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.



How Martha Washington Lived: 18th Century Customs



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.  So just how did they live?



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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





A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories


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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.





Come on an adventure to explore the true secrets the most remote and mysterious islands on earth. Tales of Voodoo, lost treasures, monsters, castaways and more.




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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

American Civil War Railroads


Civil War Locomotive



      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




A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories.




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




A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories.

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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




A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories.

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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
Treasure Legends of the Civil War


A lively history of the Civil War sprinkled with tales of over 60 buried treasure in sixteen states. History buffs and adventure seekers will enjoy this work.




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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Burning of Richmond in 1865

     April 2, 1865 was a Sunday, and in Richmond Jefferson Davis was at church.  In the midst of the services a courier arrived with a message from the War Department: "General Lee telegraphs he can hold his position no longer."  Davis quietly left the church and set about removing his government from Richmond.
    
  By late afternoon it seemed that all who could leave the city were stampeding.  Commissary stores were thrown open, and their hoarded contents distributed to eager crowds.  As the day wore on the scenes at the various government stores changed from the fairly orderly distribution of supplies to rank plundering.  Whiskey stocks were broken into and the streets ran with liquor.

     Factories, arsenals and mills were ordered destroyed, some were blown up, others were burned.  The fires were soon out of control.  There was absolute panic in the city.  Men, women, and children hurried to and fro.  Commissary stores were destroyed.  The streets were blocked with men and beasts.  Fierce crowds of skulking men and coarse, half drunken women gathered, breaking into shops and fighting among themselves over the spoils they seized.  Through the night, drunken mobs of civilians and Army deserters roamed the city, looting and burning.



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. Economic self-interest was the key motive in the South’s virulent embrace of both slavery and state’s rights.

Part I provides background information on the reasons for Southern secession. Part II provides key Southern documents, which speak for themselves.

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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.


Success leaves clues. So does failure. Some of history’s best known commanders are remembered not for their brilliant victories but for their catastrophic blunders.

Throughout the centuries countless armies have gone down to defeat, succumbing to greater numbers, more advanced technology, or more skilled opponents. A few armies have been defeated because of the blundering incompetence of their own commanders. What are the elements of leadership failure? A recurrent pattern emerges over the last two thousand plus years.


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Sunday, October 05, 2014

“Bundling” in New England 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.



A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in colonial America and the early republic.


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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).






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.

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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. 






A quick historical look at murder most foul in the Virginia of colonial times and the early Republic. Behind the facade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets evil lurks.




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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) 


For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.



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