Fort Henry, Ronald Reagan, Death of George VI, and National Lame Ducks

There’s a bit of research that goes into these blogs; some weeks more than others.  This week I could have talked about a lot of things maybe more important (to you) than others, like the Franco-American Alliance signed 6 February 1778, the Dalton Gang trying their first (unsucessful) train robbery in 1891, the arrival in New York of someone calling herself Anastasia Romanov in 1928 (whoever she was, she wasn’t the youngest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra), or the ascension of Elizabeth II to the English throne in 1952. But today we’re talking about the Civil War in the Ohio Country, future presidents, dead kings, and officeholders no longer beholding to the voters known in the vernacular as lame ducks.

Taking 15,000 troops and seven gunboats … under Andrew Foote, Grant actually arrived after the fort had fallen to the Navy after a short bombardment: with the magazine underwater, it was hard to fight for more than a few minutes.

One of the more remarkable things about Fort Henry on the Tennessee River in the winter of 1862 was that Confederacy didn’t want it, and the builders had been warned against putting it there, but their enemy found it a valuable target.  They were there because the Confederacy, against common sense, had violated the neutrality of Kentucky and sent troops as far north as Columbus. Situated on a low, flat shingle that flooded regularly but nonetheless had a clear field of fire for about two miles, Fort Henry was manned by as many as 3,4000 raw flintlock armed Confederate troops commanded by Lloyd Tilghman, an engineer with little military experience.  Fort Henry also a 10 inch Columbiad and a 24-pounder rifle, in addition to a number of 32-pounder smoothbores.  Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal troops in the area, decided on a deep thrust up the Tennessee (the river flowed south to north there) to Fort Henry to avoid having to storm the Columbus bastion. Taking 15,000 troops and seven gunboats (four ironclads and three timberclads) under Andrew Foote, Grant actually arrived after the fort had fallen to the Navy after a short bombardment: with the magazine underwater, it was hard to fight for more than a few minutes. Grant’s and Foote’s relatively bloodless victory on 6 February 1862 (there were less than fifty Union casualties, less than a hundred Confederate) was hailed in the Northern press as a signal victory when there had been very few, and was a surprise to nearly everyone in the North.  It opened the river to the Navy, that raided as far south as Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It also enabled Grant to attack Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, which fell ten days later. The fall of Henry and Donelson completely undermined the Confederate position in Kentucky, and compelled its evacuation, setting the scene for the battle at Pittsburg Landing in April.

Reagan’s political life included two terms as president of SAG, a term as Governor of California, and two as President of the United States.  

A week’s march away and two generations later, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois on 6 February 1911. Growing up in small, hardscrabble towns throughout Illinois, Reagan graduated from Eureka College, a tiny liberal arts school where he studied economics and sociology, receiving a BA with a C average in economics.  A radio announcer and sportscaster early in his career, he traveled to California as an announcer for the Chicago Cubs and got a contract to make movies in 1937, the same year he got a reserve commission in the cavalry branch of the US Army (it could be done by correspondence then). Called to active duty in 1942, Reagan transferred to the Army Air Forces and the First Motion Picture Unit, where he made training and indoctrination films for most of the rest of the war (a personal note: I saw one of his films in basic training in 1973: can’t remember what it was about, but I did remember it was him). After the war his career in labor and politics began with his election as SAG president in 1947.  Reagan’s political life included two terms as president of SAG, a term as Governor of California, and two as President of the United States. Known by intimates as “Dutch” and “the Gipper,” Reagan’s remarkable career ended in 1989 when he left the White House.  He died in Bel Air, California on 5 June, 2004.

Though he publicly supported Neville Chamberlain, privately George VI felt the government’s appeasement of Hitler would only lead to disaster, which it did in 1939.

There was once a king who wasn’t supposed to be, but then became one of the best rulers his country ever knew.  Albert Frederick Arthur George of Windsor was the second son of George V, and wasn’t supposed to be a king at all.  His brother, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, was fourteen months older and indeed became king on the death of their father.  Bertie (his family nickname) had a famous stammer, and was not groomed for the responsibility of being, among other things, Emperor of India, even though he was the heir presumptive before then because Edward would not find a suitable wife.  Then Edward fell hopelessly in love an American…a double divorcee no less, and abdicated because he could not marry Wallis Simpson and remain king. (It’s complicated, but it was legally true.) So Albert became King George VI on 11 December 1936. Though he publicly supported Neville Chamberlain, privately George VI felt the government’s appeasement of Hitler would only lead to disaster, which it did in 1939. Though he sent the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret away briefly, the King and Queen stayed in London during the worst of the Blitz, becoming symbols of national defiance and earning the endearment of many.  After the war he saw the Empire dissolve into constituent Commonwealth states, and was the last Emperor of India.  Ravaged by lung cancer, George VI died on 6 February 1952.

