Monday, December 16, 2013

Where is the real Treasure Island?

Norman Island is often mentioned as the probable site of the "real Treasure Island."   Norman Island  lies some fifty miles east of Puerto Rico in the British Virgin Islands, a group of thirty two small islands and islets  only a few of which are inhabited.   Most of this British colony's 13,000 people live on Tortola.  These islands were heavily infested with pirates.  The coves and bays provided a lurking place for pirates and buccaneers.  Only a really knowledgeable sailor could make it through the maze of reefs, which proved an ideal hiding place.  One of the most famous legends of these islands is the one of Dead Chest (the name of an actual island), celebrated for centuries in the Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum song.  Blackbeard the pirate marooned fifteen of his men on the small speck of land named Dead Chest with only a bottle of rum and a cutlass. 

Norman Island takes its name from an 18th century buccaneer who is said to have buried his treasure on the island.  The legend of Norman's treasure was first documented in a small book entitled LETTERS FROM THE VIRGIN ISLANDS (London, 1843). The surface of the island is rugged, covered with scrub timber and Guinea grass, and punctuated with bare rock outcroppings.  The island is also liberally sprinkled with caves.  At a spot called Treasure Point, there are two caves into which a small boat can enter from the sea.  The larger cave appears to have steps carved into the rock.  A few treasure holes can be found in likely spots.   Except for an occasional curious visitor from a yacht the bats have the caves and the treasure to themselves.

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Are Zombies Real?

One well known concept introduced by Haitian Voodoo is “zombification”, the practice of reviving the dead.  The term zombie came into general use after the publication of The Magic Island in 1929, in which William Seabrook described his experiences in Haiti, including an encounter with the walking dead: “The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but incapable of expression.” 

The dead risen from their graves and animated by malevolent Voodoo sorcerers, a fanciful superstition?  Perhaps only partially according to Harvard trained biologist Wade Davis who has studied zombies in Haiti.  Victims were only made to look dead, by means of a drug that dramatically slowed metabolism.  According to Davis, a Voodoo practitioner prepares a powder that is rubbed into a victim’s skin. The subject becomes paralyzed, his lips turn blue, and within a matter of hours his metabolism slows to a level almost indistinguishable from death. If the victim survives the first few hours after poisoning, he or she revives spontaneously.  Then the so called zombie master administers Datura or some other drug that perpetuates the victim’s disorientation and reliance on the zombie master.  One of the ingredients that Davis found in every zombie powder he examined (along with such things as toads, sea worms, lizards, tarantulas, and human bones) was a dried species of blowfish.  Many of these fish contain a powerful poison known as tetrodotoxin, one of the most powerful non-protein poisons known.

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The Search for the Holy Grail

Just what is the Holy Grail?   The Holy Grail is the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.   Besides being an archaeological artifact of unbelievable importance,  the cup is said to have certain powers, including:  (1)healing and restorative ability; (2) conveys knowledge of God; (3) invisible to unworthy eyes; (4)ability to feed those present (e.g. the miracle of the loaves and fishes);  and (5) it bestows immortality  on the possessor.        

What happened to the Grail?  The Grail supposedly passed into the hands of Joseph of Arimathea.   Joseph appears briefly in the Gospels as a wealthy member of the Jewish council in Jerusalem and secret disciple of Christ, who obtained the body of Christ after the Crucifixion and laid it in the tomb.

In the twelfth century,  non-scriptural writings began to appear telling how the hallowed vessel of the Last Supper came into Joseph's possession and had been conveyed to Britain.  Why Britain?  Some suggest that the wealthy Joseph made his money in the tin trade with Cornwall and had made frequent voyages to Britain in the past.

According to legend Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to England in 37 A.D. and founded an abbey upon the Island of Glass (present day Glastonbury).

Where is the Holy Grail now?  A great hill (tor) towers over the peaceful village of Glastonbury.   Atop the hill are the remains of St. Michael's church.  There are large caves beneath the hill and at least one theory holds that the Holy Grail rests in one of these caves.     

