Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Compassion in War (The Battle of Fredericksburg)

The Union army came across the wide plain in beautiful order, a moving forest of steel, hundreds of regimental flags giving a russet tinge to the wintry landscape. The army, in its thousands, came relentlessly toward the stone wall, the wind rippling its flags, the sunlight sparkling from its musket barrels and bayonets.

“General Lee was right in what he said,” thought nineteen year old Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina watching this grand spectacle, “It is good that war is so terrible or men would come to love it.”

Kirkland knew war. He had fought at first Manassas, Savage Station, Maryland Heights and Antietam. He had killed and seen beloved friends killed. And now as he crouched behind the stone wall above the little town of Fredericksburg, Virginia he prepared to kill again.

The Northern host moved steadily forward until the guns of Kirkland and his brother soldiers began to thunder from behind the stone wall. An avalanche of iron whistled, shrieked, and burst into the bodies of the men in the advancing lines. The lines shuddered, staggered for an instant, and then dissolved. But the Yankees kept coming, wave after wave, crashing against that stone wall until only nightfall brought the slaughter to an end, leaving thousands of dead and dying men on the frozen field.

A chilly fog filled the valley. The cries of the wounded echoed in the darkness. A single agonized scream quivered above the others, and then merged into the crescendo of thousands of voices pleading in a disorganized chorus of pain.

“Damn Yankees,” said Newt, a big bellied veteran in his forties, “I wish they’d all just die and shut the hell up. I wish they had just one neck, I’d crawl out there and chop it off.”

“It’s a terrible noise,” said Kirkland, running a hand over the slight blond beard that barely covered his still soft cheek. “We could crawl out there and help some of them boys.”

“Help them to Hell you mean?”

“No, not help them to Hell. Give ‘em some water or something. Here we are two weeks from Christmas and you’re wanting to crawl out and kill wounded men. And you call yourself a Christian?”

“You’ve been shooting ‘em all day, and now you want to save them? That don’t make good sense, ” said Newt spitting a stream of tobacco juice in the direction of the Yankees, a trickle of the brown liquid trailing down his long filthy beard.

“My pa says that even in a battle you shouldn’t hate your enemy, any more than the sheriff hates a lawbreaker. My pa says war is a terrible scourge. You do your duty, but you don’t add to the evil by hating individuals.”

“Sounds like your pa ain’t spent much time on the battlefield.”

“Maybe not, but that don’t mean he’s not right about this,” said Kirkland. “That could be you or me out there.”

“But it ain’t,” said Newt. “Besides, I ain’t never heard of no Yankee worth his own weight in shit. I’m sure there ain’t one worth getting shot over.”

“I’m going to slip over the wall and give some of them boys water,” said Kirkland.

“You do, and they’ll shoot you down sure. And if they don’t Colonel Kershaw will have you shot for deserting your post. You do know we are at war with those people?”

“I’d better talk to the Colonel first,” said Kirkland.

“You do just that. And be sure to tell him about Christmas and how you want to give the Yankees a present,” Newt said.

Kirkland made his way back to the headquarters of the brigade commander Colonel Joseph Kershaw.

“Sergeant Kirkland, you are a good man and you have done good service, but we’d just best leave God in church for Sunday morning and leave him off the battlefield,” said Colonel Kershaw, a man of commanding presence in his early forties, who looked benignly at Kirkland from behind firm blue eyes.

“But I’ve heard General Jackson say that this is God’s army and that we must have God with us always. General Jackson says we must pray without ceasing. When we take our meals, when we take a draught of water, when we write a letter, and so for every act of the day,” said Kirkland.

“And I’ll tell you what I’ve heard General Jackson say,” said Kershaw, his eyes hardening, “when we were fighting during the Seven Days, a Yankee colonel on a white horse was riding up and down in front of his men, bold as brass, rallying his men. And we didn’t shoot because it was such a sight of magnificent gallantry. General Jackson rode up and said to me, ‘Why are you not shooting at that man’. And I answered, ‘General, we are honoring that man’s heroic bravery’. General Jackson said to me, ‘Shoot that man. If you kill the brave, the weak will run.’”

Kirkland’s lips pressed together tightly. “Sir, I request permission to speak to General Jackson so that I may ask him directly if I may comfort the wounded.”

Colonel Kershaw flushed red. He wasn’t going to risk being reprimanded by General Jackson a second time. General Jackson was a tough old cob, that was sure, but you never knew which way he was going to jump. “Alright boy, you hear me now,” said Kershaw, flecks of spit boiling from the corners of his mouth, “If you want to get yourself killed then you go over that wall. But if you do, you are not taking a white flag. I don’t want to see so much as the flutter of a white handkerchief, and if I do I’ll have you shot for desertion. You will have to rely on the mercy of those people. Do you understand me sergeant?”

“All right, sir, I'll take my chances,” answered Kirkland.

Kirkland returned to the stone wall, gathering up whatever canteens and blankets he could along the way.

