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Charles I, USS Monitor, FDR and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day

In the name of true eclecticism, we’re talking about beginnings and endings today.  Still, there’s a lot to choose from for 30 January: Maryland ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1781, putting the Articles into effect as a framework of government; Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933; the Lone Ranger began on WXYZ radio in Detroit, also in 1933; and the Tet Offensive of 1968 began in Vietnam, which eventually turned public opinion against the American presence.  But today, we’ll forego National Croissant Day and Seed Swap Day and discuss that vital material, bubble wrap.

As an American I have bent my mind mightily around all the politics involved, but by many commentators it came down to the power of religion, churches, communions, kings, Parliament, guns, and money.

If you ever really want to be confused about English politics, try to study the English Civil Wars (there were three or so) of 1640-1651.  As an American I have bent my mind mightily around all the politics involved, but by many commentators it came down to the power of religion, churches, communions, kings, Parliament, guns, and money.  The House of Stuart became the ruling house of England and Ireland on the death of Elizabeth I in 1604.  The first Stuart, James IV of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland, was at least moderately popular until his death in 1625.  His son, Charles I, was actually the second son of James, the first having died at 12.  Even if Charles was an Anglican, he was married to a Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, daughter of Louis XIII, which brought him under suspicion.  Pledged to England not to raise the suppression of Catholics but pledged to France to do just that, Charles led something of a double life, favoring his wife’s faith (that he came to share) more than the Anglican. Too, he raised taxes without the benefit of Parliament, which everyone resented.  Open war broke out between Parliament and the Crown in 1642.  By 1646, harried by money trouble and battlefield losses, Charles took refuge in Scotland, but they sold him to Parliament on 23 January 1647. In a squabble you simply can’t make up, the Army kidnapped Charles from Parliament custody in June 1647.  After more exchanges between squabbling interests differing primarily by religion,  Charles signed a secret treaty with Scotland to have him restored to the throne.  His Royalist supporters rose in May of 1648, only to be put down decisively in August.  After more negotiations, bribes, secret treaties and other nonsense Parliament was purged, Charles arrested and put on trial, and was condemned to death on 26 January 1649.  He was beheaded at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, the first anointed king of England to be executed.

Legend has it that the new ship was meant as much a check on Confederate naval ambitions as on an intentions of Great Britain to intervene in the conflict.

Among many other things, the Americans two hundred years later inherited many of the same animosities from the Mother Country that stemmed from religious outlook, but manifested itself in the New World as deep cultural divisions based on political economy: the value of land versus the value of capital.  When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, the US Navy was not just small, it was microscopic.  A Swedish-born inventor named John Ericsson proposed the construction of an entirely new type of warship, a flush-deck, steam-powered ship not clad in iron but built entirely of metal.  Due largely to his tremendous reputation as an engineer, Ericson’s design was accepted and construction commenced at Continental Iron Works in Brooklyn 25 October 1861.  The new ship slid down the ways on 30 January 1862. The name Monitor, meaning “one who admonishes and corrects wrongdoers,” was proposed by Ericsson on 20 January 1862 and approved by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. Legend has it that the new ship was meant as much a check on Confederate naval ambitions as on an intentions of Great Britain to intervene in the conflict.  Monitor fought her only major duel with an enemy vessel 8 March 1862 at Hampton Roads in Virginia, and foundered in a storm off Hatteras 30 January 1862.  Few warships have ever had such influence not only on naval architecture, but on naval warfare itself.  Today the word monitor is used for any low freeboard warship dominated by gun turrets.

As a youth, FDR attended all the right schools, benefitted greatly from the inherited wealth of one of the oldest families in New York, and went into politics in 1911, serving a term in the New York State Senate.