Whatever the truth of the legends surrounding Glastonbury, it is, undoubtedly, the jumping off place for a search for King Arthur.  The historic Arthur was a Roman-British warlord who resisted the barbarian invasions as the Roman Empire collapsed.  The dates usually attributed to King Arthur lie between 460 -540 A.D.  It is possible that the historic Arthur could have been familiar with the legend of Joseph of Aramethea's presence in Britain, and sent followers in search of relics, the whole story being picked up and embellished by later Medieval storytellers into the now well known Quest for the Holy Grail.

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Francisco Solano Lopez: Latin America's Bloodiest War

Francisco Solano Lopez

French Premier George Clemenceau once remarked that, “War is too important to be left to the generals.”  Some military men might think that war is too important to be left to the politicians.  This was certainly true in the case of Francisco Solano Lopez.

Francisco Solano Lopez became president of the small land locked South American country of Paraguay 
in 1862.  His chief claim to office was that he was the eldest son of the previous president/dictator Carlos Antonio Lopez.  The father had groomed the son to take his place.  Francisco was appointed a brigadier general at the age of 18 (1844).  In 1853 he was sent to Europe as minister plenipotentiary to purchase arms and military supplies.  He spent some eighteen months in Europe and became enamored with the military pomp of the court of Napoleon III of France When someone told the short, fat Lopez that he resembled the great Napoleon, he began to wear uniforms in the style of the great Emperor and even had an exact replica of Napoleon’s crown made to take back to Paraguay He devoured literature on the campaigns of Napoleon and prided himself on knowing the minutia of every battle. 

Returning to Paraguay, Solano Lopez was appointed Minister of War in 1855.  He was subsequently appointed Vice President, and upon the death of his father became president.  He then called a special session of congress which chose him as president for ten years.  During his first two years as president, López continued his father's domestic policies, especially the promotion of agriculture, but foreign affairs were his obsession. Although he had practically no military training, López fancied himself a great political and military strategist. Solano Lopez had visions of “Greater Paraguay”.  He wanted to annex portions of Brazil 
to link Paraguay to the Atlantic Ocean He began to expand Paraguay’s military capability, developing war industries, mobilizing large numbers of men for military service and building fortifications in key strategic areas.  Diplomatically, Solano López allied himself with the conservative government in neighboring Uruguay which was known to be hostile to the interests of Brazil

In 1864, Brazil 
threw its support behind an armed uprising against the government of Uruguay Uruguay sought help from Paraguay Lopez notified Brazil that any occupation of Uruguayan lands by Brazil would be considered as an attack on Paraguay. Brazil sent troops into Uruguay on October 12, 1864

declared war on Brazil on December 13 and invaded the Brazilian province of  Mato Grosso, quickly overrunning most of the province and seizing its diamond mines. Lopez next intended to drive the Brazilians out of Uruguay, but to reach Uruguay he needed to march across the territory of Argentina The Argentine government refused to allow his force to cross its province of Corrientes Lopez then declared war on Argentina (April 13, 1865), overrunning Corrientes province and declaring its annexation to Greater Paraguay.  

On May 1, Brazil, Argentina 
and the newly installed rebel government in Uruguay signed the Treaty of the Triple Alliance which stipulated that the allies would pursue war against the existing government of Paraguay until “no arms or elements of war should be left to it.”

Francisco Solano Lopez had embarked on a war which pitted Paraguay with a population of 500,000 against three countries with a combined population of 11 million. Lopez's chief asset was a well-drilled army of 8,000 men, which was rapidly expanded through conscription.  Lopez’s earlier preparations for aggressive war allowed initial local numerical superiority and early victories, but by 1866 the Allies had blunted his advances and were beginning to bring their superior numbers to bear.  The Triple Alliance was on the offensive, driving the Paraguayans out of the previously conquered territories and preparing to invade Paraguay In September, 1866, Lopez  realized that the war was lost and was ready to sign a peace treaty with the allies.  The allies demanded unconditional surrender and regime change.  This Lopez could not accept.