“Colonel says I can go,” Kirkland told Newt.

“You are the damndest fool.”

Kirkland scampered over the wall. A shot rang out.

“I knew that damned fool would get shot,” thought Newt. “I warned him. Hell, now I guess I’ll have to crawl out there and save his sorry ass.”

But Kirkland was not dead, or even wounded. He made his way toward the closest wounded Union soldier. The soldier, laying flat on his back, tried to raise his rifle but didn’t have the strength.

“Probably thinks I’m going to chop his neck off,” thought Kirkland. Kirkland gave the man water which the wounded soldier gulped gratefully.

Another shot rang out. “Probably think I’m looting the corpses,” thought Kirkland, with the sickening realization that now the Yankees weren’t shooting at the Confederate army, they were shooting at Richard Rowland Kirkland.

Kirkland crawled on to the next soldier and the next, making his way through the writhing mass of mangled bodies. Some begged for water. Some called on God for pity. Some with delirious, dreamy voices, murmured loved ones names. Kirkland could do little but ease a painful posture; give a cooling draught; compress a severed artery; apply a crude bandage; take a token or farewell message for some stricken home.

Within a very short time, it became obvious to both sides what Kirkland was doing. There were no more shots. Some of the men behind the stone wall began to cheer, but no one came out to help.

Cries for water and comfort erupted all over the battlefield. There were thousands upon thousands of wounded men. There was so little he could do, but Kirkland kept crawling from man to man. It reminded him of those red tides along the beach when he was a boy. He still didn’t know why they called them red tides, but that’s what they called them. Thousands of fish would suddenly wash up on the beach, seemingly for no reason, flopping helplessly, gasping for air, dying. He spent one entire summer afternoon picking up fish and throwing them back into the sea. One of his friends said, “Richard, you must be addled. Can’t you see you’re not doing any good. There are thousands of them”. He remembered throwing another fish back and then saying, “It did that one some good.”

As dawn approached and the armies prepared to renew the fight, Kirkland slid back across the stone wall and slouched down next to Newt.

“Someday you’re going to get yourself killed with that kind of foolishness,” said Newt.

“If I do, tell my pa, I died right.”

Authors note: This fictionalized story is based on a true incident. Sergeant Richard Kirkland is known to history as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” for his compassionate acts upon the battlefield of Fredericksburg. Kirkland was killed in action at the Battle of Chickamauga at the age of twenty. At the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Kershaw was a Brigadier General. He initially refused to let Kirkland go onto the field to help the Union wounded, but relented. He refused to let Kirkland go out under a white flag.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Northern Virginia Environmental Issues

The climate of the Northern Virginia became much as we know it today 5,000 years ago. Prehistoric peoples became less nomadic, settling in larger camps near rivers and streams. Food was abundant and diverse. The natives called the Potomac River above Great Falls the "river of geese”.

With the coming of modern civilization also came people. The population of Virginia reached one million in 1830. Eighty years later the population reached two million. Within the next thirty five years the population of Virginia reached three million. It took only fifteen more years to reach four million in 1960. Since then, growth has accelerated. By 1990, the population stood at six million and by 2010 was eight million. People brought pollution.

The Potomac River was particularly hard hit. With increased mining and agriculture upstream and increased urban sewage and runoff downstream, the Potomac River was slowly poisoned. It is said that President Lincoln used to escape to the outskirts of Washington on hot summer nights to escape the river’s stench. In 1965, after centuries of contamination by raw sewage and industrial pollution, President Lyndon B. Johnson called the Potomac River a "national disgrace." President Johnson set in motion a long-term effort to reduce sewage pollution and restore the health of the Potomac. Since the mid-1960s, there have been large-scale improvements at wastewater treatment plants, and the Potomac is now clean enough to support numerous bald eagles and support smallmouth and largemouth bass.

The threat to Northern Virginia’s environment is far from over however.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The British at Mount Vernon (War of 1812)

In August, 1814, as Washington City still smoldered, seven British warships under the command of Captain James Gordon appeared on the Potomac River headed for the city. Instead of attacking and destroying Mount Vernon, as anticipated the seven vessels fired salutes as they came abreast of the mansion.

The British flotilla proceeded up the river and held the town of Alexandria, Virginia hostage for several days. While the British were confiscating goods in Alexandria, American forces were setting up a battery on the river at White House Landing below Mount Vernon. On September 1, Captain Gordon sent two of his ships to fire on the battery to impede its completion, but by evening the Americans had five naval long guns and eight artillery field pieces in place. On September 6, the entire squadron engaged the battery destroying all thirteen American guns within forty five minutes. All seven British warships and twenty one captured merchant vessels returned to the main fleet.

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Strange Spoils of the Mexican War (1846-1848)

Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna has long been vilified in American history for the massacre of the defenders of the Alamo. The flamboyant Santa Anna had an on-again-off-again relationship with the Mexican people during the course of a forty year career during which he served as President of Mexico on eleven non-consecutive occasions.

