November 11, 1918 The 11th Hour

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble.  A policing action, in the Balkans.

As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances combined with slavish obedience to mobilization timetables, to draw the Great Powers of Europe, into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End All Wars” exploded across the European continent.

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

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Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “Pal’s Battalions”, to fight for King and country.The signs could have been written in any number of languages, in the early phase of the war

Four years later, an entire generation had been chewed up and spit out, in pieces.

Many single day’s fighting during the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

6,503 Americans lost their lives during the savage, month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day’s fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.Over 1.5 million shells were fired in the days leading to the battle of the Somme

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally, torn to pieces. Tens of thousands remain missing, to this day.

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Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood, the rats and the lice of the trenches during the New Year of 1917-’18, you may have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
we’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

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Those who fought the “Great War”, were not always human.  The carrier pigeon Cher Ami escaped a hail of bullets and returned twenty-five miles to her coop despite a sucking chest wound, the loss of an eye and a leg that hung on, by a single tendon.  The message she’d been given to carry, saved the lives of 190 men.

“Warrior” was the thoroughbred mount to General “Galloper” Jack Seely, arriving in August 1914 and serving four years “over there”. “The horse the Germans can’t kill” survived snipers, poison gas and shellfire to be twice buried alive in great explosions, only to return home to the Isle of Wight, and live to the ripe old age of 33.First division Rags

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First Division Rags” ran through a torrent of shells, gassed and blinded in one eye, a shell fragment damaging his front paw, yet still, he got his message through.

Jackie the baboon lost a leg during heavy bombardment from German guns, while frantically building a protective rock wall around himself, and his comrades.

Tirpitz the German pig jumped clear of the sinking light cruiser SMS Dresden, to become mascot to the HMS Glasgow.

Sixteen million animals served on all sides and in all theaters of WW1:  from cats to canaries, to pigeons and mules, camels, donkeys and dogs.  As “dumb animals”, these were never given the choice to “volunteer”.  And yet they served, some nine million making the supreme sacrifice by decision, other than their own.

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front, with riots at home and mutiny in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars had collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  Nearly every combatant saw the disintegration of its domestic economy, or teetering on the brink.

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A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the fog and the darkness, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Instead, they were shocked to see the apparitions of three sedans, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home had sent a peace delegation, headed by the 43-year-old German politician Matthias Erzberger.

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The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned out of a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

Adolf Hitler would gleefully accept French surrender in the same rail car, some twenty-two years later.

The German delegation was shocked at the words that came out of Foch’s mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The German believed that they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

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Ferdinand Foch had seen his country destroyed by war, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.

Marshall Foch now produced a list of thirty-four demands, each one a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. She was to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With the German population at home facing starvation, the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railroad cars, and 5,000 trucks.

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By this time, 2,250 were dying every day on the Western Front.  Foch informed Ertzberger that he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”.  Even so, the plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute, of the last day.

The German King, Kaiser Wilhelm, abdicated on the 10th, as riots broke out in the streets of Germany. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out to that effect. The war would be over in hours, but there were no other instructions.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground they could walk over, in a few hours?The last six hours

Many continued the attack, believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw their last chance at glory or promotion. An artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until only minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…

No fewer than 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, another 3,240 seriously wounded.

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Still smarting from the disastrous defeat at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back, on the final day of the war. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120.

One-hundred years ago today, all sides suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour after the signing of the armistice, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”.   Perhaps this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove.  Anti-German bias had not reached levels of the next war, when President Roosevelt interned Americans of Japanese descent.  Yet, such bias was very real.  Gunther’s fiancé had already broken up with him, and he’d recently been busted in rank, after writing home complaining about conditions at the front.

Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers frantically waved and yelled for him, to go back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland, was the last man to die in combat, in the Great War.  It was 10:59am.  The war would be over, in sixty seconds.

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After eight months on the front lines of France, Corporal Joe Rodier of Worcester Massachusetts, was jubilant.   “Another day of days“.   Rodier wrote in his diary.  “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard“.

Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave error. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant that the war would have to be fought, all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, Foch said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.

The man got it wrong, by 36 days.

A personal note:

PFC Norman Franklin Long was wounded during the Great War, a member of the United States Army, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry.  He left us on December 18, 1963, only hours before his namesake and my brother Norm, was born.

My father’s father went to his final rest on Christmas eve of 1963, in Arlington National Cemetery. 

Lt. Col. Richard B “Rick” Long Sr. served during the Vietnam era and earned his eternal rest at the Sandhills Veteran’s Cemetery, in North Carolina.

Rest in peace Grampa, Dad, you left us too soon.

Norm and my other brother Dave went on to serve over 50 years between them and both retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Respect and gratitude for your service, gentlemen.

November 8, 1965 The 8th of November

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of entrenched positions and onto the American defenses.

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On November 8, 1965, the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade was halfway through a one-year term of service, in Vietnam.  “Operation Hump”, so named in recognition of that mid-point, was a search and destroy mission inserted by helicopter on November 5.

Vietcong fighters occupied positions on several key hills near Bien Hoa, with the objective of driving the Americans out.

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There was little contact through the evening of the 7th, when B and C Companies of the 1/503rd took up a night defensive position in the triple canopied jungle near Hill 65.

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of entrenched positions and onto the American defenses.