The army with which Francisco Solano Lopez began the war was gone.  Now every male was to be conscripted: ten-year-olds fought and died beside their grandfathers. The new armies marched half-naked, their colonels barefoot. Young boys wore fake beards and were armed with sticks.  Units attacked Brazilian ironclads armed only with machetes. And yet Paraguayans continued to fight. At Peribibuy, two thousand men and boys faced a force ten times their size, firing their few muskets and then, out of ammunition, throwing stones.

While an indifferent general, Francisco Solano Lopez was a first rate tyrant.  Through a system of nepotism, liberal rewards and harsh punishments he was able to bind the fate of the Paraguayan people to his own.  Lopez cultivated loyalty by fostering a variety of populist measures directed at encouraging a veneer of solidarity between the Westernized president dressed in the latest French military fashion and his, bare-foot Indian subjects.  More importantly, a pervasive spy network reported even the mildest grumbling.  Grumbling was punished by death.  The spy network included household servants and even priests reporting back from the confessional.  One of the dictator’s most useful allies was the Roman Catholic Church.  The Church told the ignorant parishioners that Lopez ruled by divine right and anyone dying in his service would go directly to heaven.  Clerics who disagreed ended up in jail.   In a last ditch effort to inflame the religious mania of the people, Lopez proclaimed himself a saint. Twenty three Paraguayan clerics objected to the canonization and were executed.

In 1868, with the allies steadily advancing, Lopez convinced himself that there was a conspiracy against his life. Several hundred prominent Paraguayan citizens were arrested and executed, including his brothers and brothers-in-law, cabinet ministers, judges, prefects, military officers, bishops and priests, and nine-tenths of the civil service, together with more than two hundred foreigners.

In August 1869 the allies captured the capital, Asuncion, and set up a new government.  Solano López continued resistance from the mountains northeast of Asuncion The Brazilians tracked Lopez down to his mountain lair.  On March 1, 1870 
the Brazilians surprised Lopez at his camp at Cerro Cora and killed the would-be Napoleon.

The Paraguayan War, or War of the Triple Alliance as it is also known, lasted from 1864 to 1870 and was one of the bloodiest wars in Latin American history. Paraguay lost half of its population, the survivors being mostly women and children, and had to cede a great part of its territory to its neighbors.  Only some 28,000 adult males survived the debacle.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Historic Brentsville Jail Needs Your Help!

The Prince William County Jail at Brentsville, Virginia has a colorful and tragic history.  Construction of the Jail began in 1820 and was completed by 1822. A large percentage of the jail population during pre-Civil War days consisted of African slaves awaiting sale to plantation owners.  Captured runaway slaves also made up a large percentage of the jail’s population.  Runaway slaves attempted to burn their way out of the structure in the 1840s.  The jail also housed male and female debtors and common criminals, segregated by race and gender.

The Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation is currently raising money to create a museum exhibit and interpretive services for the Jail, which is the final building to be restored at the 29 acres Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre, which includes the 1822 Courthouse and Jail, an 1850s log home, an 1870s church, a traditional one room school house, an archaeology trail and a nature trail.

The Brentsville Jail Museum when completed will house a number of period rooms such as the Jailor’s Office, Maximum Security Cell, Debtor’s Cell, Victorian era dormitory (reflecting the building’s history as a school), and a Korean War era master bedroom (reflecting the building’s history as a private residence).

The Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation invites you to help preserve history for the enjoyment and enlightenment of generations to come.


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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Custer's Indian Mistress

One of the enduring stories associated with George Armstrong Custer is that of his having an Indian mistress and child. 

After the battle of the Washita in 1868, the battle which propelled Custer into the public’s perception as America’s pre-eminent Indian fighter, Custer took a number of women prisoners.  According to Ben Clark, the chief scout of the expedition, “…many of the squaws captured at the Washita were used by the officers.” According to Clark, “Custer picked out a fine looking one (named Monahsetah aka Me-o-tzi) and had her in his tent every night.” Captain Frederick Benteen corroborated Clark’s story, relating how the regiment’s surgeon reported seeing Custer not only “sleeping with that Indian girl all winter long, but…many times in the very act of copulating with her!”  The story is also common in Cheyenne oral history, which also alleges that that she bore Custer’s child, called Yellow Hair or Yellow Bird.