During one of his more popular cycles, Santa Anna became a hero to the Mexican people for resisting French forces that landed in Mexico to collect debts owed to French citizens. In the ensuing battle Santa Anna lost a leg and subsequently used a cork leg, and on occasion a simpler wooden peg leg. Both of these legs were captured by the 4th Illinois Infantry during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) in a surprise attack which sent Santa Anna galloping away without them.

Both legs are now on display. The cork leg pictured below is on display at the Illinois State Military Museum, 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd, Springfield, IL. The peg leg is on display at the Oglesby Mansion, 421 West William St., Decatur, IL.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What’s good for General Motors is good for America

“What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” is a mis-quote from 1953 testimony given by Charles E. Wilson at his Congressional confirmation hearings to become Secretary of Defense in the Eisenhower administration. Wilson was defending his reluctance to sell millions of dollars of General Motors stock. When asked if he as Secretary of Defense could make a decision adverse to the interests of General Motors, Wilson answered that he could not conceive of such a situation, “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”

The American economy in the Eisenhower 1950s was the envy of the world. Without significant global competition American corporations and workers prospered. America was the workshop of the world, and American exports were king.

No modern American corporate executive could make a statement like Wilson’s without irony. Between 2004 and 2009 American based multi-national corporations have cut 2.9 million jobs in the United States, while outsourcing 2.4 million jobs to their overseas operations.

General Electric’s chief executive Jeff Immelt (the head of the Obama administration’s, “jobs council”) acknowledges that the health and well being of a company such as GE is now less connected to the well being of the American economy. Immelt says, “I’m a GE leader first and foremost. At the same time…I work for an American company.”

In 2000 some 54 percent of GE employees worked in the United States. In 2010 about 46 percent of General Electric’s 287,000 employees worked in the United States. GE laid off 21,000 American workers and closed 20 factories between 2007 and 2009.

The company, led by Immelt, earned $14.2 billion in profits in 2010, but paid no Federal taxes because the bulk of those profits, some $9 billion, were offshore. The year 2010 was the second year in a row that GE paid no taxes. General Electric states that it “pays what it owes under the law.”

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Civilians and the First Battle of Manassas, July 21, 1861

On July 16, the great Union army, marched out of Washington City to meet the Confederates at Manassas Junction. On July 21, 1861, the two great armies grappled. By evening the lives of the people of Manassas had changed forever.


Judith Carter was born at Pittsylvania in 1777 in the midst of the Revolutionary War. She was the daughter of Landon Carter, who inherited the plantation in direct descent from Robert “King” Carter, who from 1702-1732 managed to patent some 300,000 acres in Northern Virginia for himself and his children.

In 1801 Judith Carter married Dr. Isaac Henry, one of the first surgeons in the United States Navy. Dr. Henry established himself and his family on 333 acres purchased from the Pittsylvania estate. He called this estate “Spring Hill.” The doctor died in 1829 but the family continued living at Spring Hill.

On July 21, 1861 the eighty four year old, invalid Judith Henry lay in her bed, as the battle began around Pittsylvania, her childhood home. Shells from Union artillery began to fall around the widow’s house. Mrs. Henry’s two sons, shocked to find Union troops on their doorstep, decided something must be done to move their mother to safety. Mrs. Henry was unwilling to leave, but after several shells struck the house, the terrified woman gave in.

The two sons placed the old woman on a mattress and carried her out of the house, intending to carry her to the Reverend Compton’s house, which was about a mile away. The small party was quickly caught in the open, between two opposing armies engaged in a furious battle. Terrified and hysterical, the old woman begged piteously to be taken back to her own home. The three Henrys returned to the house, and Mrs. Henry was returned to her bed. She was only there a short time before a shell burst in the room where she lay. She was struck by five shell fragments and lived for several agonizing hours, dying about nightfall. Rosa Stokes, a young slave who had been caring for the old lady was wounded by the same shell that killed Mrs. Henry.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

The Massacre of General Edward Braddock

In 1755 war raged across the American frontier. The English colonies were locked in a death grip with the French and their Indian allies. In February, 1755, the English General Edward Braddock landed at the port of Alexandria, Virginia, with 1,000 British regulars. An additional seven hundred Virginia militia, in which George Washington served, joined the regulars. Braddock’s mission was to march on the French Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) and destroy the main French army. Braddock, trained in the parade ground tactics of Europe, anticipated a quick and glorious little campaign. He regarded the militia’s fear of the Indians as highly exaggerated.

General Braddock in Alexandria, Virginia

The Massacre of Genral Braddock

The Death of General Edward Braddock

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Saturday, July 09, 2011

William Hull: History's Worst General?

At 10:00 A.M. on August 16, 1812, a white flag appeared over Fort Detroit. Despite the vehement protests of his officers and men, Brigadier General 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.

