations. Her disguise served her well as she set up a wide reaching spy ring within the Confederate capital, and some say within the Confederate White House itself.


Van Lew began visiting Richmond’s Libby Prison, where Union POWs were imprisoned. As a humanitarian gesture, Van Lew brought food, medicine, and books to the prisoners. She came out with military information. Newly arrived Union prisoners secretly recounted the strength and dispositions of Confederate troops they had seen on their way from the front to Richmond. As the war progressed Van Lew was able to place fellow Union sympathizers within the Confederate War and Navy Departments, and regularly smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs. General Grant would later say of her efforts, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Van Lew’s most daring purported accomplishment remains shrouded in mystery and involved insinuating one of her former servants, Mary Elizabeth Bowser (also known as Mary Jane Richards) into the Confederate White House. Bowser had been a slave of the Van Lew family, but Van Lew freed her and sent her North to be educated many years before the war. When Van Lew established her spy ring she asked Bowser to return and work with her for the Union. Van Lew obtained a position for Bowser as a servant in the Confederate White House through the recommendation of a "friend" who provided supplies to that household. Bowser reported conversations she overheard and the content of documents she was able to read while working in the house. Another Union spy, Thomas McNiven, noted that Bowser had a photographic memory and could report every word of the documents she saw. Stories about Bowser appeared as early as May 1900 in Richmond newspapers. In a 1910 interview with Van Lew’s niece, Bowser was revealed as being part of the spy ring. Jefferson Davis' wife, Varina, publicly denied that a black female spy could have infiltrated the Confederate White House and denied any knowledge of such a person as Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Bowser was inducted into the US Army Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on 30 June 1995.

When the Union army captured Richmond in April 1865, Van Lew was the first person to raise the U.S. flag in the city. After the war she insisted, “I'm not a Yankee”, maintaining that she was only a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginia tradition of opposition to human bondage.




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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

John Quincy Marr: First Confederate Officer Killed in the Civil War



Fort Sumter fell on April 14, and on April 17 Virginia adopted an “Ordinance of Secession” in the form of a repeal of Virginia’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution, to take effect upon ratification by the vote of the people. This election took place on Thursday, May 23, 1861, and Virginia seceded from the Union.


Before dawn on Friday, May 24, Union troops invaded Virginia, seizing Alexandria and Arlington Heights across from Washington City. On Friday afternoon, miles away at Fox’s Mills, north of Fairfax Court House, seventeen year old Sally Summers was minding the afternoon recess in front of her schoolhouse when she saw a surrey coming down the road from the direction of Alexandria. The driver was her uncle, Amos Fox. As he passed he shouted, “You better dismiss your school right away and go home to your mother. The Union army is advancing!”

Three Virginia militia units (the Rappahannock Cavalry, the Prince William Cavalry, and the Warrenton Rifles) had taken up positions around the strategic village of Fairfax Courthouse. These units were still a part of the "Virginia Army," even though the secession of Virginia was ratified by a popular vote on May 23, 1861. Virginia’s forces were not transferred to the Confederacy until June 6, 1861.

Before dawn on June 1st, Lt. Charles Tompkins, 2nd U.S. Cavalry led a raid on Fairfax Courthouse. After charging through lines of the Virginians twice, the Union cavalry was finally driven off. In the morning, the body of Captain John Quincy Marr of the Warrenton Rifles was discovered. Marr had been hit by a spent round ball. He had a large bruise above his heart but his skin had not been penetrated.

Captain Marr's body arrived in Warrenton that evening and he was buried the next afternoon in the Warrenton Cemetery after a ceremony in the clerk's office yard before a large crowd of mourners. Marr became a Southern martyr.

Charles Henry Tompkins received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Fairfax Court House. His was the first action of a Union Army officer in the American Civil War for which a Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded, although it was not awarded until 1893. His citation reads: "Twice charged through the enemy's lines and, taking a carbine from an enlisted man, shot the enemy's captain."



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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Sid Grauman and the celebrities of Hollywood


No single individual did more to create the Hollywood cult of celebrity than theatrical genius Sid Grauman.  As a youth, Grauman worked in the ramshackle towns of the Alaska Gold Rush as a paperboy.  Newspapers were scarce and expensive, costing up to one dollar each.  Grauman met a store owner who purchased one of his newspapers for $50. The store owner then charged admission to local miners to whom he read the paper aloud in his store. Grauman learned that people would pay handsomely to be entertained.