Monahsetah was the seventeen year old daughter of Chief Little Rock.  Her name translates as “The young grass that shoots in the spring.”  Although not acknowledging any intimate relationship, Custer describes Monahsetah in his book My Life on the Plains as “…exceedingly comely…her well-shaped head was crowned with a luxuriant growth of the most beautiful silken tresses, rivalling in color the blackness of the raven and extending, when allowed to fall loosely over her shoulders, to below her waist.” 

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.

General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Youngstown, Ohio: An American Tragedy

Youngstown, Ohio 1953

Youngstown, Ohio 2013

Youngstown and America

Between the 1920s and 1960s, Youngstown, Ohio was an important steel producing hub dominated by such companies as Republic Steel, U.S. Steel, and regional giant Youngstown Sheet and Tube.  Youngstown reached its’ zenith in the 1950s, with a prosperous population of 168,000.  The city’s 1951 Comprehensive Plan envisioned a city of the future between 200,000 and 250,000 people, with 1,700 acres zoned for heavy industry.
The city’s bright future was upended on September 19 1977, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company announced it would close the Campbell Mill. More than 5,000 jobs were lost immediately. Fifty thousand jobs soon followed, as Sheet and Tube’s Brier Hill Works closed two years later, and mill closings at U.S. Steel and Republic Steel followed.
Unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves. City leaders and the federal government, withheld support from an employee initiative to take over and run some of the defunct steel mills proposed by the Ecumenical Coalition of the Mahoning Valley. The coming of the free trade era witnessed manufacturing at major factories throughout America fall into rapid decline as corporations moved jobs overseas.
Since 1950, Youngstown’s population has fallen by two thirds and now stands at 66,000. Most industry is now gone, and many neighborhoods have more homes vacant than inhabited. The city has demolished at least 2,566 blighted structures since January 2006. There are 4,000 to 5,000 vacant houses in Youngstown awaiting demolition.  Many homes, however, fall to arson first.  Arsonists torched 158 houses in 2005 alone.
Youngstown’s issues are, in fact, American issues. A recent New York University-Harvard study provides an explanation.  Corporate profits have decoupled from corporate investment in America.  Today corporate profits account for 12 percent of Gross Domestic Product, while net investment has shrunk to 4 percent.  Investments can reduce companies’ quarterly earnings, to which most CEOs’ income is linked.  The current business paradigm holds that share price is the sole determinant of a corporation’s value and that corporate management’s primary responsibility is to shareholders, rather than balancing the interests of shareholders, employees and consumers.  The outsourcing of American jobs is another manifestation of this paradigm.  Between 2004 and 2009 American based multi-national corporations 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 (former head of the Obama administration’s “jobs council”, who receives an annual compensation of approximately $15 million) 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 (worker). 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.”
Corporate focus on short term profits killed Youngstown, Ohio and is killing America.

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Friday, June 28, 2013

A Civilization Collapses: The Strange Case of Easter Island

Scientists now believe that Easter Island was colonized by the Polynesians in the fifth century A.D.  At first there were perhaps twenty or thirty colonists on the island.  As the population grew closely related households formed clans, each with its own religious and ceremonial center.  Competition between the clans produced the giant statues of Easter Island.  At each ceremonial site the clan members erected between one and fifteen of the huge stone statues that survive today.

The statues were carved using only stone tools.  Each statue is the same, carved to resemble a male head and torso. On top of the head was placed a 'topknot' of red stone weighing about ten tons. The carving was time-consuming rather than a complex task. The real problem was transporting the statues, most at least twenty feet high and weighing several tons, from the island’s quarry across the island and then standing them up straight on the clan’s ceremonial platform.  The solution to the transportation problem sealed the fate of the island’s people.  The statues were moved by human labor using tree trunks as rollers.