It wasn’t long after Monitor began her short career that a future naval enthusiast was born not that far away in Hyde Park, New York. Franklin D. Roosevelt was born to the Hyde Park Branch (the Democrats) of the well-to-do Roosevelt family on 30 January 1888; the Oyster Bay Branch (the Republicans) produced Theodore Roosevelt, President from 1901-1908.   As a youth, FDR attended all the right schools, benefitted greatly from the inherited wealth of one of the oldest families in New York, and went into politics in 1911, serving a term in the New York State Senate. Taking up his cousin Theodore’s  old job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, he served there until he ran for vice-president with James Cox in 1920, but was defeated soundly.  Stricken by polio in 1921, Roosevelt recovered enough by 1929 to win election as Governor of New York.  From there, he won cousin Theodore’s old job as President in 1932.  FDR’s tenure of office was the longest of any American, winning reelection three times.  He died in office 12 April 1945, just three weeks before the death of Adolf Hitler.  Criticized and admired, sometimes in the same breath, FDR’s imprint on the Presidency and the power and reach of the Federal government are undeniable.

…bubble wrap is that plastic sheet stuff that some people insist on popping endlessly, I believe primarily to be annoying, but is said to “relieve stress” (with little explosions?)

And finally, Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day.  Yes, there is such a thing, which is a thing, for reasons not obscure but that make the decisions to have “National anything” day seem sane.  Now, bubble wrap is a generic trademark that, properly, should be rendered “Bubble Wrap® brand cushioning sheets,” but nobody does. Sealed Air Corporation of New Jersey owns it and, apparently pursues its protection from time to time. Be that as it may, bubble wrap is that plastic sheet stuff that some people insist on popping endlessly, I believe primarily to be annoying, but is said to “relieve stress” (with little explosions?)  But I once again digress from the Appreciation Day, which is the last Monday in January, was started by WNVI-FM 95.1 “Spirit Radio” serving Bloomington, Indiana.  It seems they were unwrapping a load of new microphones on the air and one popped, much to someone’s amusement.  Anyway, the first “appreciation” day was held on Monday, 29 January 2001 with a popping relay, a sculpture contest, and a fashion design contest.  You can’t make this stuff up…oh, wait…somebody did.

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Ninety-Five Theses, The Last Judgement, The Spanish Flu, Reuben James, and Halloween

31 October has been a very auspicious day for many things. When Davey patented the miner’s safety lamp on this day in 1815, and Dunlop patented the pneumatic bicycle tire on this day in 1888 those were the beginnings of great things.  So was the completion of the first coast to coast paved highway in America, the Lincoln Highway, in 1913.  And, LBJ ordered the bombing of North Vietnam halted on 31 October 1968, more to help Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in the upcoming election than to help the Vietnamese.  But that didn’t help his vice-president, and Nixon won anyway.  But many auspicious other things happened on 31 October.

By the beginning of the 16th Century, the European world was divided into two realms: The Church and Everyone Else.  The Church held sway over most civil matters, and everyone else could do whatever it was that they wanted to do that the Church told them they could do.  A large source of revenue for Rome was the sale of indulgences.  These were pieces of paper run out on that new printing press gadget which, blessed by the Holy See,  were intended to reduce a sinner’s punishment after death.  Great if one could afford it, but very few could.  This was an age when most people wouldn’t see more than a handful of copper coins in a lifetime, and the Church was charging sacks of gold for them.  Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins. There were other issues as well, notably the foundation of the merits of saints, that he included in an academic argument called the Ninety-Five Theses that he sent to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz (his earthly boss), on 31 October 1517. This began what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in temporal matters.

Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins.

While the sale of indulgences was lucrative, it enabled the Church to be a great patron of the arts.  Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.  Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but the work was unfinished until the Last Judgement was finished a quarter century later, on 31 October 1541 on a commission  from Paul III. As High Renaissance art goes the Sistine gets no higher, and for an artist who preferred sculpture the work is all the more remarkable.  The Last Judgement depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the judgement of all of humanity, as was then current Church doctrine. A figurative end of the world, if nothing else.

Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.