The Vietcong were well aware of American superiority when it came to artillery and air cover.  The VC strategy was to get in so close that it nullified the advantage.  “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them”.

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Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

Shot through the right thigh and calf with medical supplies depleted, Army Medic Lawrence Joel hobbled about the battlefield on a makeshift crutch, tending to the wounded.

Though wounded himself, Specialist 4 Randy Eickhoff ran ahead, providing covering fire. Eickhoff was later awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.

Specialist 5 Joel received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, near hill 65.  Let the man’s citation tell his part of the story:

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For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Specialist 5 Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, Specialist 5 Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Specialist 5 Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aid man and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Specialist 5. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country“.

Medal of honor citation

48 Americans lost their lives in the battle.  Many more were wounded.  Two Australian paratroopers were recorded as MIA.  Their remains were discovered years later and repatriated, in 2007.

The country music duo Big and Rich wrote a musical tribute to that day.  It’s called the 8th of November.

November 7, 1805 Lewis and Clark

More than once Lewis and Clark found themselves negotiating for their lives with hostile Indians, as Discovery Corps member Francois Labiche translated English to French, fur trapper Toussant Charbonneau French to Hidatsa, and his wife Sacagawea speaking to the other side in Shoshone.

Minister to France and future President Thomas Jefferson began to express interest in an expedition to the Pacific Northwest, as early as the 1780s.

As President, Jefferson asked Congress to fund an expedition to the Pacific, two years into his first term. He understood that the fledgling United States would have a better claim to the Pacific Northwest if the team gathered data on plants and animals, but Jefferson’s primary interest in the mission, was trade.

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Today we take coast-to-coast travel for granted, it seems odd to think how strange and unknown were the more remote parts of our own country.   Though extraordinarily well read and one of the brightest men of his generation, (Jefferson once cut out 901 bible verses from which he assembled his own “Jefferson Bible”, translating the volume into Greek, Latin, French and back to English, “just for fun”), President Jefferson legitimately believed that herds of Wooly Mammoth roamed the western reaches of the nation. 

Jefferson wanted to find an all-water route to the Pacific for the conduct of business. The President commissioned the Corps of Discovery expedition in 1803, naming Army Captain Meriwether Lewis expedition leader.

The two men had known one another since Lewis was a boy, having long since developed a relationship of mentor and protégé.  At this time Lewis was working as personal secretary to the President.  Tough, intellectually gifted and resourceful, Lewis received a crash course in the natural sciences from the President himself, before being sent off to Philadelphia to brush up on medicine, botany and celestial navigation.

Lewis selected William Clark as his second in command, due to the man’s exceptional skills as a frontiersman. It would prove to be an excellent choice.

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Most of 1803 was spent in planning and preparation, Lewis and Clark joining forces near Louisville that October. After wintering in the Indiana territory base camp in modern day Illinois, the 33-man expedition departed on May 14, 1804, accompanied by “Seaman”, a “Dogg of the Newfoundland breed”.

Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Louisiana Territory, as it became an official part of the United States. Borders were still hazy at the time, and Spanish authorities suspected that the expedition would encroach on their territory in the southwest. They had good reason to think so, Thomas Jefferson believed the same.

Corps of Discovery members couldn’t know that General James Wilkinson, one of the most duplicitous, avaricious, and corrupt individuals of the age, was reporting their every move to his paymaster, the Spanish King Charles IV.

Over the course of the expedition, the tiny group was hunted by no fewer than four Spanish expeditions with as many as 600 soldiers, mercenaries and Comanche guides, each intending to make the Corps of Discovery vanish without a trace.

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Discovery established friendly relations with at least 24 indigenous tribes, without whose help they may have become lost or starved in the wilderness.  Most were more than impressed with Lewis’ state-of-the-art pneumatic rifle, which could silently fire up to 20 rounds after being pumped full of compressed air.

Not all Indian tribes were friendly, there were several run-ins with a group the Americans called “Teton-wan Sioux”. The Sioux were no joke. On one occasion, a group of four who had separated from the main expedition fled 100 miles in a single day from these people, before they felt it was safe to stop.

Lewis and Clark’s memoirs describe similar encounters with a large and especially ferocious species of bear, the Grizzly, an animal which more than once had expedition members climbing trees with a notable sense of urgency.

It was at the winter camp of 1804-5 that they met a French fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau and his young wife (or slave – she might have been a little of both), Sacagawea. They seemed to have thought Charbonneau a shady character, but they liked the young Indian girl, and her linguistic skills would prove useful. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa while Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. More than once Lewis and Clark found themselves negotiating for their lives with hostile Indians, as Discovery Corps member Francois Labiche translated English to French, Charbonneau French to Hidatsa, and Sacagawea speaking to the other side in Shoshone.

It was at this camp that Sacagawea gave birth to a son, whom she and Charbonneau named Jean Baptiste. The family stayed with the expedition, proving to be incredibly valuable to the group. They met many Indian bands along the way, whom Sacagawea’s presence quickly put at ease. War bands never traveled with women, especially not with one carrying an infant. One such band was a group of Shoshone led by Chief Cameahwait, who turned out to be none other than Sacagawea’s own brother. It must have been quite a reunion, they hadn’t seen one another since her kidnap by the Hidatsa, back in 1800.

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The Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805, and set out their second winter camp in modern-day Oregon.