The population grew steadily from twenty or thirty in 450 A.D. to some 7,000 by 1550 A.D.  As the population grew, the number of competing clans grew and the competition to create ever larger and more numerous statues intensified until by 1600 there were over six hundred huge stone statues dotting the island.  When the society was at its peak, it suddenly collapsed because of massive environmental degradation brought on by the deforestation of the whole island.

The most demanding requirement for wood came from the need to move the large statues to ceremonial sites around the island. Larger and larger quantities of timber were required as the competition between the clans to erect statues grew. As a result by1600 the island was almost completely deforested and statue erection was brought to a halt leaving many stranded at the quarry.

The deforestation of the island spelled the end of statue building and the sophisticated ceremonial life of the island.  It had even graver consequences.   The shortage of trees forced people unable to build huts to live in caves.  Canoes could no longer be built so people could not leave the island.  Removal of the tree cover badly affected the soil of the island.  Crop yields dwindled.  The food base could no longer support the population. Conflicts over diminishing resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare between the clans. As the amount of food available fell the population turned to cannibalism.

By the time the Europeans discovered the island, the primitive islanders could no longer remember what their ancestors had achieved and could only say that the huge figures had “walked” across the island.

The real mystery of Easter Island is not the giant stone statues but the question: Why were the Easter Islanders, knowing that they were isolated from the rest of the world and totally dependent on the limited resources of the island, unable to find harmony with their environment when disaster was staring them in the face?

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The U.S. and the Axis in Latin America

In the late 1930’s the United States took various substantive steps to check Axis penetration of Latin America. President Franklin Roosevelt, anxious to displace the influence of Fascist military missions in Latin America (which intermingled Fascist propaganda with military training), initiated a program of military assistance to Latin America which successfully displaced the Axis powers. The success of the U.S. effort centered on Washington’s willingness to underbid its competition and offer supplies and quality technical assistance at bargain prices. By acquiring a supply monopoly on military goods, the U.S., in addition to benefiting its own industries, gained a significant degree of economic and political leverage over Latin American military establishments, thus helping to prevent the rise of anti-American nationalism in the armed forces. Such leverage was a potent instrument in the defense of U.S. interests in Latin America. The roots of U.S. massive military involvement in Latin America in the 1950’s and 60’s were established during the Good Neighbor period.

By the late 1930’s defense considerations indicated that the proper course for the U.S. was to ward off Axis influence in Latin America by tying the Latin American economies more closely to its own. The U.S. economic offensive helped to curb growing Axis penetration in the Hemisphere. The Volta Rendonda steel complex, the Export-Import Bank’s most dramatic project, for example, was undertaken to pre-empt Brazil’s steel industry from German and Japanese interests. Similarly, other credits helped to circumscribe Axis influence.

A brief history of the causes and methods of U.S. intervention in Latin America from the Spanish American War to the era of the Good Neighbor Policy.

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Marcus Crassus finds death in Syria

Marcus Crassus

Without the consent of the Senate, the wealthy and politically powerful Marcus Crassus decided to embark on a war of choice against the little known Parthian Empire (modern day Syria/Iraq/ Iran).  There was nothing the Roman masses loved better than small wars of conquest.  Roman legions had easily crushed armies of other eastern kingdoms such as Pontus and Armenia and Crassus expected a similar result against the Parthians.

Crassus arrived in Syria in late 55 B.C.  He had under his command thirty five thousand heavy infantry (seven Roman legions), four thousand light infantry and four thousand cavalry.  This force was augmented by six thousand cavalry from the king of Armenia, a Roman ally. 

Like many other Roman commanders, Crassus combined over aggressiveness with a penchant for poor reconnaissance. Crassus marched into the desert, guided by an Arab chieftain named Ariamnes who had previously served the Romans.  Ariamnes, however, was now playing a double game.  He was in the pay of the Parthians and led the Roman army on tiring marches far from water.  Ultimately he led the Romans into the trap set by the Parthian general Surena.  The thirsty and exhausted Romans encountered the Parthians near the town of Carrhae (in modern Syria in the year 53 B.C).