But it was much later, on the other side of the world, that leading scholars were calculating the end of humanity   By 31 October 1918, the Great Influenza, the “Spanish Flu,” had killed at least 21,000 people in the United States alone—that month alone, and most in the last half.  Worldwide deaths numbered in the millions.  Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems. There were clinicians who were calculating that, at the rate the disease was killing its victims, humanity would become extinct within four to six months.  The wave receded at the end of November, only to flare again at the end of 1919, and again in 1922.  One in four humans on Earth were affected either directly or indirectly.  Unofficial death tolls today are at about one hundred million. This exceeds the death toll from all causes in WWI, even by the most pessimistic scholars, by a factor of five.

Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems.

And it wasn’t much after that, humanity having survived the flu, that the United States inched closer to war once again. By 1941, the US Navy was performing “neutrality patrols” over half the Atlantic Ocean.  USS Reuben James (DD-245), a Clemson class four-stack destroyer commissioned in 1920 that was a part of Patrol Three out of Iceland, was escorting eastbound convoy HX 156 out of Halifax on the morning of 31 October 1941 when she was struck by a torpedo from U-552 that was meant for an ammunition ship in the convoy. A forward magazine exploded on Reuben James, blowing her bow off.  The rest of the ship managed to survive another five minutes before it sank, claiming all but 44 enlisted men. The issue with Reuben James was less that the United States was not yet at war or the loss of over a hundred men, but that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, arguably providing material assistance to a belligerent in violation not only of international conventions but also of US law.  While the press reported the sinking, President Roosevelt didn’t make much of an issue of it as he might have, given the legal ambiguities of the “Neutrality Patrol.”

The issue with Reuben James was that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, providing assistance to a belligerent in violation  of US law.  

Today also marks the “holiday” of Halloween, that day when people of all ages dress up in costumes and disguises from the sublime to the ridiculous, the crude to the superb, to indulge themselves in merriment, garage-burning (especially in Detroit), candy-begging, and other things that, at any other time, would be viewed as either criminal or just plain nuts. While your intrepid researcher did indulge in the past, it has been some years since he felt compelled to take part personally in the “festivities,” other than to put up some decorations (discontinued some years ago) and hand out candy (discontinued this year).  While OK for many, this correspondent is done with it. While the roots of Halloween are unclear, it is the eve of the All Hallows Day observance in the liturgical year for remembering the dead. Of late the harmless holiday has been associated with paganism, Satan-worship, and other tortured non-connections.  And on some college campuses, costumes must be pre-approved by committees of oh-so-sensitive persons who need to make certain that no one is offended, and no cultures are appropriated, and no one is demeaned–essentially that no one enjoys themselves.  At last report, there were very few costumes (other than perhaps simple sheets that could be construed as KKK garb and thus even they were being nixed) that were being approved.

Leave it to academics to suck the joy out of everything.

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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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Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.

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Britain and the American Revolution

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce the publication of another essay collection by John D. Beatty, Britain and the American Revolution on Amazon.

Most scholars—especially Americans—when writing about the American Revolution emphasize the Western Hemisphere when considering the effects.  However, in this scribe’s opinion this view is short-sighted.  Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies.  The Empire may have steadily degraded after Victoria’s diamond jubilee gala in 1897, but by the much-ballyhooed “Brexit” from the European Community in 2016, Britain herself was still a force to be reckoned with.

Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies.

Recent writers, especially Steven Sears in The British Empire, have suggested that the British Empire was really nothing more than a jobs program for the English middle and upper classes.  In some ways this is arguably true.  However trivial this may seem in the great scheme of things, Great Britain was the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945.  As these essays argue, this influence was in part because of the sheer genius of hard-pressed Britons to survive on their harsh, rocky islands.

Great Britain was the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945

“Changing the Great Game” is an exploration of how the concept of “rights” was grudgingly preserved by dynasty after dynasty ruling the British Isles.  Even if the Scots, Irish and other ethnic groups didn’t recognize it, the rights enjoyed by Englishmen that were unique to their legal system did rub off on them as well, if only in small doses from time to time.  The ancient legends of Arthur, Alfred and the rest of the traditional lawgivers may have been perfected in the 19th century, but their origins are clearly much older.  The legal tradition that no sovereign is above his own laws far predate the Normans.