They returned through a cut in the Rocky Mountains Sacagawea remembered from her childhood, the modern day Bozeman Pass, arriving at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages on August 14, 1806.   For Sacagawea, Charbonneau and Jean Baptiste, this was the end of the trip.

Lewis and Clark arrived in St. Louis on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery having met its objective. The team had reached the western coast and returned, though they never did find a continuous water route to the Pacific. The expedition created maps along the way establishing legal claim to the land, while describing 178 previously unknown plants and 122 unknown animals, all while establishing diplomatic and trade relations with at least two dozen indigenous nations.

Despite being heavily armed, most members were required to defend themselves only once, that in a running gun battle with a band of Blackfeet, on the way home.

The expedition suffered only one fatality when Sergeant Charles Floyd succumbed to what appears to have been appendicitis.  Though not seriously wounded, a humiliated Lewis had to spend several weeks face-down in a canoe, when one of the enlisted guys mistook his rump for that of an elk, and opened fire.

Unfortunate mistake, that one.

Meriwether Lewis died from gunshot wounds to the chest and head on October 11, 1809.  Historians differ as to whether it was murder or suicide, though most believe his death to have been the latter.  This would not have been his first such attempt.

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York

Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter named Lizette on December 22, 1812, and died a few months after at the age of 25. Eight months later, William Clark legally adopted her two children. Clark is recorded as having brought the boy up and educating him in St. Louis, before sending him to Europe with a German prince at the age of 18. I was unable to determine with any certainty, whether Lizette survived infancy.

Among the two-dozen plus officers and enlisted men on Discovery was William Clark’s African slave “York”, who accompanied the expedition from beginning to end.  Though not an official member of the Corps of Discovery, York’s hunting skills made him a valuable member of the expedition.  Indigenous tribes were fascinated by the first black man any had ever seen.  The Arikara people of North Dakota believed that York held spiritual powers and called the tall man “Big Medicine”.

Though a slave, York appears to have earned the respect of expedition members.  At least two geographic features were named after the man.  

Fun Fact: Both York and Sacagawea had a vote on the placement of the 1805-’06 winter camp, prompting historian Stephen E. Ambrose to speculate that this may have been the first time in American history, that a black man and a woman exercised the right to vote.

Accounts differ as to what became of him.  Some say Clark freed the man, others say that York was unwilling to return to a life of slavery, following 2½ years of liberty.  A black man who claimed to have been he was discovered ten or twelve years later, a tribal elder living with his four wives among the Crow, in north-central Wyoming.

Thomas Berger, author of the fictional Dances with Wolves, writes about a particularly dark skinned strain among the Indians, which many believe to have descended from York.

What became of Seaman the dog is unknown. Having accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition from the very beginning, the last journal reference to him was written in July, two months before the journey’s end.

October 31, 1883 The Dress. A Presidential Ghost Story.

For most, October 31, 1883 passed pleasantly enough:  Fall festivals, children bobbing for apples, young women consulting mirrors or tossing nuts into fires, to see whom they would marry.  Not so, Henry Rathbone.  He had Monsters in his head.

Permit me a moment, for a Presidential ghost story. A true tale shared for your Halloween enjoyment, a narrative to reach out to that icy spot at the back of your neck. The one that makes you ask yourself…was that a ghost? But we are civilized women and men, are we not? We know there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

Albany, New York businessman Jared Rathbone passed away in 1845, leaving a considerable fortune to his widow Pauline, and their four children.

New York Supreme Court Justice Ira Harris, himself a widower, joined his household with hers when the couple married, in 1848.  His four were added to hers making eight, a regular 19th-century “Brady Bunch.”

Pauline’s son Henry and Ira’s daughter Clara became close friends and later, more.  Much more.  They were step-siblings, yes, but there was no “blood” between them.  Such a relationship seems not to have been so ‘odd’ back then as it may seem, today.

With the incoming Lincoln presidency, Ira Harris was elected to the United States Senate, replacing Senator William H. Seward who’d been picked to serve in the new administration.

By the time of the War between the States Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone were engaged, to be married.

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Rathbone served for the duration of the war in the Union army, becoming Captain in the 12th Infantry Regiment and participating in the battles at Antietam, and Fredericksburg.  By the end of the war he’d attained the rank, of Major.

Meanwhile, Senator Harris’ daughter Clara formed a friendship with the First Lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, before and after photographs tell of the burdens, borne by the chief executive of a nation at war with itself. Making matters worse, by war’s end the Lincolns had lost two of their four boys, in childhood.

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The war was all but over in April 1865. A night out must have seemed like a welcome break. An evening at the theater. A play, the three-act farce by English playwright Tom Taylor. “Our American Cousin”.

The Lincoln’s companions for the evening were to be General Grant and his wife, Julia, but the General had other plans.  It was probably convenient, because the ladies didn’t get along.  Mary suggested her neighbor Clara Harris, of whom she was quite fond.  And besides, didn’t Clara’s fiancée cut a dashing figure, in his blue uniform.

The story of that night is familiar. The assassin creeping up from behind. The bullet to the head. The Major lunging for the killer but…too late.

John Wilkes Booth was himself one of the great performers of his day, with the actor’s impeccable sense of timing. The assassin had chosen his moment, carefully. Raucous laughter and applause could be expected to follow the line “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdolagizing old man-trap!