Grauman built a series of theaters that would define the “movie palace” of Hollywood’s Golden Era.  The Egyptian theater, built in 1922, was the setting for the first-ever Hollywood premiere, Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks, on Wednesday, October 18, 1922.  The exterior and interior walls of the theater contained Egyptian-style paintings and hieroglyphics. The four massive columns that mark the theatre's main entrance are 4+12 feet wide and rise to a height of  20 feet, the large courtyard in the front, complete with a fountain and palm trees, was specifically designed to host the theater’s famous red carpet ceremonies.


 Grauman built an even more magnificent theater in 1927 further up Hollywood Boulevard, the Chinese Theater. The Chinese Theater was modeled on a Mandarin palace. Not satisfied with the fusion of opulence and stardom, Grauman imbued the Chinese Theater with a mystic aura for millions of movie fans: it was Grauman’s brainchild to invite movie stars to place their hands and feet in the wet cement of the theater’s patio. The dried imprints became like holy relics to movie fans, the imprints also allowed fans to measure their own hands and feet against these relics of their saints.


The hand and feet prints of Marilyn Monroe are said to be the most popular relics.

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Sunday, September 02, 2012

Midnight Rising: John Brown’s Raid (Book Review)




Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

By Tony Horowitz

A well written and informative book, but one which romanticizes and glorifies terrorism, for that was what John Brown was by the standards of his own day and by the standards of our own.

Brown, a religious fanatic, with a family history of mental illness, whom Horowitz acknowledges many of his close associates thought exhibited signs of insanity, saw himself as God’s instrument on earth. Brown was pledged to violence and declared, “The sins of this country can only be purged with blood.” Wherever Horowitz uses the word “insurgent” substitute “jihadist” and try to conjure up the same sympathy for Brown that Horowitz’s use of the milder term allows.

There is little to admire in Brown’s bloody career, which ranged from hacking five unarmed men to death in Kansas in 1856 to killing unarmed civilians at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and trying to incite widespread murder and mayhem. Brown was disavowed in his own day by most in the North, including the Republican candidate for President, Abraham Lincoln. Despite Brown’s condemnation by the moderate elements of his own day, Horowitz, embraces the position of the most polarized abolitionists of 1859 in somehow seeing Brown as having performed a service to the nation by providing the “spark that caused the civil war.” The supposition being that only a bloody civil war that resulted in 600,000 deaths (as a percentage of population this would equate to some six million Americans today) could result in the abolition of slavery.

This supposition is wrong however. Another American slave society abolished slavery without firing a shot. The other great slave society of the late 19th century was Brazil. The Brazilian economy depended on slaves especially in mining, cotton production, and sugar cane production. More slaves were imported into Brazil over the course of three centuries than were imported into North America. By the late 19th century slavery was in decline. Slaveowners preferred to pay free immigrant labor from Europe low wages than to keep supporting entire slave communities from cradle to grave, since a significant portion of those communities (the sick, disabled, very young, and very old) were non-productive. By 1871, the sons of all existing slaves were freed. In 1885, all slaves aged over 60 years were freed. Slavery was legally ended nationwide on May 13, 1888, with the government compensating slaveowners for each slave freed. A mere twenty three years after the bloody American Civil War Brazil ended slavery peacefully, perhaps because it did not have fanatics like John Brown to foment fear and violence.



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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Gays in Colonial America



Following Biblical teachings, a sexual act that involved two human beings “of the same sex” was defined as a crime in colonial America. Legal codes focused much more specifically on male sex than did clerical pronouncements. Although a capital crime, standards of proof were high making conviction difficult even if juries were so inclined, which they seldom were in capital cases. Colonial newspapers published accounts about the arrests results from the anti-sodomy campaigns begun in the early decades of the eighteenth century as part of London’s “Reformation of Manners” movement. Newspapers also reported on the anti-sodomy campaigns in the Netherlands, where as many as two hundred and fifty men were prosecuted and some two dozen executed. On only two known occasions did women appear before New England courts on charges of “unclean” behavior with each other. In 1642 Eliza Johnson was whipped and fined by an Essex County quarterly court for unnatural “practices betwixt her and another maid.” Two other women from Yarmouth, Massachusetts were prosecuted for “leude behaviour each with other upon a bed.” A New Haven law of 1655 included sex between women as a capital offense. The law did not specify how sex between women was to be defined or proven.