The ancient legends of Arthur, Alfred and the rest of the traditional lawgivers may have been perfected in the 19th century, but their origins are clearly much older.

“Kings, Kin and Killers” is something of an experiment.  Steven Pincus in 1688: The First Modern Revolution talks extensively about the motives of the supporters of the Stuarts and those who … well, did not support the monarch.  They hadn’t yet expressed a desire to throw out the monarchy as they would later, but the non-supporters of the Stuart kings were far more interested in the power of capital than that of land.  Their arguments were eerily similar to those that would take place in America before the shooting started in 1861.  It is almost certain that many of the philosophical animosities in English society between country and town, between farm and workshop, were locked into American society after the Revolution, and hung on in animus for another two generations.

… arguments [in 17th century Britain] were eerily similar to those that would take place in America before the shooting started in 1861.

“The Limits of Empire” is explicitly that: an essay into the administrative and technical limitations of imperial administration in the late 18th century.  Law, trade, finance, and community administration all depended on communications, and there was simply no good or reliable way to improve trans-Atlantic communications in the 1770s such that the Revolution, or one like it, could be put down.  Even if India were to become the most prosperous of all of Britain’s imperial properties, it wasn’t yet.  If the Gandhi revolution had come two centuries earlier, by that remove it may have succeeded much faster.

“Copper Bottomed Wizardry” began as a challenge—a sort of a bet.  This writer was wagered that he could not find enough technological innovation between 1775 and 1805 to explain how Britain defeated France at Trafalgar.  Knowing that coppering became standard by 1783, the research started there and proceeded to produce this essay.  The carronade, the short-barreled “smasher” that was the terror of small-vessel warfare before the shell gun, was intentionally left out because of other innovations that made British ships not only reliable and easier to handle, but overall better vessels.  Any sailor can tell you that, pound for pound, any well-handled warship in peacetime is worth three that are better gunned.  In wartime, it’s how well the guns are laid and how long they can stay on station, not just how well they can blast a target.

This writer was wagered that he could not find enough technological innovation between 1775 and 1805 to explain how Britain defeated France at Trafalgar.

Four essays are hardly a working thesis, but they may point to one: Britain was strengthened by the conflict that resulted in the loss of her thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States.  Both she and the United States, ultimately, resolved the last of a conflict in Anglo-Saxon society that had raged since the Tudors: Do governments have a right to rule, or a duty?  Is society the master of an economic structure, or a servant or product of it?

Let these essays inform the reader’s decision.

John D. Beatty is a writer and historian who has published ten books on military history.  Britain and the American Revolution on Amazon is available on Amazon Kindle.

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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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Ruminations On War

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce the publication of another in the series of essay collections from John D Beatty.  “Ruminations On War” contains five essays on topics as wide ranging as air power, militias, disease, the origins of warfare, and early military theorists.

Speculation on issues like the beginning of war is usually beyond the pale of “military philosophy” and well into anthropology, but sometimes the thoughtful scholar has to want to know how humanity got from hunter-gatherer to suicide bomber.  Though these essays were written in an academic environment, I had given some thought as to how warfare in general came about for some time.  We like to think in Rousseau-like terms about early man, but I think about that idealistic picture long enough and there’s a disconnect.  The “Which Came First” essay is an initial foray into the possibilities of early hominid warfare, a rumination based on what we know, what we guess at, and the laws of physics and, very generally, on Jack London’s Law of Meat that he spent a whole chapter on in White Fang.

We like to think in Rousseau-like terms about early man, but I think about that idealistic picture long enough and there’s a disconnect. 

That the early Bronze-Age civilizations of North America were devastated not just by Old World technology but also by Old World diseases is not new, but the effects of contagious disease in combination with their already slow population growth was a fatal combination for their continued existence.  “Deadly Emigres” is an exposition into the dynamics of a one-two punch that the Indians got when the waves of invaders reached their shores.