LINCOLN: ASSASSINATION, 1865. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre, Washington D.C., 14 April 1865. Lithograph, 1865.

The bullet was fired at point-blank range, entering the President’s skull behind the left ear and coming to rest, behind the right eye.  Rathbone sprang to the attack but the assassin was ready, the dagger slashing the major nearly bone-deep, from shoulder to elbow.  Rathbone made one last lunge, knocking Booth off balance as he leapt from the bunting to the stage, below.  Witnesses remembered the cry “Sic Semper Tyrannis”.  Thus always, to tyrants.  And then, he was gone.

In the President’s box, all was chaos. The first lady was inconsolable, sobbing, apoplectic, shrieking like a wildcat. Rathbone was losing blood at a prodigious rate, a major artery severed in the fight.

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John Wilkes Booth dagger, used to attack Henry Rathbone

Clara’s new dress was drenched in the blood of her fiancée, her face splashed and clothing soaked through layers of petticoats to the skin, beneath.  The small group was taken across the street to the Peterson house where the President was laid out on a bed.  Henry Rathbone faded in and out of consciousness due to loss of blood, raving in his delirium how he should have caught the assassin, his head on Clara’s lap, her handkerchief stuffed into the void where the bicep, used to be.

She didn’t even have time to wash her blood-spattered face. Mary Lincoln would just begin to calm down when she’d turn and see Clara and fall apart, wailing “My husband’s blood!”.

It was the Major’s blood, but, no matter. Perception is reality, isn’t it? The death vigil lasted this way, for nine hours. The 16th President of the United States passed away at 7:22 the following morning, April 15, 1865.

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Major Rathbone would heal in time, but he never came to terms with his failure to protect the President.  He was tormented, distraught with guilt, unable to understand what he could have done differently, but, What!? Surely there must have been…Something.

Clara Harris couldn’t bring herself to wash that dress, nor even to burn it.  She hung it in a guest room closet, blood and all, in the family’s vacation home in New York.

What demons afflicted the mind of Henry Rathbone can only be guessed at, as a mental illness which had no name, crept into his soul.  He was possessed with that night.  Was I not quick enough?  Or brave enough?  Or Strong enough?  It was MY fault.  A Better Man would have taken that bullet.  Or Stopped that man.  No he wouldn’t…yes he would…but…I…what, the, hell, is WRONG WITH ME???!!!

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The dress

Washington DC was saturated with All Things Lincoln in April 1866, and Clara fled to the family home in Albany, to get away.  There in that closet hung the bloody dress. 

On the anniversary of the assassination she heard laughter, she knew she did, coming down the hall.  Abraham Lincoln’s laughter.

Others reported the same thing in the following years.  The sound of laughter.  A single gun shot.  

But there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

Major Rathbone and Clara Harris were married in July 1867. The couple had three children, Henry rising to the rank of brevet Colonel, in 1870.  That was the year he resigned from the army but work was hard to come by, due to increasing mental instability.

Rathbone convinced himself that Clara was unfaithful, that she planned to take the children away.   He would fly into rages with little or no provocation. She considered divorce but couldn’t bear the thought, nor the stigma.

Clara went so far as to have the closet bricked up with that dress inside, just as Edgar Allen Poe’s Montresor bricked up Fortunato.  That changed, precisely, nothing.  The family traveled to Europe and back in search of a cure, but Rathbone’s condition only worsened.

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US Capitol as it looked, in 1872

Despite all this or possibly because of it, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Rathbone US Consul to the Province of Hannover in Germany, in 1882.

“Trick or Treating” had yet to take hold by this time, back in the United States.  For most, October 31, 1883 passed pleasantly enough:  Fall festivals, children bobbing for apples, young women consulting mirrors or tossing nuts into fires, to see whom they would marry.  Not so, Henry Rathbone.  He had Monsters in his head.

On December 23, Henry Rathbone shot his wife and stabbed himself, in the chest.  Six times.  He lived.  She died.

He said he was defending his wife. Against an attacker.

The three children, Henry Riggs, Gerald Lawrence and Clara Pauline went to live with relatives. Henry Reed Rathbone was convicted of their mother’s murder and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, Germany, there to spend the next twenty-eight years.

Henry Reed Rathbone died on August 14, 1911 and was buried, next to Clara.

In 1922, Henry Riggs Rathbone was elected to the United States House of Representatives.  Twelve years before the younger Rathbone had unbricked his mother’s closet and burned the hated dress. The dress that had stolen his childhood, murdered his mother, and cursed his father.  

But there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

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“The modern day home where Union Army Officer Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris resided”. Hat tip, HISTORIAN’S OFFICE, TOWN OF COLONIE.

Afterward

Burial customs are different in Germany, than in the United States.  Grave plots are generally leased for a period of 20 to 30 years, with an option to renew.  In 1952, officials with the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde looked over visitation records and determined there was no further interest, in Clara Harris or Henry Rathbone.  The couple was exhumed. Their remains were burned, and disposed of.  Like neither one had ever lived.

But there are no such things as ghosts.

Right?

October 30, 1773 A Tragic Love Story

From the fictional lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII, the appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture. Few such tales have anything over the tragic love affair of the unfortunate, Hannah Robinson.