Many New Englanders were committed to informal moral stewardship through surveillance of their neighbors. The layout of New England’s towns and villages facilitated “watchfulness”. Families generally owned a dwelling in town and a plot of land outside removed from the houses. Houses were built around the meetinghouse and close to one another. Farming lots were long, narrow strips which allowed town folk to work side by side. The god fearing had no need for privacy, only sinners had something to hide. The regime of constant neighborly surveillance led to a constant flow of information about people’s behavior that sometimes led to formal proceedings for a whole range of sexual behavior.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mass Murder is as American as Apple Pie

The United States experienced 645 mass murder events (killings with at least four victims) in the period 1976-2010, or approximately twenty mass murder events per year. Media accounts report that the nation is horrified and “mystified” by the most recent incident in Aurora, Colorado. Horrified is believable, mystified is not. The mystery is not why there are so many such events, but why there are so few.


America celebrates violence in its popular culture (movies, video games, sports, songs, television) and has the most heavily armed civilian population in the world with some 90 guns for every 100 men, women and children in the country. Americans are more heavily armed than Iraqi’s (34 guns per 100 people), or Serbians (58 guns per 100 people). There are some 12,500 gun inflicted homicides annually in the United States. America has lost fewer active duty military personnel killed in war in the last thirty six years than are killed in one year of civilian gun violence.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How Martha Washington Lived



Have you ever fallen madly in love with a pair of shoes? Luxury footwear, combining the art form of a sculpture with the beauty of a piece of sparkling jewelry, has obsessed women for centuries. Certainly this was true in the case with Martha Washington. Tucked away in the recesses of Mount Vernon’s archival vaults is a pair of avant-garde deep purple silk high heels studded with silver sequins that Martha wore on the day of her wedding to George Washington. Emily Shapiro, curator at Mount Vernon, describes the shoes as a little sassy and definitely “over the top” for the time, “They were the Manolo Blahniks of her time.”


At the time of her marriage to George Washington in 1759, Martha was 27 and George was twenty six. Martha was one of the wealthiest women in Virginia, having inherited five plantations when her first husband died. She was a bit of a clothes horse. Then, as now, if you had wealth you flaunted it, making sure you had the best clothes ordered from London in the deepest, richest colors. Such colors set the upper classes apart from poorer classes who wore drab homespun clothes in browns, beiges and tans.

We don’t generally think of Martha Washington as a vivacious fashionista. She has come down to us after two hundred plus years as a frumpy, dumpy, plump, double-chinned Old Mother Hubbard type. There may be more design than accident in this portrayal of Martha Washington and the women of the Revolutionary War generation (‘The Founding Mothers”). The new Republic needed to make a clean break with the aristocratic ways of Europe and completely embrace simple republican virtues. Both George and Martha Washington were transformed by generations of historians into marble figures of rectitude whose dignity and decorum fostered a sense of legitimacy for the new country.

But neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.

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Friday, June 08, 2012

The Largest Collection of Civil War Graffiti



As fighting surged across Northern Virginia during the four years of the American Civil War, many curious reminders were left behind for future generations to ponder. Near the City of Fairfax, for example, the historic mansion “Blenheim” boasts the largest collection of Civil War graffiti in the nation. Blenheim was a new and luxurious home at the beginning of the war, having just been completed in 1859. During the course of the war the Union army occupied the property on three separate occasions, with at least twenty two different regiments of the Union Army using the house at one point or another. For almost a year Blenheim was used as a convalescent hospital. The Union soldiers passing through Blenheim left a "diary on walls" providing insight into typical soldier life during the Civil War. One soldier from 4th New York Cavalry wrote along the walls of a staircase,

“First month’s hard bread, hard on stomach.”

“Second month, pay day. Patriotic-hic Ale. How we suffer for lager.”

“Fourth month: no money, no whiskey, no friends, no rations, no peas, no beans, no pants, no patriotism.”

Link to: Civil War Humor


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Monday, June 04, 2012

Duty, Honor, Service and Sacrifice

America Salutes a Very Great Lady (The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee)


Words to Inspire Now and Forever




God Save the Queen!