Hull was subsequently exchanged for a high ranking British prisoner of war, only to face court-martial charges of treason, cowardice, neglect of duty and un-officer like conduct. During his court martial, Hull tried to shift blame for the debacle at Detroit to his officers and men, accusing the officers of conspiring against him and the men of cowardice. Hull argued that he could not engage in battle with such men who were obviously not up to the contest. Hull continued to assert, “I have done what my conscience directed. I have saved Detroit and the Territory from the horrors of an Indian massacre."

Ultimately, William Hull was found innocent of treason but guilty of the other charges and sentenced to be shot. The court recommended that the sentence be commuted because of his previous honorable service. President Madison commuted the death sentence. William Hull is the only American general to have ever been sentenced to death by a court-martial.

Hull was drummed out of the Army, the court-martial concluding, “The rolls of the army are to be no longer disgraced by having upon them the name of Brigadier General William Hull.” Hull spent the rest of his life blaming others for his own mistakes.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

George Armstrong Custer: Hero or Media Darling?

George Armstrong Custer was no military novice in 1876 when he rode out to subdue the Sioux. Custer graduated from West Point in 1861, and distinguished himself in the American Civil War as a brave cavalry officer, being promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general in 1863 and brevet major general in 1865. Custer’s adherents made much of the fact that he was a “boy general”, but such honors were fairly common during the Civil War. In fact two of Custer’s subordinate officers in the 1876 campaign, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen had been given similar honors during the Civil War. Reno was made a brevet brigadier general in 1865 and, by the end of the war, Benteen had been recommended to receive the rank of brevet brigadier general.

Unlike many other brave soldiers, however, Custer had a knack for publicity. He frequently invited correspondents from leading newspapers to accompany his campaigns, and their reporting significantly enhanced his visibility and reputation. Custer put on quite a show for the press, sporting a flamboyant uniform and long hair worn in ringlets sprinkled with cinnamon-scented hair oil. In his manner of dress and command he was not unlike J.E.B. Stuart, the flamboyant commander of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate cavalry. The North needed its’ own Stuart and Custer cast himself in the role of the North’s dashing cavalier.

While no one could question Custer’s personal bravery or flamboyance, his tactics were weak. His one basic tactic was to charge the enemy, wherever he might be, no matter how strong his position or how large his numbers. On the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, for example, Custer, without reconnaissance, attacked a force four times his size. Custer was personally cited for gallantry although his brigade suffered the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade engaged at Gettysburg. Custer’s reputation was bought with the dead bodies of his men.

The Battle of Bladensburg (War of 1812)

Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr., a self styled military genius, had a theory that militia fought best at the spur of the moment. Early deployment would only cause militiamen to brood over the horrors of battle.

Armstrong steadfastly refused to do anything to defend the United States capital in 1814. When residents of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, pleaded for help in the face of several British raids, Armstrong replied, “It cannot be expected that I can defend every man’s turnip patch.”

The British landed at Benedict, Maryland on August 19, 1814, achieving complete tactical surprise. Some 4,500 British veterans faced 429 American regulars and 1,500 poorly trained and poorly equipped militia in a set piece battle in the open. Armstrong’s theories about the use of militia did not prove sound against the British.

The British regulars came on steadily, driving the Americans like sheep. After losing ten dead and forty wounded, the Americans fled the field, leaving ten cannons behind. The route was complete, and was derided at the time as the “Bladensburg Races”. The battle has come down to history as, “the greatest disgrace ever dealt American arms” and “the most humiliating episode in American history.”

Later that night the British burned Washington.

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Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Civil War Wedding of Major General George E. Pickett C.S.A.

September 15, 1863, was the happy occasion of the wedding of Miss Sallie Ann Corbell of Chuckatuck, Virginia, to Major General George E. Pickett of Richmond.

The general met the wedding party on the evening of September 14 at the train station in Petersburg and escorted them to the Bollingbrook Hotel. The following day, the church was filled to capacity. The residents of Petersburg still refer to the bells of St. Paul's as "the Pickett chimes" because they had remained silent during the War until Pickett's wedding day. The wedding feast became a community effort. A gun salute was given, bells chimed and bugles hailed as the couple embarked on a train from Petersburg to Richmond. In the capital, everyone pitched in to make the dinner memorable including Varina Davis and Mrs. Robert E. Lee who brought wartime fruitcake. Afterwards there was a night of dancing.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Mount Vernon Monster (Bigfoot?)

On May 12, 1979, the front page of The Washington Post carried an article entitled,“The Mount Vernon Monster.” For nine months, in 1978 and 1979, a strange creature wailed and screamed nightly in the woods just a mile from historic Mount Vernon. Some people called it “The Mount Vernon Monster”, others “Bigfoot”. Whatever the creature may have been, it was elusive, frustrating capture attempts by the police, flyovers by a U.S. Park police helicopter, searches by volunteer youth patrols, and the determined efforts of the Fairfax County game warden to track it down. And thus an urban legend was born.