The expression “lame duck” originates not with politicians, but with 18th century English businessmen who couldn’t pay their debts.

And then, of course, 6 February is commemorated as National Lame Duck Day, the day that Amendment XX of the Constitution was ratified and became law in 1933.  The expression “lame duck” originates not with politicians, but with 18th century English businessmen who couldn’t pay their debts. The modern usage, which dates from the 19th century, refers to elected officials who, for whatever reason, are no longer accountable to their constituents because they can’t be reelected, or lost their last election and are still sitting in office.  Until Amendment XX became law, members of Congress who were lame ducks sometimes had over a year (it’s complicated: look it up) to do whatever mischief they wanted to do (mostly paying political debts that were unpopular back home).  After it, they had three months.  It also fixed the presidential inaugural date from 4 March to 20 January, and the swearing in of Congress from 4 March to 3 January.  At least, it was an attempt to survey the swamp.

 

Chickamauga, Garfield and Talking like a Pirate

As unlikely as it seems, the battle of Chickamauga, the death of James A Garfield, and an inane, made-up holiday all share 19 September.  Apologies for this one…Well, I’ll be blowed: this hearty’s pirate name , according to http://www.piratequiz.com/result.php, is Dirty John Read.  Sure an’ he’s been called worse things.

In the summer of 1863, William Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland managed to winkle  Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee out of a fairly strong position at Chattanooga, Tennessee, a rail hub of great importance on the road to Atlanta, the Deep South’s most important industrial center.  Proceeding south out of Chattanooga, Rosecrans issued contradictory and confusing orders to the two opposite wings of his army.  Just as they separated near the Chickamauga Creek in northwestern Georgia, James Longstreet and a small detachment from the Army of Northern Virginia walked into the gap on 19 September, 1863, severing the Army of the Cumberland in two.  A third of it, the part that Rosecrans was with at the time, scrambled back the fifteen miles to Chattanooga, convinced that the army was destroyed.  About half of the Federal force rallied around Horseshoe Ridge and a corps commander named George Thomas, who would forever after be known as “the Rock of Chickamauga.”  Chief of Staff to Rosecrans was James Garfield, who, suspecting that a large part of the army was still engaged with the Confederates, rode up Missionary Ridge overseeing the battlefield on the night of the 19th and saw that he was right.  This fueled the critics of Rosecrans’ leadership (he was not well liked, even though he had won all but one of his battles, and most with minimal casualties).  Chickamauga is considered by most to be the last major Confederate victory (even though the Confederates lost more than the Federals), and it shut up the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga for two months until reinforcements and the duo of WIlliam Sherman and Ulysses Grant broke the siege.  Chickamauga also made James Garfield’s reputation.

Chickamauga is considered by most to be the last major Confederate victory

Garfield rode that reputation all the way to the White House in 1880. First elected to the House in 1862, Garfield finally took his seat in December 1863.  In 1880, after serving in both the House and Senate, Garfield was elected president against another Civil War hero, Winfield Hancock.  He had barely made his cabinet and gotten started with his administration when, on  2 July, 1881, Charles Guiteau, upset after not being appointed to a civil service job, shot Garfield on a railway platform in Washington.  Garfield lingered for eleven weeks, eventually dying on 19 September 1881, exactly eighteen years after the event that made him famous.

…after serving in both the House and Senate, Garfield was elected president

Now, much of what is known about International Talk Like a Pirate Day derives from WIkipedia and the Talklikeapirate.com, two sources of unimpeachable information about the…holiday.  According to these, a couple of guys known as Ol’Chumbucket and Cap’n Slappy in Albany, Oregon started the tradition in 1995, when one of them responded to an injury with an “arrr.”  While this may have sounded like a pirate to an American who knew nothing of the Old English dialect usually gracing the stage and screen whenever pirates are depicted in popular fiction, it was enough for humor columnist Dave Barry to popularize the date, for his own reasons, of course.  The date (19 September) is the birthday of Cap’n Slappy’s ex-wife.  The “historical significance” of this event (which didn’t even take place on 19 September, but 6 June, which is famous for its own reasons) is nil, but these things take on a life of their own.  Two states, Michigan and California (which one would hope would have bigger fish to fry) have recognized the day; two fast-food chains (Krispy Kreme and Long John Silver’s) offer discounts; the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has declared it a holiday for those of their…faith.