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Friday, May 18, 2012

The Pirate Jean Lafitte's Treasure

Most of the treasures hidden by the pirate Jean Lafitte are in Louisiana, although Florida and Texas claim their share as well.


- Lafitte buried treasure on Grand Isle at the southwest entrance of Barrataria Bay. The area around Lafitte village, twenty one miles south of Marrero, La Fourche Parish, founded by pirates and used by them for over one hundred years is also heavily endowed with treasure.

- Another legend asserts that Lafitte buried treasure near Starks, Calcasieu Parish, and also near Barbe House on Shell Beach Drive near Lake Charles, Calcasieu Parish.

- There are many tales of Lafitte burying different treasures up the Mermenteau and Calcasieu Rivers around Contraband Bayou. Another legend tells of gold and silver buried at White Lake north of Pecan Island, Vermilion Parish.

- Jefferson Island was one of Jean Lafitte's treasure storehouses. In 1923, Daynite, the straw boss for a work crew on a local estate, unearthed three boxes of gold coins dating from the 18th-19th centuries under what have subsequently been named the "Lafitte Oaks".



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The Death of Ambrose Madison: A Colonial Murder Mystery


In February 1732, thirty six year old Ambrose Madison, the grandfather of future U.S. President James Madison, brought his wife, Frances and his three children, to an estate called Mount Pleasant (now known as Montpelier). Six months later, Ambrose Madison was dead. In the early summer, Ambrose fell ill. Poisoning was suspected. Like most poisoning victims during this period, the poison did not kill him outright, but caused enough internal damage that he lingered near death for weeks, finally dying in late August. Madison left what was regarded at the time as a “considerable estate” including “ten negro men, five negro women, and fourteen children”, along with cattle, hogs, sheep, horses, twelve books and four silver tea spoons.


Did Ambrose Madison die of accidental poisoning or was he murdered? His death marked a milestone in the annals of Virginia crime for it occasioned the first known conviction of slaves for the use of poison against their master.



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Friday, May 11, 2012

The Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier


The tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier is located at the Beauvoir Confederate Cemetery located on the grounds of Beauvoir House in Biloxi, Mississippi. Beauvoir was the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government at Beauvoir.


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Sunday, April 08, 2012

King Kong and the true story of Skull Island


The 1933 film King Kong (remade in 1976 and 2005) tells the story of a giant pre-historic creature which rules over a lost island (Skull Island) where it defeats all comers. Ultimately the creature is captured by a group of adventurers and brought back to New York, where it runs amok and is ultimately destroyed by man’s superior technology.


The film had its official world premiere on March 23, 1933 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. In 1991, the film was deemed "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Was there ever such an island? Was there ever such a monster? In fact, the movie was inspired by a real life monster hunt on an Indonesian island conducted by W. Douglas Burden in 1926.

For years strange tales of a monster living on a remote Indonesian island circulated throughout the East Indies. Official interest was sparked in the early 1910s by stories from Dutch sailors. The creature was allegedly a "dragon" which inhabited a small island in the Lesser Sunda Islands. The fire breathing creature was reported to be seven meters long.

Lieutenant Steyn van Hensbroek, an official of the Dutch Colonial Administration accompanied by a detachment of soldiers landed on the island. After a few days, Hensbroek managed to kill a strange animal. But there were more of the beasts, which were photographed by Peter A. Ouwens, the Director of the Zoological Museum of Java who accompanied the expedition. The expedition provided the first reliable evidence of the existence of what we now call the Komodo dragon.







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Friday, March 16, 2012

Lincoln's Political Humor

As a politician, Lincoln used humor with devastating effect. Lincoln got a tremendous laugh from the audience when he said that the arguments of his Senate opponent Stephen A. Douglas were, “as thin as… soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” On another occasion he said of a political opponent, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas better than any man I ever met,” suggesting that it is, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”


Of a political opponents ideas Lincoln asked, “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg.” Of the opponents policies Lincoln said, “If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.” The opponent was clearly like, “The man who murdered his parents, then pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan.”

Political opponents saw their arguments forgotten by audiences after Lincoln followed up their speeches with a homely stories and humorous anecdotes.