“Obligations of Freedom” is an experiment in the legal and historical grounds for militia service.  Though it didn’t start out that way, it is a sturdy rejoinder against the argument that the US National Guard is what Amendment II of the Constitution meant by “militia,” when the record is clear that it is anything but.

Academic history is very certain that the four classical philosophers discussed in “Four Philosophers Revisited” were the ur-scribes of modern strategic thought.  The truth is that three of them at least were less concerned with philosophy than they likely were in seeing their name in print—and repeated what others wrote in the doing.  But one, the first—Sun Tzu—we can’t even be certain how he was compensated, or if he wasn’t a pen name for some scholar who put a lot of other writers together.  Writing during the Iron Age in China, whoever wrote the original text attributed to Sun Tzu really had little to say that others didn’t say afterwards who never heard of him, making him perhaps the first to re-state what was obvious to military professionals since the beginnings of organized warfare.

Traditionally, “a marriage made in Hell” was the unity of the machine gun and barbed wire on the Western Front in France and Flanders.  “A Divorce from the Marriage Made in Hell” is an exposition on the earliest philosophies that poses a question: are separate air forces the answer?  That, of course, depends on what the question is.

“Ruminations On War” is available on Amazon Kindle, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.  See other books from JDB Communications, LLC on John D. Beatty’s Author Page.

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Five Essays on the American Civil War

JDB Communications, LLC, is proud to announce another essay collection by John D. Beatty.  Five Essays on the American Civil War is a foray into the complexities of Civil War scholarship as much as it is into the conflict itself.

The American Civil War (even the way it is written: always capital “C,” capital “W”) sits isolated in a pristine crystal dome of American history, separate from all other events.  There are certain ways to write about it that make it acceptable to Civil War scholars and their audiences, and these rules must be observed else the offending material will be relegated to the isle of broken essays.  My own foray into Civil War book writing, The Devil’s Own Day, has been met with institutional silence, in part, I believe, because it challenges the doctrines of AS Johnston’s unrealized genius that ended in his death at Shiloh, and because it directly refutes the generally accepted narratives about Buell saving Grant at that savage battle in the Tennessee pine barrens.

The distinct and contrarian position in these essays is unacceptable to “mainstream” Civil War scholarship: Civil War battlefield presentation isn’t what it’s cracked up to be as “Of Parks and Excuses” explains; the Southern Confederacy, always a “Forlorn Hope,” could not have gotten what she wanted by military means; Grant’s military legacy is much deeper and longer lasting than Lee’s, as “Bigger than History” and “Grant, the Army and the World” explain.

These essays were written over the course of perhaps ten years, a period of my academic harrying of long-suffering professors, Civil War Round Table members, and other unfortunates who tolerated my distinctly odd view of the 1861-65 conflict.

Enjoy these essays because they should challenge what you may think of the American Civil War, its place in world history, and how it is indeed tied to the rest of the world.

Five Essays on the American Civil War and other works by John D. Beatty are available on Amazon.

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The Turning Point

For generations, schools have taught that the turning point of the American Civil War was the battle of Gettysburg, that titanic clash in southeastern Pennsylvania where the Army of the Potomac under Meade and the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee fought for three days to decide the fate of a continent.

Sounds romantic, don’t it?  Too bad it just isn’t true.

Turning points are handy for teaching history because they give a certain sense of being somewhere in what may otherwise be a dreary time line.  Unfortunately, outside of a teaching environment or some dramatic exposition, they don’t make a lot of sense because there just aren’t that many of them that are that distinct.

By the 19th century, war had become a very complex matter, where events on the battlefield were often eclipsed by events in the halls of government, the trading floors or in the hearts and minds of the populace (yes, it did matter, ‘60s cynicism aside).

In the case of the Civil War, what happened in Pennsylvania in the first three days in July of 1863 was indeed a large battle, but it was pretty irrelevant to the war as a whole.  For two years the two principle armies of the Union and the Confederacy had been glaring at each other between Washington and Richmond, fighting occasionally, maneuvering up to Maryland and down into the Wilderness, but mostly just glaring and camping.  In the 90 miles of space between the two capitals there was a marked dearth of real activity for months at a time.