…a couple of guys known as Ol’Chumbucket and Cap’n Slappy in Albany, Oregon started the tradition in 1995, when one of them responded to an injury with an “arrr.”

OK…whatever.  Chickamauga and Garfield, anyway, have some serious bent.  And I can say that the “pirate flag” above is an invention of the entertainment industry, and that the “pirate dialect” is nothing more than an affectation from 18th Century English popularized by Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island and a couple hundred movies, TV series, and other popular entertainments.   Let’s hold onto that.

Now, you be likin’ this here post or I’ll be havin’ yer liver fer lunch, ya lubber!

 

The Bronx, Nagasaki and Jerry Ford

What possible connection could there be?  9 August.

The Bronx, the northernmost of New York’s five boroughs, is named after the Dutchman who bought it for four hundred beads in 1678, Jonas Bronk.  Right next to Manhattan and Alaska in the pantheon of savvy American real estate deals (legend or not), the Bronx is the most fabled of New York City’s many neighborhoods.  And,today is said to be one of the poorest, with over 8% unemployment in April.

But Nagasaki: not a “deal” at all, but the antithesis of one.  In 1945, a B-29 named Bock’s Car flown by Chuck Sweeny dropped a plutonium-core nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, with its shipyards, armaments plants and other important military assets.  More than seventy thousand people died at Nagasaki in a few moments.

Now, the raw facts of the event make it sound cold, but really, not so much.  Japan had been at war with pretty much everyone for nearly fifteen years by then, and even after Hiroshima three days before was still spouting defiance.  There are arguments on both sides of the “Japan was about to give up” debate, but none are more compelling than the fact that it took an announcement from the Showa Emperor Hirohito himself to compel the militarists to stop fighting, and even then a good number of them didn’t want to.  Yes, “Japan” had sought peace as early as the summer of 1944, but those in the very early offerings had no authority, and were not offering a peace as much as an armistice: a cease-fire in place.

But, like the native Americans who sold Manhattan to Pieter Minuit and Jonas Bronk the Bronx, many Japanese didn’t understand what was going on in the late summer of 1945.  Similarly, it is not clear to history how well native many Americans understood the European’s custom of placing a price on land.  The fury that the Americans and other non-Japanese felt towards Japan in general was only dimly realized by most of the Japanese population.  The samurai leadership of Japan had done an excellent job of keeping most of their citizens in the dark about not only the course of the war, but also the reasons for it.

Fast forward to 1974, and America’s first (arguably) unelected President was sworn in at noon, Eastern time.  Gerald Ford of Michigan had been the minority whip in the House for eight years before Richard Nixon tapped him for the vice-presidency after the resignation of Spiro Agnew in 1973.  When Nixon resigned before impeachment for, among other things, his involvement in campaign finance irregularities on 8 August, Ford became the first president since Washington who had never stood for a national election before he was sworn in.

Ford seemed unclear on the concept of how he went from the Congressional Office Building to the Oval Office in less than a year, and like the native Americans in the seventeenth century and the Japanese in the 1940s, seemed unsure of their future.  Though most Americans were familiar with Nixon’s issues, the Japanese of 1945, while they knew there was a war that wasn’t doing well, weren’t sure why.  And the native Americans of 1678 were, likely, just as baffled about having to leave because their homes had been sold for a bag of beads.

Kinda makes the choice that American voters have in November 2016 seem simple in comparison: one pathological liar or the other.  The republic will survive Trump or Clinton if it survived Nixon, just as Japan survived Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender.

Regardless of how hard it is to see now, America will survive.  Yet, like the Japanese in ’45, and the native Americans in the seventeenth century, and Jerry Ford in ’74, most voters will wonder how we got to this point.

 

19 November: Lincoln and Garfield

This day in the 19th century was more of a coincidence than a connection, but still Abraham Lincoln and James A Garfield shared seminal events on this day, 32 years apart.

On 19 November 1831 James A Garfield was born in Orange Township, Ohio.  As a young man his education started late, but he took to language and public speaking naturally and entered the Ohio legislature in 1861.  In August of the same year he was commissioned a colonel in the Ohio volunteers, and marched with his regiment in the Army of the Ohio under Don C Buell.  As one of the last units to cross the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing in April 1862, Garfield commanded a brigade during the non-pursuit of the retreating Confederate Army of Tennessee, stopping after a brief skirmish with Nathan B Forrest’s rear guards at Fallen Timbers on the road between the Shiloh battlefield and Corinth, Mississippi.  It was his last combat command.  After a period of rehabilitation after a bout of jaundice, Garfield was elected to Congress in 1862, despite the fact that he was serving as chief of staff to William S Rosecrans in the Army of the Cumberland at the time.  He was promoted to major general of volunteers before he resigned his commission to take his seat in Congress in December 1863, after serving during the fighting at Chickamauga and the subsequent siege of Chattanooga.  Garfield served in the House of Representatives until his election as President in 1880.  His presidency was brief  (four months, effectively) before he was shot in July 1881, lingering until mid-September.  His assassin’s trial was nearly as long as his administration.

