Sunday, June 21, 2020

Martha Washington: the First Lady of Fashion

Martha Washington

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

At the time of her marriage to George Washington in 1759, Martha was 27 and George was twenty six.  Martha was one of the wealthiest women in Virginia, having inherited five plantations when her first husband died.  She was a bit of a clothes horse.  Then, as now, if you had wealth you flaunted it, making sure you had the best clothes ordered from London in the deepest, richest colors.  Such colors set the upper classes apart from poorer classes who wore drab homespun clothes in browns, beiges and tans. A woman from a wealthy family in Virginia in the 1770s could have worn a silk gown from China, linen from Holland, and footwear from England.

Tucked away in the recesses of Mount Vernon’s archival vaults is a pair of avant-garde deep purple silk high heels studded with silver sequins that Martha wore on the day of her wedding to George Washington.  Emily Shapiro, curator at Mount Vernon, describes the shoes as a little sassy and definitely “Over the top for the time….”

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The False Narrative: The Man Who Loved Custer


     Six months after the battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876), Frederick Whittaker’s A Complete Life of General George A. Custer was published.  Whittaker’s book was a canonization which presented Custer as a dashing and brilliant military leader abandoned to his fate by lesser, disloyal, treacherous, and cowardly men.  Whittaker borrowed generously from Custer’s own book My Life on the Plains, as well as on his own imagination, which was fulsome, since Whittaker was a professional writer of nickel and dime novel fiction for a leading publisher.

     Whittaker opens, “Much of Custer success has been attributed to good fortune, while it was really the result of a wonderful capacity for hard, energetic work, and a rapidity of intuition which is seldom found apart from military genius of the highest order,” and continues.  “Few men had more enemies than Custer, and no man deserved them less. The world has never known half the real nobility of his life nor a tithe of the difficulties under which he struggled. It will be the author’s endeavor to remedy this want of knowledge, to paint in sober earnest colors the truthful portrait of such a knight of romance as has not honored the world with his presence since the days of Bayard.”

     Whittaker writes, “…Custer’s invariable method of attack was the same which he adopted at the Big Horn, an attack on front and flank…from all sides if he had time to execute it….He counted much on the moral effect to be produced on an enemy by combined attacks and a cross-fire, and always found his calculations correct.  In fact only one thing could vitiate them.  This was the cowardice or disobedience in the leader of any of the fractions which were to work simultaneously….” According to Whittaker, Custer died because of Major Reno’s incapacity and Captain Benteen’s disobedience.  “Reno was ordered to ‘charge’: he obeyed by opening a hesitating skirmish and then running away.  Benteen was ordered to ‘come on; be quick.’  He obeyed by advancing three miles in two hours, and joining Reno in a three hour halt….he stopped, and let his chief perish.”

     Whittaker now turns to the testimony of one of the Indian scouts, Curly, who claimed to have escaped from the field of battle.  When Curly saw that the party with Custer was about to be overwhelmed, he begged Custer to let him show him a way to escape.  “…Custer looked at Curly, waved him away and rode back to the little group of men, to die with them.”  Why, Whittaker asks, did Custer go back to certain death?  “Because he felt that such a death as that which that little band of heroes was about to die, was worth the lives of all the general officers in the world….He weighed, in that brief moment of reflection, all the consequences to America of the lesson of life and the lesson of heroic death, and he chose death.”

     Whittaker’s biography of Custer molded the public’s perception of George Armstrong Custer for over fifty years, because it was endorsed and defended by Custer’s widow and her powerful friends and allies.  Elizabeth Custer was widowed at the age of thirty-four and spent the next fifty- seven years, until her death in 1933, glorifying and defending her husband’s reputation.  Only after her death did historians begin seriously re-examining the Custer legend.

Sun Tzu, the Master of War, once said, “Those who are skilled in producing surprises will win. In conflict, surprise will lead to victory. ” 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.

1.The Hostage, in which Abraham Lincoln is kidnapped by the rebels.
2.The German Invasion of America of 1889, in which Germany unexpectedly launches its might against the United States.
3.The Invasion of Canada 1933, in which the new American dictator launches a sneak attack on Canada.
4.Cherry Blossoms at Night: Japan Attacks the American Homeland (1942), in which Japan attacks the American homeland in a very surprising way.

