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Iwo Jima and President’s Day

And so, here we are in mid-February. doubtless cold and wet in the Great Lakes. If we had a nickel for every snowstorm in February…lots of nickels. Every February day I don’t have to haul out the snowblower’s a good day…

But this is 19 February, when we celebrate the birth of Copernicus in 1473 (remember him, the guy who said that the Earth was not the center of the universe?). And we remember the non-promotion of Benedict Arnold on 19 February 1777: he was so mad he was willing to sell out the country.  Also, on 19 February 1861, Tsar Alexander II of Russia freed the serfs: unlike slavery in the US, the practice wasn’t universal in Russia. Edison patented his phonograph on this day in 1878. And Cuban strongman FIdel Castro resigned his offices on this day in 2008. But today we talk about high spots in the ocean, and Monday holidays.

That made Iwo a problem, especially for the Army Air Force’s B-29s based in the Marianas.

The Volcano Islands, just south of the Bonins, were the first overseas acquisition for the Empire of Japan when they were annexed in 1891. No one else really wanted them, so no one minded, at the time. But by 1944 they were a bastion for the Home Islands as the Americans moved inexorably towards Japan. Iwo Jima, the flattest of the island group, had the beginnings of three airfields on it by the end of 1944. That made Iow a problem, especially for the Army Air Force’s B-29s based in the Marianas.

The Japanese rarely tried to pursue the big Superforts over the water.

But HH “Hap” Arnold, commanding the US Army Air Forces, didn’t like the idea that the Japanese could use Iwo to attack his bombers on their way to Japan. As unpleasant a prospect as it was, he couldn’t show that any of his airplanes had been shot down by Iwo-based fighters. Then Arnold got the idea that he could base fighters on Iwo to “escort” the bombers, and maybe crippled B-29s could use it as an emergency airfield. All of which was true, but “escorting” B-29s wasn’t practical. The Japanese weren’t real good at intercepting B-29s over Japan, and the way fighter “escort” worked that late in the war was more like “be at this map grid at this time when the bombers are expected to be there.” The Japanese rarely tried to pursue the big Superforts over the water.


As the map shows, Iwo is in a direct line between the Mariana Islands and Japan. Now, the airfields weren’t a problem for anyone other than the B-29s, and that a minor irritant in the long run. But the Marines had three divisions rebuilding in Hawaii that formed V Amphibious Corps, and the Army was scrambling for as many men as they could get for their Philippine campaign. On that basis, Arnold convinced the Marines that using the otherwise idle Marines to take Iwo would save them from Douglas MacArthur’s clutches.

The Marines have used Iwo Jima as a case study of their worth ever since.

Nonetheless, eventually, Arnold sold the Iwo Jima project to everyone he needed to, and the Marines stormed ashore on 19 February 1945. The savage fighting lasted until mid-March, and resulted in nearly 7,000 Marine and over 17,000 Japanese dead. The Marines have used Iwo Jima as a case study of their worth ever since. But later scholars have asked:

  • How many “escort” missions were conducted from Iwo? Answer–three (1191 sorties), and all lost more fighters than bombers due to the fighter’s lack of over-water navigational aids that they were too small to accomodate. The effort was soon abandoned.
  • How many B-29 crewmen were saved by using Iwo for emergency landings? Answer–About 5,000, give or take. At least half of the subsequent emergency landings were of convenience, not dire emergency.
  • Given those two answers, does that mean that the 7,000 Marines who died were worth less than the 5,000 or so Army air crewmen saved? And herein lies the controversy.

This dispute brewed up in the 21st century between scholars of the Pacific War, and pointed out that not all operations there were without debatable results. My book, Tug of War: The Super-Heavy Bomber and the Invention of Strategic Warfare (tentatively,  sometime in 2019) discusses the nascent theories of “strategic bombardment” and the struggle of Arnold and others to bring them into practice.

And today is Presidents’ Day/Washington’s Birthday, observed in the US as an alternative to Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday since the late 1980s, depending on where you are and who you ask. It’s the federal holiday (my wife the banker doesn’t work and there’s no mail) in observance. But, as the image at the top implies, it’s also an excuse for businesses to hold sales, as if they need one. The lass in question is shilling for some California resort’s Presidents’ Day Weekend. Although she’s pretty, I’m not sure that old George would have approved of her use of the flag. I mean, seriously: standing on a boat crossing the Delaware with a flag that wouldn’t be invented for another two years is one thing, but she’s much too scantily clad for New Jersey in December. She’d catch her death. Drape one of those over her shoulders…

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The Last Emperor of China and Lincoln’s Birthday

OK, everyone: mid-February and the world, as of mid-December when this is written, is still turning. And both Francisco Franco and Richard Nixon are still dead. And that gag is still pretty…silly.