On 19 November 1863, Abraham Lincoln was the last of several speakers at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield.  His speech was short–less than two hundred words–and following Edward Everett’s two hour oration most of the audience didn’t even hear most of it.  Lincoln was not a pleasing speaker to listen to, with a somewhat high-pitched, sing-song delivery.  Too, Lincoln was to deliver “a few appropriate remarks,” not a campaign stump speech or a rousing after-dinner stem-winder.  The reader needs to remember that there had been some fifty thousand casualties at Gettysburg, that many of the casualties had been evacuated as late as October, and that there were still unburied dead on those fields, including the carcasses of thousands of horses.  The graves for the amputated limbs at the field hospitals had still not been limed.  But of every speaker that spoke to that audience, only the bold and uncompromisingly powerful speech that included “[f]our score and seven years ago,” and “of the people, and by the people” were ever remembered, even a week after it was delivered.  And for every version of that Gettysburg Address that exists (at least four at the time), none has ever been forgotten.  One modern scholar called it “the words that remade America.”

But there is another connection, not quite a celebrated: Lincoln was the first, and Garfield the second, US president to be assassinated.  Which makes Garfield’s birthday and Lincoln’s most celebrated speech all the more poignant that they happened on the same calender day.

6 November: Printing Takes Mass Media By Storm

On this day in 1771, 1935, and 1947 the world of mass communications changed, for better or for ill, and all because oil and water don’t play well together.

On 6 November 1771, Alois Senefelder was born in Prague, in what was the the Holy Roman Empire.  He was trained in law but moved to his father’s profession–the theater–to support his family.  Though initially successful he needed to find a cheap method of printing his plays, and hit on what we now call lithography “stone writing” in 1796.  The basic principle was simple enough: treat an engraved surface with water and roll oil-based ink onto it.  The water and oil separate, making it possible for a piece of paper to pick up enough ink to make an image.  While somewhat more sophisticated than that, the principle is the same.  The advantage to lithography is that it can also make a picture, as well as words.

This lithographic process was patented, and a book he wrote on the subject was in print as late as 1977.  Still in limited used today for small and shorter-run jobs in traditional settings (albeit using paper or metallic plates), the principles of lithography was an important element in the explosion of publishing and learning at the end of the “enlightenment” period (when scholars burned their witches only at night).

And where would the Monopoly game be without colored lithography?  On this day in 1935, Parker Brothers bought the main patents for its best-selling property trading and acquisition game, after having rejected it the year before.  What started out as a teaching tool in 1903 by the end of the century was one of the most successful family board games of all time, translated into over thirty languages and sold in more than a hundred countries.  Until the 1970s, every Monopoly version and printed game part was produced by a lithographic process.  Parker Brothers has printed more “dollars” than the US Treasury every year since 1960.

On 6 November 1947, the new medium of television was struggling to reach markets.  On that day, Meet The Press first aired, after having begun on radio in 1945.  The first guest, James Farley, was grilled for half an hour by Martha Rountree, the show’s creator.  Since ti became a weekly program in 1948, Meet The Press has produced over 17,000 programs and is the longest-running television program in history.  This news and current events program is still the only one of its kind that has interviewed a sitting president live; Gerald Ford in 1975.

OK, the last one was something of a stretch, but that’s show biz.

5 November: Hanson Hired, McClellan Fired, Heroes Sunk At Sea

Early November is a heady time, as the leaves are mostly gone, the American elections are over, and the northern hemisphere prepares for a long winter.  In 1781, 1862 and 1940, these events had very little to do with the year, or the weather, or the elections.

