George H. Thomas, Andrew Johnson, and National Mutt Day

Oh, I know what you’re thinking: OK, you delusional clown, what could possibly associate these three?  And what, in the name of heaven, can you ever think that the last day in July wouldn’t have more topical or interesting events than…these?  Well, I reply casually, Columbus did land on Trinidad on this day in 1498, and Ignatius of Loyola–founder of the Jesuits–died on this day in Rome in 1556.  Then there’s Third Ypres in Flanders in 1917, and there’s Jimmy Hoffa’s last sighting in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan at the Fox & Hounds (which closed its doors exactly thirty years later) in 1976.  But today we talk about the American Civil War, and dogs.

George Henry Thomas, old Slow Trot, the Rock of Chickamauga, was born on 31 July 1816 to a slave-owning family in Southampton County, Virginia. As a young man, he and his family had to hide out in the forest during the Nat Turner rebellion in 1931. Before joining the Army, his thoughts on slavery as an institution are unknown, but legends abound about his position on the Peculiar Institution before the war.  Thomas fought in Mexico and Florida, and won steady promotion until the Civil War.  Though he did not “go south” as many of his colleagues did, the Army didn’t trust Southern-born officers.  Because he didn’t “go south, Thomas’s family never spoke to him again.

For the entirety of the war, Thomas served the Union with distinction, winning more fights than any other Union general, and more than most Confederates.  At Chickamauga in September 1863 he held his position on Horseshoe Ridge that the rest of William S. Rosecrans’ broken army could (and did) rally around, turning what could have been a disaster into a mere defeat.  Thomas and his staff did yeoman duty during William Sherman’s Atlanta campaign the next year. Outside of Atlanta, John B. Hood’s attack at Peachtree Creek in July 1864 broke against Thomas’s stalwart defense.  That same winter, when Hood tried to lure Sherman away from Georgia, Thomas instead raced Hood north, defeating him at Franklin in November, and crushing him at Nashville in December.

After the war, President Johnson offered Thomas Grant’s three stars (while Grant got four), but Thomas declined.  Assigned to command the Department of the Pacific by President Grant in 1869, Thomas died after a stroke in San Francisco in 1870.  Though he was memorialized by his colleagues after his death, not many of them, including Grant and Sherman, seem to have liked him very much. Thomas is buried in New York, and not a single family member attended his funeral.

Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in December 1808.  Trained as a tailor, Johnson settled in Tennessee as a young man and entered local politics. His meteoric rise from alterman to mayor to the Tennessee House, the US Congress, the Governor’s mansion and the White House is the stuff of legend for someone who was never trained in the law, and never saw the inside of a university classroom.  Johnson is a member of the small club of American professional politicians who was not also a lawyer.

His tenure as president was the most controversial, and began with his swearing in while in wine (but it would have been hard to expect him to have been sober expecting not to be required for anything by Lincoln). Johnson, like Lincoln, wanted a quick reconstruction of the country after the Civil War while the Congress wanted to punish the South.  Neither side got their way, really, but in the meantime the former slaves were left with little in the way of protection.  For his staunch perfidy Johnson was impeached by the House but was acquitted by the Senate in 1868.  After Grant’s inauguration in 1869 Johnson slid into national obscurity, though he was lionized in Tennessee.  On 31 July 1875, Andrew Johnson died in Elizabethton, Tennessee while visiting his daughter.  To this day he has been the only president to serve without a vice-president.

And, mutts.  Lovable, loyal, playful dogs with more than one “breed” in their bloodlines.  Many end up in animal shelters, many end up in medical labs.  For whatever reason, they are not often seen as working dogs, though there’s no real reason for that discrimination.  Purebred dogs often have genetic disorders known to their kind: what makes them special?  Of all the dogs I’ve ever owned or lived with (a dozen over six decades), none of the purebreds from accredited kennels were any more special than the “Heinz 57” dogs from a shelter, or free from good owners, or just picked up off the street.

Dogs, well cared for and not abused, are only as good as their environment, but they can be a handful.  I’ve had one, just one and only for a week, who was uncontrollable, and Tiger was a AKC registered German Shepherd.  Most are good foot-warmers, great listeners, fetchers of whatever, and eaters of nearly everything.  Some bark a lot, most bark some, some don’t at all.  And yes, most of them shead, want your attention when you least expect it, and lick their privates in front of your in-laws. But, if you want a loyal companion who will occasionally make a mess, visit a local shelter or, failing that, help the ASPCA rescue the abused animals who, after all, only want to please someone.

11 November: Nat Turner, VMI, George Patton, and The War to End All Wars…That Wasn’t

It is axiomatic for a  military history scrivener such as myself to write about the end of World War I on Armistice/Remembrance/Veteran’s Day.  And I shall…in a moment.  First we should take a moment to consider that other things happened on that day in other years, both before and after.

In 1831, a Virginia slave, lay preacher and mystic named Nat Turner interpreted from the two solar eclipses of that year that the time was right for a slave rebellion.  There had been eleven such risings in the United States since 1712, the latest before Turner’s was in South Carolina known as the Denmark Vesey revolt in 1822.  On 21 August 1831, the revolt began.  For two days the seventy slaves and free blacks that participated in the rising ravaged farms and homes in Southampton County, Virginia, eventually killing some sixty white men, women and children.   As local militias rounded up and arrested the rebels, Turner hid out until 30 October.  Tried for servile insurrection rather than murder, Turner was hanged on 11 November 1831.  The Nat Turner Revolt, as it has been called since, sent a chill through the slave-holding South second only to the the more successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1804 that resulted in hundreds of slave owners being brutally murdered.  New and repressive laws were passed restricting slave social activities and what few liberties they had.

In 1839, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was founded in Lexington.  Originally one of several Virginia arsenals set up after the War of 1812, the first President was Claudius Crozet, a French-born graduate of the exclusive Ecole Polytechnique engineering school who had taught at West Point.   VMI has produced some of America’s best soldiers, including George C. Marshall, Lemuel Shepard, Leonard Gerow, and John Jumper.

On this day in 1885, in San Gabriel, California, George Smith Patton Junior was born.  Georgie, as he was called by his family, always had a marital career in mind.  He attended VMI as an undergraduate before being accepted at West Point.  Graduating 46th in a class of 103 in 1909, he was branched to the cavalry.  Patton always had a mind of his own, and a private fortune to back it up, so his career was only limited by his ability to get higher postings.  While he was a superb organizer and tactician he had little patience for those who disagreed with his plans, including his superiors.  Patton did not understand that the larger the units the bigger the politics and public exposure, and refused in some cases to be anything other than his own vision of marital glory.  Even as he rose in the ranks the consensus was that he was useful, but not indispensable.  As a tactical commander he was useful: as a senior officer, less so.  His death in a traffic accident in 1945 put a counterpoint on a style of soldier who had outlived its usefulness.

And on 11 November, 1918, when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, the killing did not yet stop, not for several days.  Parts of the Meuse-Argonne sector, where the Americans had been attacking since September, were out of communications, and the German forces in Africa wouldn’t get the word of the surrender at Compiegne.  Aside from that, Russia was in civil war, Germany was in revolution, and Austria and Hungary were in chaos,  Worse, the 1918 Influenza was still killing people at a rate that made the Western Front seem…amateurish…and was not a respecter of non-combatants or borders.  While the war caused some ten million dead directly, the influenza probably killed one hundred million, affecting one in four people on the face of the earth before it died out in 1921.