But 12 February has a lot going on. On this day in 1553 Lady Jane Grey, the Nine-Days’ Queen of England, was beheaded in the Tower of London, no older than 17: her crime was being named in the succession by Edward VI on his deathbed, while Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, yet lived. Also on this day, in 1862, the fighting for Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee began: when it was over, Ulysses S. Grant was a sensation, some 15,000 Confederates were taken prisoner, East Tennessee was open to invasion by the Union, and the stage was set for the titanic fight in the Tennessee pine barrens near a Quaker meeting house called Shiloh (which you can read all about in The Devil’s Own Day). Omar Bradley, the “GI General” of WWII fame and the last five-star flag officer in the United States, was born in Clark, Missouri on 12 February 1893. And the second Monday in February is National Clean Out your Computer Day, and 12 February is National Bread Pudding Day (for whatever reason). But today we’re talking about the rather hapless Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China, and about Old Abe…sort of.

His Confucian education taught him nothing of the outside world, of mathematics or business, science or even geography. 

Pu Yi, (or Puyi or any one of a score of different names) became the Xuantong Emperor of China on 14 November 1908, two months before his third birthday.  Only his wet nurse, Wang Wen-Chao, was allowed to accompany the toddler to the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City. As Emperor the boy loved to have his eunuchs flogged for no other reason than they were available. His Confucian education taught him nothing of the outside world, of mathematics or business, science or even geography.

His generosity attracted the attention of the Japanese, who became interested in Pu Yi as a possible pawn in their game of power politics in East Asia.

But change was coming to China. In October 1911 the army garrison at Wuhan mutinied, beginning the Xinhai Revolution. As the unrest spread to Peking and public opinion turned decidedly against the Qing dynasty, he was handed an instrument of abdication on 12 February 1912,  three days after his sixth birthday. The boy was kept as something of a pet, still served by a household agency in the Forbidden City, but he had no temporal power beyond his imperial apartments. He was restored to the throne for twelve days by a warlord in 1917 but was removed by another. In 1923, after the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and other cities, he donated some of his treasures to pay for disaster relief. His generosity attracted the attention of the Japanese, who became interested in Pu Yi as a possible pawn in their game of power politics in East Asia.

From the time he was ejected from the Forbidden City in 1923 until 1945, Pu Yi was a puppet of Imperial Japan.

Even though he had no real power, Pu Yi had been treated as an Emperor Emeritus of sorts since his abdication, but in 1923 another strongman took over Peking and abolished his titles and his household, and reduced him to a private citizen. He was expelled from the Forbidden City, fled to the Japanese Embassy, and thence to the Japanese concession in Tientsin. From the time he was ejected from the Forbidden City until 1945, Pu Yi was a ward/puppet of Imperial Japan.


Litho of a younger Lincoln
Looks much younger here than he would later as president.

And today, on 12 February, we recognize the birth of the 16th US president, Abraham Lincoln–or at least some of us do, like Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and New York. But on last Indigenous People’s Day (9 October), some students at UW Madison got themselves together to protest the statue of Lincoln at Bascom Hall because:

 Everyone thinks of Lincoln as the…freer of slaves, but let’s be real: He owned slaves, and…he ordered the execution of native men….

I’m going to guess this one’s a “studies” scholar of some sort or another and not a history major. But, in 2017 at Madison, it’s hard to tell. The organization which led the protest, called Wunk Sheek, which says they “[serve] students of indigenous identity” on campus, covered the offending Lincoln bust with a black tarp briefly, made their speeches, doubtless did their drum-circle thing for the cameras, and left.

No evidence has ever actually surfaced of Lincoln’s ownership of slaves, though it must be conceded that his wife’s family were slaveholders.

As we all know now, because Lincoln didn’t issue his emancipation at his first inaugural, he absolutely, positively had to have owned slaves because…well, he just did. Case closed.  Arguments to the contrary will not be heard. The “Lincoln owned slaves” fantasy has been around for so long that it has become some sort of received wisdom. It likely has to do with Lincoln’s lawyerly care in eliminating the practice of slavery in the United States because he knew that, legally, whatever he did had to survive him. An outright emancipation was legally impossible, and nearly everyone at the time knew it. Only generations later did critics conclude that Lincoln simply had to have owned slaves because he moved so slowly in the emancipation. No evidence has ever actually surfaced of Lincoln’s ownership of slaves, though it must be conceded that his wife’s family were slaveholders.

When told that more hangings would have earned him more votes in the next election, Lincoln replied “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” Yup, pretty heartless.

Lincoln also heartlessly ordered the execution of 32 Dakotas in Mankato, Minnesota on 26 December 1862, for their roles in a peaceful eastern Sioux/Dakota demonstration that left some 800 Euro-Caucasian invaders of their ancient land…well, un-alive…in an event that the white-privileged history establishment calls the Sioux War of 1862. Well…no to the “ordered the execution,” trope, too. There were originally 303 of the Sioux leaders of the 1861-62 Sioux Uprising who were condemned to death by courts-martial and tribunals (it was in the middle of a civil war), but Lincoln commuted 264 of the sentences, and one was reprieved for other reasons. The remaining 32 were executed, but not on Lincoln’s express order.  When told that more hangings would have earned him more votes in the next election, Lincoln replied: “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” Yup, pretty heartless.

Now, officially, President’s Day will be next Monday, the Monday between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthday. See you then. Stop by JDBCOM.COM some time.