In 1781, the American Congress. still under the Articles of Confederation, elected John Hanson of Maryland as President of the United States Assembled, or President of the Continental Congress, or President of the Congress of the Confederacy, or President of Congress on 5 November.  This has confused people ever since, because “everyone knows” that George Washington of Virginia was the first President of the United States.  Not to be contrarian, but that’s…true and not true.  Hanson was elected by the Congress to a one year term under the Articles of Confederation; Washington was elected by Congress operating under the Constitution for a four-year term.  Hanson’s job was mostly ceremonial: Washington’s was as the head of the newly-create executive branch of the government.  Finally, and perhaps irrelevantly, the colonies had declared independence but had not yet won it (Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown less than a month before),  Peace talks, which would signal diplomatic recognition, were months away from even beginning when Hanson (presumably) took the oath.

On 5 November 1862, the day after the mid-term elections put Congress firmly in Republican control, President Abraham Lincoln relieved George B. McClellan of the command of the Army of the Potomac.  This was a generally unpopular move, but after McClellan’s disappointing performance as a commander, and despite his excellent service as an organizer and logician, Lincoln felt he had little choice.  Lincoln had removed “Little Mac” from the post of General in Chief the previous March so that he could concentrate on his brain child, the Peninsula campaign.  This led not to a march on Richmond but a scramble to save Washington and McClellan’s army.  McClellan was so enraged by Lincoln’s action that he went gunning for Lincoln’s job two years later, and lost badly.  Most of his beloved soldiers didn’t even vote for him.

But far away from the mid-Atlantic states, on 5 November 1940 and act of heroism indescribably removed from McClellan’s conduct took place.  On that date seven hundred-odd miles south south west of Reykjavik, HMS Jervis Bay, an Armed Merchant Cruiser (in other words, an ocean liner with a few guns) took on the German “pocket battleship” (a large cruiser with eleven inch guns) Admiral Scheer. Jervis Bay was the only escort protecting a 37 ship Halifax-to-Britain convoy.  The captain of Jervis Bay, Edward Fegen, ordered the convoy to scatter at about 12:50 in the afternoon and charged at Scheer with 6-inch guns blazing.  In a “battle” that probably lasted no more than two hours much of the convoy managed to escape behind smoke candles and darkness while their brave escort was shot to pieces.  While Scheer managed to get five of the merchantmen the rest made it to port.  Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross on 22 November 1940…posthumously, having gone down with his ship (by one account he was already dead by the time his ship was abandoned).

2 November: Two Presidents Born and One Killed

Two US presidents were born on 2 November: James K Polk in 1795 and Warren G Harding in 1865.  Another was murdered: Ngo Dinh Diem, in Cholon (then South) Vietnam,  Though not directly related, it made for a catcher headline.

Polk was the 11th president of the US, serving from 1845 to 1849, and had the misfortune of inheriting a messy dispute on the southern border between Texas and Mexico.  Correctly assessing the sentiment of the country, he forced conditions on Mexico that compelled war, ending in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Never a particularly well man, Polk died of cholera 14 June 1849, scarcely three months after leaving office.

Harding was the 29th president, serving from 1921 until 1923, a term cut short by his death by cerebral hemorrhage. Harding was the first post-WWI president, and as such had his hand in the rapid demobilization of the country’s military–except at sea.  Even though he oversaw the Washington Naval Treaty proceedings, the Treaty’s effects in many ways were just the opposite of what was intended, triggering a massive scrapping and re-purposing of navies, it did not affect aircraft carriers, and the effects on fleet auxiliaries was minimal.  The result was a huge increase in support ships and the construction of some of the largest aircraft carriers built until the nuclear era.  This enabled the expansion of the fleet to its thousand-ship zenith in 1944.

Diem was one of the least likely and most corrupt, leaders on mainland Asia after 1945. Trained by the French he worked much of his adult life in either public administration or in hiding as an outlaw.   After the French collapse Diem was placed in power by the Americans in 1954, where he struggled for the rest of his life against the North, against the Vietnamese who despised him for whatever reason, and against the most egregious corruption.  At the same time, Diem realized that corruption and nepotism were endemic to Asia, that the North’s sponsors were more generous than the Americans, and that no matter what he did nothing could save a country that didn’t see danger.  His murder in 1963 was heralded in the Western press and only ended twenty-one days later with the death of President Kennedy,

Taken in sum these three men all had one thing in common: though their administrations were not particularity noteworthy what happened on their watches greatly affected the future of the United States.  The Mexican War under Polk blooded some of the best leaders of the upcoming Civil War, and exacerbated the tensions already present.  Harding’s naval expansion and premature death, leaving an even more hawkish Calvin Coolidge in charge, made possible the rapid recovery from Pearl Harbor.  Diem, barely able to control his country let alone lead it, left behind a legacy of tribe-like governance-by-bribe-and-threat in Saigon that would eventually erode into collapse, even as the Americans and other SEATO allies were trying to protect it.