Arjumand Banu was the daughter of a wealthy Persian noble, third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan of the Mughal Empire, who ruled the lands of South Asia from modern-day Afghanistan to Kashmir and south to the Deccan plateau of South India.

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As Empress consort and beloved by the Emperor above all his wives, Arjumand was better known by the title “Mumtaz Mahal”, translating from the Persian as “the exalted one of the palace”.   Jahan called her his ‘Malika-i-Jahan’, or “Queen of the World”.

The labor and delivery of a daughter, the couple’s 14th child was a terrible ordeal, a 30-hour trial resulting in postpartum hemorrhage and the death of the Empress Consort on June 17, 1631.

Shah Jahan went into secluded mourning, emerging a year later with his back bent, his beard turned white.  There then followed a 22-year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden, suitable to the Queen of the World.

This was to be no ordinary building, this grand edifice to the undying love of an Emperor.  The English poet Sir Edwin Arnold described the place as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”  Today the palace is known among the 7 “Modern Wonders of the World” or simply, the Taj Mahal.

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In another time and place, the “Pillarization” of northern European society constituted a separation along religious and political lines, so strict that many individuals had little to no contact, with those outside their own pillar.  19th century Belgian society divided along three such cohorts,  segregating largely along Catholic, Protestant and Social-Democratic strata.

The worst days of the South African Apartheid system had nothing over the European society of the age, when it came to social segregation.  Pillars possessed their own institutions: universities, hospitals and social organizations. Each even had its own news apparatus.

The romance between Colonel J.W.C van Gorkum of the Dutch Cavalry and Lady J.C.P.H van Aefferden was a social outrage. The 22-year old noblewoman was a Catholic.  33-year old Colonel van Gorkum was a Protestant and not a member of the nobility.  The couple’s marriage in 1842 was the scandal of Roermond but, despite all that taboo, theirs was a happy marriage lasting 38-years.

The Colonel died in 1880 and was buried next to the wall, separating the Catholic and Protestant parts of the cemetery.  Van Gorkum’s Lady died some eight years later, wishing to be buried next to her husband. Such a thing was not possible.  She would be buried opposite the wall in the Catholic part of the cemetery, as close as she could get to her beloved husband.

Such was The Law for this time and place, but neither custom nor law said anything about a little creative stonework.  So it is the couple joins hands in death as in life, together and inseparable, for all eternity.

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 Oud Kerkhof cemetery in Hasselt, Belgium

From the 1997 film Titanic to the fictional Shakespearean lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII, the appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture.

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From Wuthering Heights to West Side story few such tales have anything over the tragic love affair of the unfortunate, Hannah Robinson.

Hannah Robinson was one of the most beautiful women in all Colonial Rhode Island, the privileged daughter of the wealthy Narragansett planter Rowland and Anstis (Gardiner) Robinson. Years later during the time of the American Revolution, the opulent Robinson mansion entertained the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, but now I’m getting ahead of this story.

As a young girl, Hannah had nary a care in the world and spent countless hours on a large rock, enjoying the view overlooking Narragansett Bay.

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The view as it looks today, from Hannah Robinson tower

As she grew older, Hannah attended Madame Osborn’s finishing school in Newport. There she fell in love with the French and Dancing instructor Pierre Simond, the son of an old family of French Huguenot ancestry who liked to go by the name, Peter Simon.

The degree to which Simon reciprocated the young lady’s feelings is difficult to know, but Hannah fell hard.

Peter took a position as private tutor to one of the Robinison cousins, a short two miles away.  It wasn’t long before Simon was secretly visiting Hannah, at home. He’d hide out in a large cabinet in Hannah’s room.  The pair called it the “Friendly Cupboard”.  At night, Simon would hide out in a large lilac bush where the couple would talk for hours, and exchange letters.  Anstil was quick to get wise but she never let on, to her husband.

Then came the night Rowland spied the white paper, fluttering to the ground. He rushed to the lilac and beat at the bush with a stick until there emerged, a ragged French teacher.  After that, Rowland kept his eldest on a very short leash.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  If Hannah Robinson was stubborn, she came by it honestly.  In a rare moment of weakness, Rowland allowed Hannah and young sister Mary to attend a ball at Smith’s Castle some ten miles up the road, accompanied by a black “servant” called “Prince” who really was, it turns out, an African prince.

So it was, the trap was sprung.

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Smith’s Castle house, one of the oldest homes, in Rhode Island, is now a National Historic Landmark

The trio came to a place on horseback, where there awaited a carriage.  Peter Simon’s carriage.  Mary cried and Prince begged her not to go but, to no avail.  This was the couple’s elopement.  Hannah would have it no other way.

Rowland was apoplectic and cut off his daughter, from her allowance.  The happy couple moved to Providence, but Dad proved to be right.  Now penniless, Simon soon lost interest in his young wife and left her.  Sometimes for days on end.  Other times for weeks.

Hannah’s health went into a steep decline.  Not even the little dog sent by her mother, nor her childhood maid – a woman also named Hannah, could bring back her spirits.  The young woman wasted away in Providence as, just 35-miles to the south, Mary contracted tuberculosis, and died.  Anstis’ health failed.

Rowland Robinson would come to relent, but too late.  By that time Hannah’s health was destroyed.  The fast sloop from Providence delivered a sickly shadow of her former self.