The story made its’ way into oral history projects, which are now being cited by monster hunters as historical authentication of the creature’s existence, “…one of the game wardens, said ‘The thing seems to know when you leave the woods, then it starts to holler.’ One resident said she spotted the monster. She described it as a creature about six feet tall, which lumbered into the woods after being sighted.”

The howling stopped as abruptly as it began, but the story lives on.

Mind bending stories from the Old Dominion. A collection of Virginia’s most notable Urban Legends, many include the true stories behind them.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Williamsburg Governor's Palace Destroyed

On December 21, 1781, the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia, burned to the ground, killing many wounded soldiers recovering there from wounds sustained during the famous Yorktown campaign. The people of Virginia decided not to rebuild the structure, but rather to cover over the spot. The outer buildings of the old palace would remain where they stood until the Civil War, when they too would be demolished.

The memory of the once great structure would be lost until the 1920s, when the task of recreating Colonial Williamsburg was undertaken. Today, the Governor’s Palace is one of the most visited buildings in Colonial Williamsburg.

During the archaeological dig at the site of the Governor’s Palace, the remains of the men crushed by the weight of the collapsing building were discovered in the basement.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Andrew Jackson and the Stolen Election of 1824

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Army of Northern Virginia and Religion

As in every army, drunkenness and vice were abundantly present in the Army of Northern Virginia. Still, it was not uncommon to find soldiers forming around campfires in prayer groups. There was a general demand in the army for small Bibles. “Soldiers are so eager for them that they frequently say they will give several months wages for one.” When the war broke out nearly all the great publishing houses were in the North.

Although the first Confederate Bible was printed in Nashville in 1861, and although the British Bible Society made liberal donations of its publications, religious material was in such scarce supply that many officers lamented, “Our brave boys must beg in vain for Bibles.”

One officer who was acutely concerned with the spiritual well being of his men was General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson made a profession of faith in November, 1851 and thereafter energetically took up his new commitment. Jackson encouraged congregations to send chaplains to the army, “…who are your best men.” Men with strong commitment..who would not be put off.

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Sam Davis: The Ethan Allen of the Confederacy

Sam Davis of Smyrna, Tennessee was captured by Union troops in November 1863 as he was attempting to deliver a secret military message. He was offered his freedom if he would provide the name of the source of the secret information. Sam Davis refused. Although he was wearing a Confederate uniform, Davis was charged with being a spy and sentenced to death. On the gallows Davis was given one last opportunity to save his life by revealing the source of the secret message.

Davis’ last words were, “If I had a thousand lives to live, I would give them all, rather than betray a friend or be false to a duty.” Sam Davis was executed but his example has inspired generations of young Americans.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

First African American Roman Catholic Priest

Father Augustus Tolton is regarded as the first Roman Catholic priest of purely African descent in the United States. Both of Tolton’s parents were brought to America from Africa. Born in 1854 near Hannibal, Missouri, Tolton and his entire family were baptized as Roman Catholics at the behest of their master, Stephen Elliott.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Tolton’s father ran away and joined the Union army, later dying in a St. Louis hospital of dysentery. Tolton’s mother took her three small children and ran away from her master, dodging Confederate bounty hunters, finally reaching safety in Quincy, Illinois.

Tolton’s religious vocation became apparent as he matured and a number of priests attempted to get Tolton accepted in a seminary. No Catholic seminary in the United States was willing to accept a black seminarian. Eventually, Augustus Tolton was accepted to a seminary in Rome. At the age of 26 Augustus Tolton traveled to Italy to begin his studies. Six years later on April 24, 1886, he was ordained a priest at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome.

Most of Father Tolton’s teachers in the seminary felt that he would never be able to minister in the United States given the widespread climate of racism and anti-Catholicism existing in the country. Father Tolton expected to be sent to Africa and was surprised when Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni insisted that he return to Illinois, saying, “America has been called the most enlightened nation; we will see if it deserves that honor. If America has never seen a black priest, it has to see one now.”

Father Tolton said his first Mass in America on July 7, 1886.

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Women Officers in the Confederate Army

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lucy Mina Otey, a sixty year old widow, organized five hundred women of Lynchburg, Virginia into the Ladies’ Relief Society. The duties of the members of the Society included preparing and delivering food to the wounded in hospitals, making bandages, mending clothes and assisting surgeons in any way possible. Women would write letters for soldiers and keep patients comfortable. One morning when arriving at a hospital, Mina Otey was denied access by order of Dr. W.O. Owen, the head of Lynchburg military hospitals. Dr. Owen ordered the removal of Otey and all women from the hospitals stating, “no more women or flies are to be admitted.”