Link to: Civil War Humor


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Lincoln's Love Life

We get an inkling of Lincoln’s sometimes savage wit in his description of his early love life.  In autumn 1836, Abraham Lincoln, then a twenty-seven-year-old Illinois representative studying law, agreed rather enthusiastically to marry Mary S. Owens, whom he had met three years earlier when she was visiting her sister in New Salem, Illinois. Essentially, Lincoln entered into a scheme with Mary's sister to entice Mary from her home in Kentucky to Illinois, never doubting that she would be willing to accept him for a husband. But Lincoln had not seen Mary since her previous visit, and upon her arrival, found himself in a predicament. Mary was not nearly as beautiful as he remembered. In fact, as he explained to another friend: "I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff; I knew she was called an 'old maid,' and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appellation; but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features, for her skin was too full of fat to permit its contracting in to wrinkles; but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head, that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirty five or forty years; and, in short, I was not all pleased with her."   Mary detected his true feelings and rejected his dutifully repeated proposal of marriage.

 
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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Abortion in Colonial America


Originally designed as a protection against syphilis, the condom began to come into use as a contraceptive in the eighteenth century. Condoms were usually made from sheep gut and were stocked by brothels and a few specialist wholesalers such as London’s Mrs. Philips who advertised to apothecaries, druggists, and “ambassadors, foreigners, gentlemen, and captains of ships going abroad.” Condoms were not widely used by the general population.


Abortion, rather than contraception, was the primary form of artificial birth control. Most available abortion material relied on folk remedies for ending pregnancy. Bloodletting, for example, was thought to be helpful. It was hoped that bleeding from any part of the body might flush the womb. Similarly, bathing went back to primitive beliefs that pregnancy could simply be washed away. The health risks involved in bringing on an abortion by falling or taking strong purgatives were relatively low, or at least not much worse than childbirth itself. In the absence of any legislation, abortion in America prior to 1800 was governed by traditional British common law. The common law did not recognize the existence of the fetus in criminal cases until it had quickened (begun to move perceptibly in the womb). This occurred late in the fourth or early in the fifth month. According to the prevailing view of the time, the fetus had no soul before quickening and had not demonstrated its independent existence through movement. Until quickening, the fetus was regarded as an extraneous part of the pregnant woman that could be removed without ethical constraint. After quickening, the expulsion and destruction of a fetus without due cause was considered a crime.



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Monday, March 05, 2012

Marriage in Early America

The first permanent English colony in North America was established at Jamestown, Virginia on May 14, 1607 by the Virginia Company of London. The party consisted of 104 men who came to America not to settle but to become rich. Within a short time it became apparent to the colony’s sponsors that their great venture in the New World was in danger of being wrecked, “…on the shoals of dissolute, irresponsible, manhood.” It was not until the fall of 1608 that “the first gentlewoman and woman-servant” arrived. The gentlewoman was already married to colonist Thomas Forrest; the servant, Ann Burrus, would soon marry John Laydon, the first marriage to be solemnized in Virginia. More women crossed the Atlantic to Virginia and Maryland in the next several years, but they remained relatively few in number. By 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses, petitioning that wives as well as husbands be eligible for grants of free land, argued that in a new colony, “it is not known whether man or woman be the most necessary.”

The Virginia Company’s London recruiters began searching for women of marriageable age, offering free passage to Virginia and trousseaus for girls of good reputation. New husbands reimbursed the company with 120 pounds of good leaf tobacco when they married. The first shipment of ninety “tobacco brides” arrived in Jamestown in the spring of 1620. The youngest was Jane Dier, aged fifteen. The oldest was Alice Burges, aged twenty-eight.

Some over eager British merchants, hired to provide the colonies with wives simply kidnapped any young woman who came to hand. In October 1618, a warrant was issued for one Owen Evans, who was kidnapping young women from their villages and sending them off to be sold in Virginia as indentured servants. As time went on, most of the single women who came to the Chesapeake Bay colonies voluntarily sold themselves as indentured servants. They re-paid the cost of their passage with a term of four or five years in service. At the end, the women were supposed to receive food, clothing, and tools to give them a start in life, then emerge into a world filled with wife-hungry young men and take their pick.


 

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Civil War Humor 1861-1865

Parody was a favorite form of humor among the troops of both sides. The soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, often referred to as “Lee’s Army”, sometimes parodied the title of Victor Hugo’s popular novel Les Miserables and referred to themselves as, “Lee’s Miserables .”

Popular songs were a source for parody. The song Just Before The Battle, Mother (I was thinking most of you), was mangled into:

Just before the battle, Mother,
I was drinking mountain dew,
When I saw the Rebels coming
To the rear I quickly flew.