The four strong servants carrying the litter were asked to stop by the rock, where Hannah had passed all those happy hours as a girl.  Watching the bay.  She picked a flower.  “Everlasting Life”.

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Everlasting Life

A sad reunion followed between Anstis and Hannah, the ailing mother and her sickly waif of a daughter.  Anstis would recover and live long enough to see Revolution bring independence to the former American colonies.  Not so the unfortunate daughter.  Hannah Robinson died at home on October 30, 1773.  She was 27.

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Hannah Robinson Tower, North Kingstown Rhode Island

In 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built an observation tower at the place where Hannah use to watch the Bay.  At four stories in height the thing became useful for coastal watch, during World War 2.  The tower was rebuilt in 1988, using timbers from the original construction.

You can climb the Hannah Robinson tower to this day if you want, there in North Kingstown Rhode Island. Not far from the rock where that little girl spent a happy childhood, taking in the beauty of the bay. All those many years ago.

October 29, 1921 Here’s to that Dogface Cartoonist

Mauldin told the story of the common soldier, usually at the rate of six per week. His medium was the cartoon.

Born on October 29, 1921 in New Mexico and brought up in Arizona, William Henry “Bill” Mauldin was part of what Tom Brokaw once called, the “Greatest Generation”.

When the United States entetef World War 2, He enlisted in the 45th Infantry Division.  Mauldin was a talented artist, trained at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. So it was he volunteered to work for the unit’s newspaper, as a cartoonist.

As a sergeant of the 45th Division’s press corps and later for Stars & Stripes, Mauldin took part in the invasion of Sicily and later Italian campaign.  He was given his own jeep and allowed to go wherever he pleased, which was usually out in front.   

Mauldin told the story of the common soldier, usually at the rate of six per week. His medium was the cartoon.

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Mauldin developed two infantry characters and called them “Willie and Joe” and told the story, through their eyes.  He became extremely popular within the enlisted ranks, as much of his humor poked fun at the “spit & polish” of the officer corps.  He even lampooned General George Patton one time, for insisting that his men be clean shaven all the time.  Even in combat.

Patton summoned the cartoonist to his to “throw his ass in jail” for “spreading dissent”. Commander in Chief Dwight Eisenhower himself set Old Blood and Guts straight telling Patton, to leave the man alone.  According to the Supreme Allied Commander, Mauldin’s cartoons gave the soldiers an outlet for their frustrations. He was good for morale.

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Mauldin later told an interviewer, “I always admired Patton. Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy. He was insane. He thought he was living in the Dark Ages. Soldiers were peasants to him. I didn’t like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes”.

His was no rear echelon assignment.  Mauldin’s fellow soldier-cartoonist, Gregor Duncan, was killed in Anzio in May 1944.  Mauldin himself was wounded in a German mortar attack near Monte Cassino.  By the end of the war he had received the Army’s Legion of Merit for his drawings.

Mauldin tried to revive Willy & Joe after the war, but found they didn’t assimilate well into civilian life.

“Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz was himself a veteran of World War II. Schulz paid tribute to Rosie the Riveter and Ernie Pyle in his strip but more than any other, he paid tribute to Willy & Joe. Snoopy visited with Willie & Joe no fewer than 17 times over the years.  Always on Veterans Day.

Bill Mauldin passed away on January 22, 2003, killed by a bathtub scalding exacerbated by complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Peanuts

Bill Mauldin drew Willie & Joe for last time in 1998, for inclusion in Schulz’ Veteran’s Day Peanuts strip.  Schulz had long described Mauldin as his hero.

He signed that final strip Schulz, as always, to which he added “and my Hero“.  Bill Mauldin’s signature, appears underneath.

My favorite book, as a kid.

October 28, 1945 Last Bastion of the Confederacy. (It’s Not what you Think).

In New York city and state alike, economic ties with the south ran deep. 40¢ of every dollar paid for southern cotton stayed in New York in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

By the early 1830s, cotton exceeded the value of all other American exports, combined. As secession loomed over the nation, one Chicago Daily Times editorial warned that if the South departed “in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one half of what it is now”.

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Fun Fact: South Carolina seceded in December 1860, and the world waited to see who’d follow.  New York City became the next to call for secession on January 6, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed that city’s governing body.  “When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact”, he cried, “why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master…and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City?”

In New York city and state alike, economic ties with the south ran deep.  40¢ of every dollar paid for southern cotton stayed in New York in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

30 minutes’ east of Buffalo, the village of Lancaster contemplated staying with the Union.  500 miles from the nearest Confederate state, George Huber remembered the time.  “When war was declared, Lancaster seethed with the news, and many were the nights we stayed up as late as 12 o’clock to talk things out.  I was twelve years old at the time, but I remember the stern faces of the elders and the storm of passionate and angry discussion. Soon the town split into two factions, it was a very tense situation…Often the excitement ran so high that if a man in either group had made the slightest sign, neighbors would have been at each other’s throats and fists would have taken the place of words.”

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The old blacksmith shop

“Town Line”, a hamlet on the village’s eastern boundary, put the matter to a vote.  In the fall of 1861, residents gathered in the old schoolhouse-turned blacksmith’s shop.  By a vote of 85 to 40, Town Line voted to secede from the Union.