Otey immediately traveled to Richmond to talk to President Jefferson Davis to get his personal permission to found her own hospital, run entirely by female nurses. Davis agreed. Corruption and mismanagement became a frequent issue in Confederate hospitals. The Confederate government eventually ordered the shutdown of all medical institutions that were not under direct government control. If a hospital was not headed by a commissioned officer, who was least a captain, then patients had to be moved. Because of the excellence of her hospital and her service to the Confederacy, Mrs. Otey was named a Captain in the Confederate Army by President Jefferson Davis. Only one other woman received a commission in the Confederate Army. This other woman was Sallie Tompkins, who ran a hospital in Richmond, Virginia.

A quick look at women doctors and medicine in the Civil War for the general reader. Technologically, the American Civil War was the first “modern” war, but medically it still had its roots in the Middle Ages. In both the North and the South, thousands of women served as nurses to help wounded and suffering soldiers and civilians. A few women served as doctors, a remarkable feat in an era when sex discrimination prevented women from pursuing medical education, and those few who did were often obstructed by their male colleagues at every turn.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Abortion in the Civil War

Abortion, rather than contraception, was the primary form of birth control during the antebellum and Civil War era. In the Civil War era it is estimated that there was one abortion for every five live births. William Buchan's Domestic Medicine contained prescriptions for bringing on delayed menstrual periods, which would also produce an abortion if the woman happened to be pregnant. The book prescribed heavy doses of purgatives that created violent cramps, powerful douches, violent exercise, raising great weights and falling down.

By the early 1860's most states had laws restricting abortion, but these laws were directed at unqualified abortionists and were intended to protect women. Procuring an abortion was not a crime in South Carolina and was illegal in Massachusetts only after the fetus had "stirred". Most Americans of this period did not regard abortion as a crime until the fetus had "quickened" (begun to move perceptibly in the womb). 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.

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.

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Runaway Slaves and Drapetomania

Estimating the total number of runaways is difficult. Some consider the claim of a southern judge in 1855 that the South had lost “upwards of sixty thousand slaves” to the North to be a credible estimate. Frederick Olmsted discovered as he toured the South during the 1850s that on virtually every large or medium sized plantation he visited masters complained about runaways. It was a rare planter among those who owned twenty or more slaves who could boast that none of his slaves had ever run off.

Masters were forced to explain why contented and well cared for servants abandoned them so frequently and in such large numbers. Among other disciplines, masters looked to science (i.e. pseudo science) for answers. Dr Samuel Cartwright of New Orleans offered a medical explanation. In an article published in DeBows’Review in September 1851, Cartwright explained that many slaves suffered from “Drapetomania, Or the Disease Causing Negroes to Run Away.” Dr. Cartwright hypothesized, “The cause, in most cases, that induces the negro to runaway from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation.” The doctor went on to assure his readers that the Creator’s will in regard to the negro is that he shall be a “submissive knee bender,” noting a particular anatomical conformation of the knee supposedly peculiar to the race. If the white man abuses the negro or tries to put him on an equal footing, Doctor Cartwright said, it causes a mental imbalance which required, “…whipping it out of them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct.”

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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The Chinese immigration “problem” began in California. California, which became a state in 1850, far from major population centers, was confronted with a chronic shortage of workers needed to meet expanding demands for labor. The available white labor supply in California was too costly. Unhappy workers could always take up independent grub stake mining. Profitable individual mining continued late into the nineteenth century in the rich streams of California.

American small producers and workers saw Asian immigrants as a coerced labor force, not unlike slaves, and, as such, a tool that big corporations could use to their detriment. For example, the San Jose branch of the Workingmen's party saw its goal as persevering “in this struggle and agitation until we have eliminated from our midst the Asiatic serfs transported to these shores…at the behest and in the interests of soulless monopolies, by which free labor is being enslaved.” To the small producers, the availability of Asian labor to corporations spelled the end of their independence. They would be forced out of business or farming. Working men, saw Asian labor threatening their jobs, standard of living, and perhaps most important, their unions, which fought to sustain and increase both of these. The anti-Asian movement was less a movement against Asian workers themselves as it was against big corporations.

American workers made a distinction between voluntary and induced immigration. Voluntary immigrants chose to come to America because they valued liberty, equality and the American way of life. Induced immigrants came on the terms of big corporations. The induced immigrants were regarded as tools of big corporations and despoilers of the American way of life.

Chinese immigration did have a negative economic impact on American workers. By 1870, the Chinese were a highly visible segment of the San Francisco labor force (13.2 percent). The immediate consequence of this labor influx was a reduction of wages and the extension of the working day. Of all trades in San Francisco, cigar manufacturing was the most affected by Chinese labor. Ninety one percent of all cigar makers in San Francisco were Chinese. Cigar makers in California, because of cheap Chinese labor, averaged wages ten per cent lower than in twenty other states. Wages for Chinese workers averaged half those of white workers in the shoe and clothing industries. White workers blamed the Chinese for falling wages.