Not even prayers were spared. The classic children's 18th century prayer:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

was revised by Union soldiers on Burnside’s celebrated “Mud March”:

“Now I lay me down to sleep
In the mud that’s many fathoms deep;
If I’m not here when you awake,
Just hunt me up with an oyster rake.”




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Friday, February 17, 2012

Union and Confederate Irishmen in the American Civil War

Although some Irish Catholics had lived in America since the colonial period, there was no significant immigration to the United States until the Potato Famine in Ireland (1845-1853). According to the 1860 census, well over one and a half million Americans claimed to have been born in Ireland. The majority of these lived in the North. Irish Catholics faced both religious and ethnic prejudice from the then largely Anglo-Saxon population. Coming upon a group of Irish women chanting “the keen”, a traditional Gaelic lament, after a number of their men had been killed, George Templeton Strong wrote, “It was an uncanny sound to hear; quite new to me….Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.” Some 150,000 Irish soldiers served in the Union army, and 25,000 in the Confederate army.



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Saturday, February 04, 2012

Santa Claus, Indiana: The Friendliest Town in America



In 1856, the town fathers of a newly founded small town in southwest Indiana petitioned the United States Postal Service to open a post office at “Santa Fe”, Indiana. The Post Office refused, since there was already another town by that name in Indiana. The town decided to change its’ name to Santa Claus, thus becoming the only town in the world with a post office bearing the name “Santa Claus”. The town's unique name went largely unnoticed until the late 1920s, when local postmaster James Martin began promoting the Santa Claus postmark. The growing volume of holiday mail became so substantial that it caught the attention of Robert Ripley in 1929, who featured the town's post office in his nationally-syndicated “Believe It or Not” cartoon.


Today, the town hosts a Santa Claus convention where “professional Santas” from around the globe gather annually to discuss, participate, improve, and learn from each other, on topics that promote the ideals of Santa Claus.


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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Henry Ford’s Jungle Kingdom



In the late 1920s, Henry Ford set up an American-style town called Fordlandia eighty miles south of the Brazilian city of Santarem. Fordlandia was the centerpiece a two million acre land concession the size of Connecticut. It was here that Ford planned to by-pass the English rubber growers of Malaya and to operate his own rubber plantations. The rubber from Brazil would be used for the tires of the automobiles pouring out of Ford’s factories.

Dozens of Ford employees were relocated to Brazil, and a model American town was built in the jungle, complete with a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, and rows of white bungalows. The streets were dotted with Model T Ford automobiles. Henry Ford exported small town America to the jungle.

Local Brazilian workers were offered twice the pay they could make elsewhere, but the terms of employment included adopting what Ford called, “the healthy lifestyle”, which was enforced with a totalitarian efficiency. The plantation cafeterias served American fare such as hamburgers. Local workers had to live in American-style houses, and were assigned numbers which they wore on badges. Alcohol was strictly forbidden inside Fordlandia, even within the workers’ homes, on pain of immediate termination. Brazilian workers were forced to work the customary American nine-to-five shifts under the hot Amazon sun, using Ford’s assembly-line philosophies. It was Ford’s way, or the highway.

In December 1930, worker resentment reached critical mass in the company cafeteria.

A Brazilian man stood and shouted that he would no longer tolerate the dictatorial conditions imposed on workers. A chorus of voices joined his, which was soon joined by banging cups and shattering dishes. Members of Fordlandia’s American management fled swiftly to their homes or into the woods, some of them chased by machete-wielding workers. A group of managers scrambled to the docks and boarded boats, which they moved to the center of the river and out of reach of the escalating riots. The riots went on for three days until put down by the Brazilian military.

Ford misjudged the temperament of his workers, but also failed to grasp the demands of the natural environment. Ford's engineers were not knowledgeable about tropical agriculture. Rubber trees were packed closely together on plantations rather than being widely spaced as they were in the jungle. The British successfully used this technique in Malaya after smuggling Brazilian plants to Asia. In Asia, the transplanted Amazonian rubber trees faced no natural predators (they were an invasive foreign species), but in Brazil the technique of close packing trees was unworkable. By 1945 synthetic rubber had been developed, reducing world demand for natural rubber. Ford's investment opportunity dried up overnight without producing any rubber.

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