As casualty reports came back from the front there was angry talk of arresting “Copperheads” for sedition.  “Seceders” grew quiet, afraid to meet in public places amidst angry talk of lynching.  A half-dozen or so of the more ardent secessionists actually went south to fight for the Confederacy.  Others quietly moved north, to Canada.   Outside of Lancaster, no one seemed to notice.  Taxes continued to be paid. No federal force ever arrived to enforce the loyalty of the small village.

A rumor went around in 1864, that a large Confederate army was building in Canada, poised to invade from the north.  Town Line became a dangerous place for the few southern sympathizers left.  Most of those remaining moved to Canada and, once again, Lancaster became the quiet little village in upstate New York, that nobody ever heard of.

Impatient to get on with it, Dade County Georgia “symbolically” seceded both from the state as well as the Union, back in 1860.  Officially, Dade County seceded with Georgia in 1861, and rejoined with the rest of the state in 1870, but the deal was sealed on July 4, 1945 when a telegram from President Harry S. Truman was read at a celebration marking Dade County’s “rejoining” the Union.

The “Confederate Gibraltar”, Vicksburg Mississippi, fell on July 4, 1863.  The city wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day for 80 years.

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In 2011, the residents of Town Line, New York dressed up to mark the town’s sesquicentennial of secession from the Union

By October 1945 there legally remained only one part of the former Confederate States of America. The little hamlet of Town Line, New York.

Even Georgians couldn’t help themselves, from commenting. 97-year-old Confederate General T.W. Dowling opined: “We been rather pleased with the results since we rejoined the Union. Town Line ought to give the United States another try“. Judge A.L. Townsend of Trenton Georgia commented “Town Line ought to give the United States a good second chance“.

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On October 7, 1945 there arrived a note by courier express.  “There are few controversies that are not susceptible to a peace time resolution” read the note, “if examined in an atmosphere of tranquility and calm rather than strife and turmoil. I would suggest the possibility of roast veal as a vehicle of peace.  Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixin’s in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.”  The note was signed “Very Sincerely Yours, Harry Truman”.

Fireman’s Hall became the site of the barbecue, as “the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started” was too small for the assembled crowd.  On October 28, 1945 residents adopted a resolution suspending the 1861 ordinance of secession by a vote of 90-23. The Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America was lowered for the last time, outside the old blacksmith shop.

Alabama member of the United States House of Representatives John Jackson Sparkman, may have had the last word:  “As one reconstructed rebel to another, let me say that I find much comfort in the fact that you good people so far up in Yankee land have held out during the years. However, I suppose we grow soft as we grow older.”

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October 27, 1871 Boss Tweed

Boss Tweed’s system of corruption inflated the cost of the New York County Courthouse to nearly $13 million, more than the Alaska purchase. One carpenter billed $360,751 (equivalent to $4.9 million today), for one month’s work. A plasterer got $133,187 for two days.

Before the first Europeans arrived in the “new world”, descendants of the Nanticoke inhabited a region from present-day Delaware north through New Jersey and southern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania. The Europeans called them “Delaware”.  These indigenous Americans called themselves “Lenni-Lenape” which literally means “Men of Men”, but is translated to mean “Original People.” (Hat tip, http://www.nanticoke-lenape.info).

In the early 1680s, Chief Tammamend (“The Affable”) of the Lenni-Lenape nation took part in a meeting with the English colonists, where he is supposed to have said that his people and the newcomers would “live in peace as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure.”

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Treaty of Penn with Indians, by Benjamin West

“Tammany” to the settlers, Chief Tammamend became a living symbol of peace and friendship, between the two peoples. He died in 1701, but his legend lived on. In the next one-hundred years Tammany societies were established from Georgia to Rhode Island.

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Tammany Societies adopted a number of native terms, with leaders calling themselves Grand Sachem, and meeting in halls called “Wigwams”. The most famous of these was incorporated in New York on May 12, 1789.

Within ten years, what had begun as a social club had morphed into a political machine. Tammany helped Aaron Burr counter Alexander Hamilton’s Society of the Cincinnati, and Burr went on to win New York’s two electoral votes in 1800. Without help from “Tammany Hall”, many historians believe that John Adams would have been re-elected to a second term.

Tammany Hall expanded its connections within New York Democrat party politics. After Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828, the Tammany machine all but owned the government in New York city and state, alike.

Fun fact: On December 20, 1860, the Secession convention of South Carolina unanimously asserted an end to Union proclaiming that “We…have solemnly declared that the union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State…” In the following days, the world waited to see who would follow. The next governing entity to actually do so was the state of Mississippi, but the first to discuss the idea (after South Carolina) was New York, in the person of Tammany Hall’s own mayor, Fernando Wood.

The 19th century was a time of massive immigration, providing an ever-expanding base of political and financial support for urban politicians. Political machines helped new arrivals with jobs, housing and citizenship, providing a patina of “constituent service” and hiding a dark under-belly of graft and corruption.

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Boss Tweed

In the 1860s, Tammany Hall politician William Magear Tweed established a new standard in public self-dealing. Biographer Kenneth Ackerman wrote: “The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization“.

New York contractors were instructed to multiply invoices. Checks were cashed through a go-between, settling with the contractor and dividing the rest between “Boss” Tweed and his cronies. This system of corruption inflated the cost of the New York County Courthouse to nearly $13 million, more than the Alaska purchase. One carpenter billed $360,751 (equivalent to $4.9 million today), for one month’s work. A plasterer got $133,187 for two days.