Immigration seemed responsible for the new vulnerability of workers because it expanded the labor pool and created a reservoir of potential strikebreakers. Raised initially because of the Chinese, but later generalized to include southern, central, and eastern European immigrants, the economic threat posed by immigration politicized workers as trade unionists.

Chinese immigration became a national issue culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which forbade any additional Chinese immigrants for ten years. The law was regularly extended each decade until it was repealed in 1943 when China was given a small annual quota of 105 immigrants which continued in effect until 1965.

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The Birth of Racism in America

In the late summer of 1619 a storm beaten Dutch ship (possibly a pirate ship) appeared in the harbor at Jamestown. The ship had nothing to trade except twenty Africans recently taken from a Spanish vessel. An exchange for food was made and the Dutch ship sailed away. It is not clear if the Africans were considered slaves or indentured servants by the English settlers. There was no precedence in England for enslaving a class of people for life and making that status inevitable. It is clear, however, that by 1640, at least one African had been declared a slave. This African was ordered by the court "to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere."

The development of slavery in Virginia set the pattern for the development of slavery throughout the South and laid the foundations for the development of race relations in America.

Although blacks were held in hereditary servitude long before Virginia laws specifically recognized slavery, a large number of Virginia’s blacks worked as servants for a limited term or otherwise earned their freedom just like whites. White and black servants worked together in the fields, shared the same punishments, the same food, and the same living quarters. The most remarkable evidence of a racially open society comes from the records of Northampton County. These records indicate that some twenty nine per cent of the county’s blacks were free and that a least two of these, Francis Payne and Anthony Johnson were planters (Johnson even becoming a slave owner himself).

During the second half of the 17th century, the British economy improved and the supply of British indentured servants declined as poor Britons had better economic opportunities at home. To lure cheap labor to America, terms of indentures became fixed and shorter. By the 1670s Virginia had a large number of restless and relatively poor white men (most of them former indentured servants) threatening the established order of the wealthy and propertied. A popular revolt in 1676, the so called Bacon’s Rebellion, led Virginia planters to begin importing black slaves in large numbers in preference to the more expensive and politically restive white indentured servants.

The increasingly high price of free labor was incompatible with the profitable running of plantations. The landowners turned to slave labor, encouraging the first massive introduction of slaves from Africa in 1698. The new labor force was more controllable because blacks, as a group, were not normally thought to be naturally guaranteed the “rights of Englishmen” accorded to white freemen. In short, the system was to be based purely on force, and Virginia’s laws soon reflected this.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

U.S. attacks Mexico (1914)

The opening of vast new oil reserves in Mexico, coupled with the conviction that the existing Mexican government under Victoriano Huerta was friendly to British oil interests, spurred the United States to a policy of armed intervention in an attempt to topple the Huerta government. In addition to the economic motivations for U.S. policy in Mexico, Woodrow Wilson, believing in the universal efficacy of the democratic process, was particularly hostile to Huerta who had attained the presidency through violence. With regard to his policy toward the Huerta regime, Wilson stated that he intended “…to teach the Latin American republics to elect good men.”

In its drive to topple Huerta, the Wilson Administration enforced an arms embargo on Mexico. This policy was abandoned when the pro-U.S. Constitutionalists began winning and required additional arms to topple Huerta. The final U.S. intervention against Huerta, the seizure of Vera Cruz, ostensibly to obtain satisfaction for an affront to the American flag, served the more important purpose of cutting Huerta off from vital military supplies and customs revenues coming from Vera Cruz. The occupation of Vera Cruz ultimately led to the ousting of the Huerta government and the installation of the pro-American Constitutionalists. With the triumph of the Constitutionalists, American oil companies were to gain pre-eminence in the Mexican oil fields.

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Teddy Roosevelt and "Protective Interventionism"

In 1904 when Theodore Roosevelt announced the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declaring in a message to Congress that:

“If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters; if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America as elsewhere ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, exercise an international police power.”

Ostensibly invoked to forestall European interventions for debt collections in the Hemisphere, Roosevelt’s “protective interventionism”, in fact, laid the basis for frequent U.S. military intervention in the Caribbean, and the final incorporation of the area into the U.S. sphere of influence. With the advent of the Roosevelt Corollary it was no longer necessary for a European or Latin American government to do any thing concrete to trigger a U.S. intervention. All that was required was the unilateral decision of the United States that intervention was appropriate. With the construction of key naval installations and the adoption of Theodore Roosevelt’s ideology of the “Big Stick”, the United States established a strategic hegemony in the Caribbean and nominated itself to the position of international police power for the area.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Whiteness of a Different Color by Matthew Frye Jacobson (Book Review)

Jacobson contends that the concept of race is a product of politics and culture and is in fact “a modem superstition”.

