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 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.

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.

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. 

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.

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.

My titles at Barnes and Noble

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.

Alfred Terry: The True Villain of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the LittleBighorn, George Armstrong Custer was the victim of another man’s devious scheming at the battle of the Little Bighorn.     The villain of the Little Bighorn was General Alfred Terry and his flawed battle plan.  According to Philbrick, General Terry “wanted Custer to attack if he found a fresh Indian trail.”  He says, everyone knew perfectly well what Custer was going to do once Terry,” in the words of Major Brisbin ‘turned the wild man loose.’”(Philbrick, 99) 

General Terry was protective of his own military reputation however and was spinning an invisible and cunning web.  “Terry had a lawyer’s talent for crafting documents that appeared to say one thing but were couched in language that could allow for an entirely different interpretation should circumstances require it.”  Terry’s ambiguously worded orders to Custer, allowed him to protect his reputation no matter what happened.  “If Custer bolted for the village and claimed a great victory, it was because Terry had the wisdom to give him an independent command.  If Custer did so and failed, it was because he had disobeyed Terry’s written orders.”  Philbrick continues, “As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn.  But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces.  Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.” (Philbrick, 102-103) 

Custer was a simple soldier, doing his duty, being manipulated by forces beyond his understanding or control.  “After September 11, 2001, and the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, it (is) possible to recognize…that no matter how misguided the conflict, soldiers such as Custer were only doing their duty.” Philbrick continues, “As it turns out, Custer’s Native opponents had known this all along.”  The warrior He Dog summed it up, “Washington was the place all the troubles started.”(Philbrick, 305)

Paperback edition

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.