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Three Moments in 1973 and National Blonde Brownie Day

So, 22 January. The depths of winter.  It’s cold in the Great Lakes, cold and snowy. Wet, icy.  If you’re up to going outside this time of year, more power to ya. Me, I’m staying where there’s central heat. Call me a wuss…see if I care.

But there was a lot of things that went on on this day. The battle of Basing, fought in Hampshire, England on this day in 871, was another in a series of indecisive encounters between the kingdom of Wessex led by Ethelred, and the invading Danes; as long as the English didn’t lose much and their burghs (fortified towns) survived, they would eventually prevail. William Kidd the pirate was born at Greenock on this day in 1645. On this day in 1863 the infamous “Mud March” of the Army of the Potomac began in Virginia, an attempt by Ambrose Burnside to redeem his failure at Fredricksburg that just racked up more casualties. In 1879 the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift both started on this day; the Zulus overwhelmed the unprotected columns on the hill of Isandlwana but were unable to come to terms with the better fortifications at the Drift. 22 January also marks Bloody Sunday in Russia; the first modern revolution started as a general strike in 1905. And, on this day in 1984, the Macintosh personal computer was introduced.  But, today, we’re going to talk about three particularly notable events that all happened on 22 January 1973: strain your brain–those of you old enough–to remember which one you recall reacting to at the time more than the others: my vote’s at the end. And about brownies without chocolate.

As the deciding litmus test for the acceptability of all politicians, public officials, celebrities, or ordinary Joes on the street in America, Roe has very narrow shoulders. 

The first was the one with a lasting, pernicious impact down to this day: the Roe vs. Wade US Supreme Court decision that, depending on who you talk to, either;

  1. Legalized abortion in the US for one and all, or
  2. Only deregulated the procedure for the first two trimesters of pregnancy, or
  3. Started the United States on the road to Perdition.

SInce the 1990s, which of these three you choose has determined how you voted in the last ten national elections, how you feel about the rights of women in general, whether you are currently fit to breathe the same air as someone who chooses another answer, or none of the above. As the deciding litmus test for the acceptability of all politicians, public officials, celebrities, or ordinary Joes on the street in America, Roe has very narrow shoulders.  Few of us can now recall exactly what they were doing when they heard about it, because few people at the time really cared enough to march in the streets in support of or against the ruling, unlike now.

At Johnston’s death, it was the first time in a third of a century that there were no living former American presidents.

Also on this day in 1973, in Johnson City, Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, died of congestive heart failure at age 64. A consummate politician whose ascent to the seat of power consumed his entire adult life, LBJ was a controversial figure, and is regarded as the last leader of FDR’s New Deal coalition. Johnson’s legacy is, to this day, mixed. Between his assumption of JFK’s last year in office in 1963, rising with his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, soaring with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sinking during the civil disturbances and riots across the country in 1967, sinking again during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the seizure of the USS Pueblo by North Korea, and collapsing after his ignominious showing in the New Hampshire primaries that same year, his policies waxed and waned. LBJ’s star, somehow, was never quite as bright as his martyred predecessor. After Johnston’s death was the first time in a third of a century that there were no living former American presidents.

When the agreement on border definition for Vietnam was announced, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird agreed to suspend the draft in the United States as soon as the peace was signed, five months ahead of schedule.

Finally, on the same day, a bit of irony from Paris that few took note of even at the time.  On 22 January 1973, the United States, the Republic of (South) Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam and the Central Office for South Vietnam (the political wing representing the Viet Cong) agreed on a fixed border between the two Vietnamese republics. This was a vital, final step before the final peace agreement between the four parties could be drafted and signed on 27 January. Vietnam, considered an albatross for the Democrats and a political football for everyone else, had been the most divisive American conflict since the Civil War. When the agreement on border definition for Vietnam was announced, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird agreed to suspend the draft in the United States as soon as the peace was signed, five months ahead of schedule.

So, aging Boomers and others who remember being around in ’73: which do you remember more than the others? The death of LBJ was certainly covered more at the time, as the deaths of presidents always is (except Nixon)and I recall hearing of it, hardly the others; Roe v Wade was something of a footnote at the time (unlike today); the Vietnam border agreement was barely mentioned. But it was still an exciting time, wasn’t it?

OK, blonde brownies.  Why, you ask do these even exist: the whole point of brownies is the chocolate, no? Well, no: the point of brownies is to have a less-crumbly cake to put into a lunch bag than a conventional one. Also, for those of us who can’t eat chocolate, it’s an alternative. But, different strokes for different folks, I guess.  Here’s a recipe for blondies from As good as any…

Anyway, they were probably invented in Sandusky. Ohio. Published recipes date from the 1940s, and likely existed even earlier. The folks at National Day Calendar can’t find who started National Blonde Brownie Day, and neither can anyone else. Ah, well…

As for Why the Samurai Lost, it’s proceeding apace. Remember to check in with us at JDBCOM.COM for more.

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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.

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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.


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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, 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, 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!


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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.


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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.

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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.

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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).