The perception of race is a matter of power relationships. The Irish were considered part of a Celtic “race”, inferior to Anglo in the nineteenth century largely because they were outsiders. What made them outsiders? Certainly the long history of English occupation and Irish subjugation was a starting point, but the sticking point was probably religion. As late as 1960, with the election of John F. Kennedy, Catholics (and the ethnic groups that made up their congregations) were not considered quite American. Catholics were considered “ethnic”. In Jacobson’s terms, “not quite white”. Kennedy was attacked for being susceptible to taking orders from the Pope contrary to the good of the American people. Kennedy’s election marked the final passage of Catholics into the main stream of American life.

There appears to be a tremendous need within human society for people to “belong” to some identifiable group. Outsiders are almost by definition inferior to one’s own group in some way. Perhaps this is a reflection of identity formation. Once identified as part of what Benedict Anderson would call “an imagined community” (gang, nation, race), the cohesion of the group becomes of paramount importance to the individual. Group identity becomes the discursive boundary (“ I am an American therefore....”, “I am a Muslim therefore....”). Groups can become more inclusive if the cohesion of the group is maintained. Fear and conflict appear to be catalysts for making groups more inclusive while maintaining cohesion. Thus the Nazi threat of the 1 940s made America more tolerant of ethnic and cultural differences (“expanding the borders of whiteness”). Similarly the rise of a more militant black consciousness succeeded in papering over earlier white ethnic European differences in the face of a common “enemy”.

Inclusion in the dominant group is about assimilation and cohesion. Assimilation is the badge of acceptability. In the early days of the Saudi Naval Expansion Program (SNEP), for example, Saudis were not accustomed to dealing with professional women in the workplace. Business required women to travel to Saudi Arabia, which was unacceptable to the Saudis. Not sending them was unacceptable to the Americans. Ultimately, the Saudis declared the women, “honorary men” so that they could travel and work in the Kingdom. Because of their work status, American women had been assimilated into the Saudi world view as “men”. Jacobson correctly indicates that a similar process breaks down the barriers between different ethnic and racial groups.

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Book Review: Discipline & Punish by Michael Foucault

A truly thought provoking book on the nature and purpose of punishment. In the final analysis, Foucault argues that the purpose of punishment is to insure the docility and utility of the population in support of the goals of the ruling elite. Punishment then operates at two levels, overt and covert. Overt punishment being the police power of the state, covert punishment being the penalties of societal institutions in the society (schools, the workplace, religion.. .what Foucault calls disciplinary society). The optimal situation for a ruling elite is to have the population internalize the norms of the elite and police itself with very little external force (social order with maximum economy).

The key issue then becomes, “Who rules?” In a small, stable, homogeneous society with internalized-shared values there would be very little need for punishment. The clash of values produces deviations from the “norm”.. .and thus anti-social behavior (crime). Every crime is a revolt against the status quo.

In the post-9/l 1 world we may be seeing the emergence of the “rationalization of the means of control” over mass populations. Technology offers the tools for the economic surveillance and tracking of people. As Foucault points out, continuous surveillance is the ultimate means of insuring that no one deviates from the norm. The question becomes what values will control the deployment of such technology. There are parallels between the challenge to current American civil liberties and privacy rights posed by the emergence of new “rationalizing” surveillance technology, and the loss of traditional rights suffered by 18th & 19th century workers during the Industrial Revolution that rationalized the means of production. The book is helpful in that it establishes some fundamental questions about discipline and punishment that provide an analytical framework applicable to various societies in various times.

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That Noble Dream by Peter Novick (Book Review)

The work establishes the question, “Is objectivity possible in the writing of history”, as the central proposition of the development of the American historical profession since

The work portrays the vagaries of a narrow, and increasingly isolated, craft guild which appears to produce historical research primarily for members of its shrinking guild, having dismissed involvement with: (1) general education at the secondary and lower levels, (2) the general lay audience with an interest in history, and (3) public history. (Pages 362, 372,373,513)

The better question for historians to ask might be, “What is history for?” Can history be used as a tool for socialization within society. . . and if so how and what are the legitimate parameters for teaching? Can history be used as a predictive tool? The study of military history suggests that history can teach predicative lessons. What about other fields?

“Good history” is as subjective a term as “good law”, both are subject to the shifting values of the time and subject to the vagaries of advocacy. Advocacy history appears no more suspect than history that is refereed by “peer review”. The peers in a peer review are either coming from one homogenous point of view (as in the early Anglo-Saxon, Social Darwinism days of 1884, the year of the founding of the American Historical Association) which makes their world view suspect in terms of it universal application, or they are coming from diverse ideological-social/racial-gender backgrounds, which make their peer review comments very much like the existing system of American legal advocacy. Just as there is “Enough law for every clients position”, so too there appears to be enough history to serve a multitude of worthy ends if one doesn’t insist on one eternal, immutable and knowable Truth. Worthy ends such as: (1) History as art (fact based expositions of the human condition much like the fictional exposition of the human condition found in novels), (2) history as predictive tool (e.g. Sun Tzu’s ART of WAR),(3) history as socialization instrument ( an inclusive and expanding public mythology for an immigrant nation).

Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. 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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