However, in the West (which was anywhere west of the Appalachians) a typical army (there were four principal hosts and several others in the theater) covered 90 miles every quarter and fought at least one major battle every third month.  One reason for this was that there was so much more war to fight out there, with more critical objectives and three times the space.  One fact that most people don’t appreciate is that it is a greater distance between Chicago and New Orleans than it is between Berlin and Moscow.

While most of the population and a large percentage of the manufacturing and dairy production were in the east, most of the grain, cotton, lumber, niter, salt, mules and horses, not to mention specie, were not.  Armies by the 19th century traveled not just on guns and butter, but on wood and iron, on fodder and wheat that had to be paid for with gold and silver, not IOUs as they are today.  And, in the west was the great Mississippi River, which made nearly all the other rivers on the continent pale in comparison not only for sheer size, but for its value as a transportation axis.

The fighting for control of the Mississippi River was far more crucial for the success and failure of the war than was who controlled the capitals.  The free flow from the grain silos, lumber yards and steel mills of the Midwest to the markets of Europe and Latin America was crucial to the success or failure of both causes.  Further, the flow of gold and silver from California, which the South could never affect and seemingly never seriously tried, ensured that, baring disaster, the North could buy an army if it needed to.

The blockade of the Southern coasts, dreary and relatively uneventful as it was, had global importance few nations appreciated at the time.  After the Declaration of Paris in 1858, the ability for a nation to control its own ports determined who could recognize them as a political entity, and thus whether or not they were a country at all.  As long as the South couldn’t permanently open their ports,  their legitimacy as a country was doomed by international law.  The South would have had to have open-water warships capable of consistent operation in all weathers to break the Union blockade, something they never came close to having.

On top of all this, there was the slavery issue.  Chattel slavery had largely vanished from the major powers of Europe, where all the money and manufactured goods were, and when Russia freed the serfs in 1862 all the Great Powers were, theoretically, free societies.  As the Confederacy insisted that their “peculiar institution” was critical to their existence, so too would most of Europe insist that slavery was an abomination that was anathema to the rising trade union movement, let alone the waves of liberal social reforms that were transforming the industrialized world.

You could make convincing arguments for Champion’s Hill that slammed the door on Vicksburg and was the penultimate battle for control of the Mississippi as being the turning point of the Civil War .  You could also, given the nature of war in the Industrial Age, argue that Fort Sumter was the turning point for, as soon as the South started the war, they started to lose, because they never had a chance for a military, diplomatic, or economic victory.

So, if you’re looking for a single event that changed the destiny of the Civil War,  Gettysburg surely isn’t it.  I’m not quite sure that there was one.

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The Butcher’s Bill: Casualty Creation in the American Civil War

By the 1860’s the mass armies of the industrial age had devised new ways to destroy human beings in large numbers and with alarming speed, but the most common casualties came from causes other than combat.  This article will address primarily the Union figures for the simple reason that they were better documented, even if the figures given here are still in dispute.  Numbers for the “housewives” attached to the regiments (three for every hundred privates) and the numerous camp followers uncertain at the best of times, are to this day unknown.  Since these essentially undocumented people (which included not only the expected ladies of negotiable virtue but also soldier’s wives and other family members and the numerous vendors from unlicensed sutlers to cutlers to embalmers, scriveners and laundresses) were uncounted at the time and the armies never seemed to care about them enough to document them, their casualties shall be forever unknown. However, it could be assumed that they were killed at similar rates and by similar causes, albeit with somewhat smaller numbers for combat.