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.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

The Normandy Campaign: June 6 to August 25, 1944

National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia

“Incentive is not ordinarily part of an infantryman’s life. For him there are no 25 or 50 missions to be completed for a ticket home. Instead the rifleman trudges into battle knowing that statistics are stacked against his survival. He fights without promise of either reward or relief. Behind every river, there’s another hill….and behind that hill, another river. After weeks or months in the line only a wound can offer him the comfort of safety, shelter, and a bed. Those who are left to fight, fight on, evading death but knowing that with each day of evasion they have exhausted one more chance for survival. Sooner or later, unless victory comes, the chase must end on the litter or in the grave”
General Omar N. Bradley, Commander US First Army.

June 6, 1944
On June 6, 1944 the Allies land in Normandy, on the north coast of France. Operation Overlord is underway.

June 7, 1944
Once ashore, the Allies must consolidate the immediate defense of the beaches and form a continuous front by expanding from them. The enemy fights stubbornly and is not easily overcome. In the American sector the marshes near Carentan and at the mouth of the river Vire hamper movements, and everywhere the country is suited to infantry defense. Normandy consists of a multitude of small fields divided by banks, with ditches and very high hedges. Artillery support for an attack is thus hindered by lack of good observation and it is extremely difficult to use tanks. It is infantry fighting all the way, with every little field a potential strong-point.

June 11, 1944
During the night, under deadly fire from American artillery, the Germans leave Carentan. The town is occupied, but the Germans soon counter-attack.

June 12, 1944
Due to heavy resistance, the US First Army has still not reached the line it was meant to occupy on day one of the landing. Allied units advance slowly both in the Cotentin Peninsula and south in the direction of St. Lo. In the first six days 326,000 men, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of stores have been landed.

June 13, 1944
A violent counter-attack by the German 17th Armored Division to recapture Carentan carries the Germans to the outskirts of the town before they are halted.

July 1, 1944
The headquarters of the US First Army issues a directive for a general offensive. This is to begin on 3 July with the US VIII Corps, west of the Cotentin Peninsula and extend progressively eastward to the rest of the Army.

July 3, 1944
At 5:30 A.M., in a blinding rainstorm, the American First Army launches the “Battle of the Hedges”.

July 5, 1944
Heavy fighting continues over the whole Normandy front.

July 6, 1944
The 83rd Division continues its slow advance to the south against fierce German resistance. Every forward unit suffers a steady drain of casualties from snipers, mortaring and artillery fire, which both sides employ daily to maintain pressure upon each other.

July 7, 1944
The 83rd Division faces opposition from two SS Divisions, the 2nd and the 17th Armored.

July 16, 1944
German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel reports that since 6 June his units have lost nearly 100,000 men killed, wounded and missing.

July 18, 1944
The US First Army enters St. Lo.

July 19, 1944
After capturing St. Lo the First Army pushes on southward. By the end of July, temporary or permanent losses from “battle fatigue” have reached twenty per cent of all American casualties since D-Day. Between June and November 1944, a staggering twenty six per cent of all American soldiers in combat divisions will be treated for some form of battle fatigue.
The after action medical report of First Army declared that: “...the rate of admission to the exhaustion centers… during the first weeks of operations was in accord with the estimate made previously, however, the rate thereafter increased to such proportions that it became necessary to reinforce each of the platoons operating the exhaustion centers. Reasons for this increase: a) addition of a number of divisions to the army in excess of original estimates, b) difficult terrain, mud, hedgerows etc., c) stiff resistance offered by the enemy in the La Haye du Puits, Carentan and St. Lo actions, d) troops remaining in combat for long periods.

July 31, 1944
Since 6 June the Allies have lost 122,000 men killed, wounded and missing, against German losses of 154,000. Before D-Day, American logisticians expected 70.3 per cent of casualties to be among the infantry. Actually, 85 per cent of casualties are among the infantry.

August 1, 1944
The US 3rd Army is formed under the command of General George S. Patton, who has four Corps, the VIII, XII, XV and XX. The XV Corps, under General Haslip, consists of two infantry divisions (the 83rd and the 90th) and the 5th armored division.

August 6, 1944
The XVth Corps is making swift progress toward Le Mans.

August 8, 1944
Le Mans is taken by the XVth Corps.

August 25, 1944
Paris is liberated by the Allies. The Battle of Normandy costs the German army 450,000 men. Some 240,000 of these were killed or wounded. The Allies suffered 209,000 killed or wounded.