Well aware of the strengths of his own troops, but woefully ignorant of the capabilities of the enemy, Crasssus ordered the Roman infantry to form a square to repel a cavalry charge.  The Parthians did not charge.  The Parthian horse archers surrounded the Roman square and began to shower the Roman legionaries with arrows from a safe distance.

Unable to come to grips with the enemy, Crassus now hoped that the Parthians would simply run out of arrows.  The Parthian general Surena had, however, not neglected logistics when laying his trap.  Thousands of camels were resupplying the horse archers with fresh ammunition.  The mathematics of the battle suggested that Crassus would run out of Romans before Surena ran out of arrows. 

The next day Surena offered to negotiate a truce with Crassus.  Crassus was reluctant, but his troops were in a near state of mutiny.  At the meeting Crassus and his accompanying generals were murdered.  The remaining Romans at Carrhae attempted to flee to the relative safety of the Armenian hills where the Parthian cavalry could not operate as easily.  Most were killed or captured.  Of the initial force, some five thousand returned alive, ten thousand were captured and the rest died. 

The head of Crassus was presented to the Parthian king, who is said to have ordered that molten gold be poured into its gaping mouth, in disdain for Crassus’ greed for the possessions of others.

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Sunday, June 09, 2013

"Civil War Northern Virginia 1861"

In the mid-nineteenth century, Arlington was an eleven-hundred-acre estate managed by U.S. Colonel and Mrs. Robert E. Lee; Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun Counties consisted of rolling farmland and tiny villages. This peaceful region was thrown into chaos as South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860 and other slave states followed until Virginia finally joined the Confederacy in April and May 1861. The "invasion" of Northern Virginia on May 24, 1861, created a no-man's land between Yankee and Rebel armies. Some citizens joined Confederate forces, while others stayed to face uncertainty. William S. Connery offers new insights into this most important time in American history.

Author William S. Connery gives a fascinating account of his book The Civil War in Northern Virginia in this Virginia Time Travel interview.


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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Historical Swordsmanship

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Southern Spy in Northern Virginia

A Southern Spy in Northern Virginia By Charles V. Mauro

As the Civil War raged, Confederate Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart entrusted a secret album to Laura Ratcliffe, a young girl in Fairfax County, Virginia, “as a token of his high appreciation of her patriotism, admiration of her virtues, and pledge of his lasting esteem.” A devoted Southerner, Laura provided a safe haven for Rebel forces, along with intelligence gathered from passing Union soldiers. Ratcliffe's album contained four poems and forty undated signatures: twenty-six of Confederate officers and soldiers and fourteen of loyal Confederate civilians.

A Southern Spy in Northern Virginia uncovers the mystery behind this album, identifying who the soldiers were and when they could have signed its pages. The result is a fascinating look at the covert lives and relationships of civilians and soldiers during the war.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

August 24, 1814: Washington in Flames

By Carole Herrick

August 24, 1814: Washington in Flames is an account of the British invasion and burning of America's capital. It details the flights of government leaders, particularly the Madisons, into the surrounding countryside, and the sacking of the city of Alexandria. This catastrophic event was a very small part in the War of 1812, but its significance to the country was tremendous. The torching of Washington D.C. rallied the people, and combined with the American victory at Baltimore three weeks later, a wave of patriotism was unleashed that began a much needed unification of the young nation. This horrific event should never have happened. It was definitely preventable.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

U.S. Prisons and Devil's Island

Devil's Island

At the top of the prison system pyramid in the U.S. are the so called Super-Maximum prisons. Super Maximum prisons are used to incarcerate “the worst of the worst”. Prisoners include terrorists, and prisoners who are too dangerous to be kept in normal prisons. Inmates have individual cells and are kept locked up for 23 hours per day. Each inmate is allowed one hour of outdoor solitary exercise per day. Inmates are not allowed contact with other prisoners and are under constant surveillance. There is only one supermax prison in the United States federal system, ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado where the U.S. government houses a number of convicted terrorists, gang leaders, and spies.

How do U.S. prisons compare to history’s most infamous prison, the French penal colony at Devil’s Island which also incarcerated “the worst of the worst”?