The biggest single killer of soldiers on both sides by far was disease, killing over 149,000 (of 294,000 total fatalities) in the Union army alone.[1]  Throughout the conflict, the primary killer on both sides was diarrhea, which could dehydrate a victim to death in a day and a half.  Disease struck the armies in two separate waves, each with its distinct causality.  The first wave was primarily the diseases of exposure, which included modern childhood maladies such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough, mostly accompanied by pneumonia.[2]  These diseases started to appear at the initial camps of instruction as early as April 1861, where large populations of unrelated men first gathered together.  Those who were immune to these diseases, or had already been exposed, were sometimes carriers. This wave lasted until late in 1862.[3]

The second wave was more insidious, and actually caused more casualties over a longer period.  Beginning in the winter of 1862-63, most of maladies in this wave were known as “camp” or “prison” diseases, so called because they were common in dense populations with poor sanitation and food.  They included typhus, typhoid, yellow fever, tuberculosis and malaria.  The second wave also included nutritional deficiencies (which took some time to show up) including scurvy, which weakened the immune system, making the victims more susceptible to whatever opportunistic affliction came by.  Since the cause of most disease was still a mystery to medical science of the time, treatments (other than anti-ascorbics for scurvy and rickets, and the palliative care provided by various opiates) ranged in efficacy from harmless to deadly.  This second wave lasted until the end of the war.[4]

The second biggest casualty creator in the Civil War was desertion, which claimed over 190,000 in the Union.[5]  The Confederate figures for desertion are almost certainly higher, especially in the winter of 1864-65.  Men deserted for a number of reasons, and some even had to do with combat.  Simple fear was one reason, but privation, hunger, loneliness or needing to take care of loved ones at home were the most common.  There was also a large number (probably some 15% of the totals) of men who accepted a bounty in one unit, deserted, and joined another for another bounty.  These “bounty jumpers” were almost unique to the North, though they existed in small numbers in the South where substitutes could be purchased.[6]  In the winter of 1864-65, all of these and a certain sense of inevitable defeat drove many Confederates to just give up and go home.[7]

The third highest killer, combat, claimed just over 61,000 men in the Union army killed outright.[8]  Most combat casualties (about 51%) came from small-arms fire, and 40% from artillery (primary and secondary projectiles).[9]  Bayonets accounted for less than 100 casualties treated in the Army of the Potomac,[10] and cooking implements (a fry pan) for one known.[11]  Numbers for swords and other edged weapons are unknown.

As the war progressed the location of the wounds on the body moved upwards.  In 1861-2, most wounds from small arms and artillery were in the abdomen and chest.  By 1865, the predominance of wounds were in the head and shoulders.  This phenomenon is probably attributable to the development of entrenchments as the war went on.[12]

The fourth largest category of casualties was died of wounds, or sometimes of treatment.  Civil War medicine knew little of antiseptics, nothing of antibiotics, and practically nothing of sanitation. Though anesthesia was known not all practitioners were trained in its use, and supplies frequently ran out, especially on the Confederate side. A soldier brought to the surgeons for treatment was often better off (and usually survived longer) waiting for the surgeons to get to him.  Amputation was a common treatment for wounds in the extremities (infection and shattered bones being just two reasons why).  Severe wounds in the chest and abdomen were usually not treated at all.  The best that could be said about Civil War medicine was that they kept fairly good records, and were able to provide their successors with valuable insights into the development of medicine after the war.[13] “Died of wounds” is also one of the most aggravating cause of death in Civil War studies because there is and was no agreed-upon time limit for it.  Since it sometimes took decades for some wounds to finally be fatal, and some (not all) chroniclers faithfully adjusted numbers when it suited them, the casualty figures for some battles can vary widely from source to source, or from decade to decade.

Suicide accounted for just over three hundred Union soldiers, the most common being hanging.  There were just over a hundred homicides, often by gunshot or knife, but beatings were not unusual.  One hundred and twenty one Union soldiers were executed for crimes committed (rape and looting being the most common offenses); most of these were shot, a few were hanged.  The totals on the missing are elusive, as most of those “missing” may have been maimed beyond recognition in battle, or changed names and left the field (or not) or some other cause or another that could confound researchers for centuries.[14]

The remaining casualties fall under the heading of mysteries, though some are probably part of the other totals.  About 800 were killed by accident, but that number is almost certainly low (in July 1945, accidental casualties in the US services were about 1,400 a week), and some must have been homicides or suicides.  There are about 3,200 “unknown” causes, though many may have been natural causes of which Civil War doctors knew nothing.  But the usual ways for people to die—heart attacks, heat exhaustion—account for some 4,100 deaths, which also seems low.[15]

Making casualties in war is always a primary tool behind victory, but in the 19th Century just the threat of war forced mobilization and that was all that was needed to create a bulk of the casualties of the age.  Combat just added to the butcher’s bill.





[1]. Frederick. Phisterer, Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 67.

[2]. Russell Frank. Weigley, A Great Civil War a Military and Political History, 1861–1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 135.

[3]. Ibid., 140.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Phisterer, op. cit., 69.

[6]. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 210.

[7]. Ibid., 412; Weigley, A Great Civil War a Military and Political History, 1861–1865, 311.

[8]. Phisterer, op. cit., 67, 68.

[9]. Paddy. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Mansfield, England: Fieldbooks, 1986), 39.

[10]. Francis Alfred Lord, They Fought for the Union (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1960), 108.

[11]. Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 310.

[12]. Russell Frank. Weigley, History of the United States Army, Wars of the United States. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 312.

[13]. Patricia L. (Editor) Faust, “Medicine,” in Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 484.

[14]. Phisterer, op. cit., 68–70.

[15]. Phisterer, op. cit., 68–72.

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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.

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10 November: Three Beginnings and an Ending

As the shadows draw long and the days get cooler, we recall not the end of the waning fall but the beginnings of momentous things…and not so momentous.

First we must say “happy birthday” to our sister service, the United States Marine Corps, born on this day in 1775.  Two battalions were authorized but only one of what were called “Continental Marines” of about 500 was ever established.  The intent was that they be sent on an invasion of Halifax, the logistical base in Canada, but the British reinforced it before the enterprise could be undertaken.  They operated in a raiding capacity while establishing reputation for their global reach, attacking Nassau in 1776, joining the Continentals and militia at Princeton in 1777, then participating in the Penobscot expedition in 1779.  Smaller groups struck inland as far as the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico.  Though this force was disbanded in 1783, the Marines take this organization to be their origin, and their day to get noisily drunk as long as they aren’t otherwise engaged.

In 1864, this is the date William T Sherman’s memoirs uses for the beginning of his movement from Atlanta to Savanna: most sources start it on 14 November, but Atlanta was torched on 12 November, so Sherman’s date makes more sense.  Moving an army group of that size on a chevauchee (in this context, a strategic raid) of that scale would take a few days on the road network of the time.  Six weeks later the force would reach the Atlantic coast, none the worse for wear.

Exactly a year later, Henry Wirz, a one-armed, Swiss-born physician was hanged in Washington DC for the new offence of “war crimes.”  As commandant of a prison camp that the prisoners dubbed Andersonville (the proper name was Camp Sumner) for its entire 14 month existence, he was found guilty of criminally conspiring to kill the nearly 13,000 prisoners who died in the camp, in addition to eleven counts of murder that he almost certainly did commit.  Though he had tried to get more resources for his charges the murders were rather blatant and witnessed, so he was hanged at the Old Capitol Prison on 10 November 1865.  To this day the Wirz matter is controversial in some circles as it could be argued in the abstract that all war is a crime, and that as one of very few Confederates executed (and conveniently a non-American national) he was scapegoated as a cover for the deaths in Union camps.

A century later, on 10 November 1983, the general public got its first glimpse of a weird little program called “Windows 1.0” at an electronics trade show.  It was first pushed as a driver for OS/2 applications, and was not released to production for a little over two years.  But it was an easier interface for the operators of the fledgling PCs to use, even if it was once described as “pouring molasses in the Arctic.”  As older computer users recall, its first function was as a sales tool for mice.  Would that it were that simple now…