Perhaps the greatest secret of Devil’s Island is that its grim reputation as the “dry guillotine” was far worse than its reality…depending on who you were. Devil’s Island is the smallest of the three Salvation Islands, sitting off the coast of French Guiana. These islands together with large stretches of coastal French Guiana were used as French penal colonies from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and have come collectively to be known as “Devil’s Island” in popular culture.

Devil’s Island itself was used for political prisoners, the most famous being Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely accused of spying for the Germans. The treatment experienced by Dreyfus belies the stories of the horrors of Devil’s Island. A contemporary visitor described the prisoner’s daily routine: “…the prisoner rose every morning between 6 and 7 o'clock, had a cup of chocolate, a bath, and, if the weather permitted, a walk. While taking the bath the prisoner's wrists were tied around with a cord, one end of which was held by a warder. This was to prevent any attempt to commit suicide.”

The non-political prisoners were the most hardened and incorrigible inmates in France. Some eighty thousand men were sent to the penal camps in French Guiana. About 20,000 died of malaria and other tropical diseases, but many died of inmate on inmate violence which was endemic.

The climate was bad, but the inmates made their own Hell on earth, at least according to Henri Charrière, one of the few prisoners to successfully escape from Devil's Island. Charrière, nicknamed Papillon (“butterfly”) wrote a detailed account of life in the camps and of his numerous attempts to escape. The guillotine was used frequently on the island to punish convicts who attacked guards or to punish prisoner-on-prisoner killings.

Francis Lagrange, sentenced to 10 years for counterfeiting currency, famously said that penal life in French Guiana was not as bad as some escapees had made out. What was life like? According to Lagrange, It was no worse than any other prison for the era, and in some ways it was better. Black marketing was universal and usually operated in collaboration with the guards. Much of how the men fared depended on the manner, philosophy, and honesty of particular officers and guards. Labor was largely unsupervised. Personal problems between the men, however, often created very tense situations. Inmate-on-inmate violence was common. It was, he said, “a penitentiary, not a summer camp.”

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier's Odyssey

Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier's Odyssey by Robert C. Plumb

George P. McClelland, a member of the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry in the Civil War, witnessed some of the war’s most pivotal battles during his two and a half years of Union service. Death and destruction surrounded this young soldier, who endured the challenges of front line combat in the conflict Lincoln called “the fiery trial through which we pass.” Throughout his time at war, McClelland wrote to his family, keeping them abreast of his whereabouts and aware of the harrowing experiences he endured in battle. Never before published, McClelland’s letters offer fresh insights into camp life, battlefield conditions, perceptions of key leaders, and the mindset of a young man who faced the prospect of death nearly every day of his service. Through this book, the detailed experiences of one soldier—examined amidst the larger account of the war in the eastern theater—offer a fresh, personal perspective on one of our nation’s most brutal conflicts.

Your Brother in Arms follows McClelland through his Civil War odyssey, from his enlistment in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1862 and his journey to Washington and march to Antietam, followed by his encounters in a succession of critical battles: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, Petersburg, and Five Forks, Virginia, where he was gravely injured. McClelland’s words, written from the battlefield and the infirmary, convey his connection to his siblings and his longing for home. But even more so, they reflect the social, cultural, and political currents of the war he was fighting. With extensive detail, Robert C. Plumb expounds on McClelland’s words by placing the events described in context and illuminating the collective forces at play in each account, adding a historical outlook to the raw voice of a young soldier.

Beating the odds of Civil War treatment, McClelland recovered from his injury at Five Forks and was discharged as a brevet-major in 1865—a rank bestowed on leaders who show bravery in the face of enemy fire. He was a common soldier who performed uncommon service, and the forty-two documents he and his family left behind now give readers the opportunity to know the war from his perspective.

More than a book of battlefield reports, Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey is a volume that explores the wartime experience through a soldier’s eyes, making it an engaging and valuable read for those interested in American history, the Civil War, and military history.

Robert Plumb interview on Virginia Time Travel

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