New York Corruption - New York Under Tweed's Thumb

Some among the self-styled “Uppertens”, the top 10,000 amid New York’s socioeconomic strata, fell in with the self-dealing and corruption of the Tammany Hall machine. Others counted on an endless supply of cheap immigrant labor.

The system worked while Tweed’s Machine kept “his people” in line, until the “Orange Riots” of 1870-71 broke out between Irish Catholics and Protestants, killing 70.

Harper’s Weekly editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the modern American Santa Claus and the Republican Elephant, was the scourge of Tammany Hall. Following the Orange riots, the New York Times added its voice to that of the cartoonist.

Boss Tweed, the third-largest landowner in New York City, Director of the Erie Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, and the New York Printing Company, Proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, former State Senator and former Member of the United States Congress, was arrested on October 27, 1871, and tried on charges of public corruption. An 1877 aldermen’s committee estimated that Boss Tweed’s graft cost New York taxpayers between $25 and $45 million. Later estimates ranged as high as $200 million, equivalent to an astonishing $2.8 Billion, today.

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Cartoonist Thomas Nast denounced the Tammany machine as a ferocious tiger, devouring democracy.

The Tammany Hall political machine, moved on. By the end of the 19th century, ward Boss Richard Croker ran a system of graft and corruption the likes of which Boss Tweed could have only dreamed.

In the end, three things killed the Tammany Hall system. Early Irish arrivals had been primary beneficiaries and major supporters of Tammany’s patronage system, but there are only so many favors to go around. Continued immigration diluted Tammany’s base, and later arriving Irish, Italian and eastern European immigrants found themselves frozen out.

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Next is the spoils system, itself. To this day, too many think it’s government’s job to “Bring home the Bacon”, not seeming to realize that they are themselves, the hogs. The Roosevelt administrations’ efforts to fix the Great Depression resulted in a blizzard of bacon from an increasingly Nationalized federal government, separating the local machines from their proximate base of support.

Last came “reformers” such as New York governor and future President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who occasionally built enough steam to hurt the Tammany machine. Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, he of the famous “Dewey Wins!” photograph, managed to put several Tammany Hall leaders in jail, along with such unsavory supporters as “Lucky Luciano”.

Republican Fiorello La Guardia served three terms as New York mayor between 1934-’45, the first anti-Tammany mayor ever, to be re-elected. A brief resurgence of Tammany power in the 1950s met with Democratic party resistance led by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, and party politician Herbert Lehrman. By the mid-1960s, the Tammany Hall system, was dead.

Tammany Hall was a local manifestation of a disease afflicting the entire country. Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and others:  all suffered their own local outbreak.

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Tammany Hall, Union_Square

The Ward Boss still lives in places like Chicago but, like the Jeffersons, the corruption has “moved on up”. Today, rent seekers and foreign powers pay tens of millions in “speaking fees” and other “pay-for-play” schemes.

A hundred years ago, Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) described politics as “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.  Boss Tweed could tell you.   It’s as true now, as it was in his time.

Featured image, top of page:  Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast’s depiction of the Tammany ring:  Who stole the people’s money? T’was him!

October 26, 1918 Speaking in Code

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the code talk emerging from World War 1, based on the language of the Choctaw.

Between 1942 and 1945, “code talkers” of the Navajo Nation took part in every assault conducted by the United States Marine Corps. From Guadalcanal to Tarawa, Peleliu to Iwo Jima, Navajo code talkers served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater, of World War 2.

Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker.  The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII.  Japanese code breakers never got close.

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the code talk emerging from World War 1, based on the language of the Choctaw.

The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Late in 1917, Colonel A. W. Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment.  This was a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

Choctaw code talkers

By now the Allies had learned the hard way, that many among the German adversary spoke excellent English.  German code breakers had intercepted and broken several English-based codes. 

Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying.  If he didn’t understand their conversation he thought, no German could possibly have a clue.

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector.  One captured German officer avowed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success.  We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were placed in multiple companies of infantry.  Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and runner, many of whom were themselves Native Americans.

The Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase.  When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”.  Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

The Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that wouldn’t come along until WWII.  At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, described what he did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma.  The last was a native Chickasaw. 

Youngest of the group was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War.  Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was 16 the day he enlisted.

Joseph Oklahombi
Joseph Oklahombi

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language.    

Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed.  Oklahombi’s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded by French Marshall Philippe Pétain, tells the story:  “Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades“.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that some 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 of them before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender. 

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

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October 21, 1921 The Unknown Soldier

Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me”.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

Many years ago, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck remarked, “If a general war begins, it will be because of some damn fool thing in the Balkans“.

The Chancellor got his damn fool thing on a side street in Sarajevo, when a tubercular 19-year old leveled his revolver and murdered the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife on June 28, 1914.

In another time and place, such an event may have led to limited conflict. A policing action, in the Balkans.  Instead, mutually entangling alliances brought mobilization timetables into effect, dictating the movement of men and equipment according to precise and predetermined schedules.

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German troops, leaving for the front

The hippie subculture of the 1960s produced an antiwar slogan based on the title of a McCall’s Magazine article by Charlotte E. Keyes. “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came.”  In 1914, the coming war Had to happen.  If only because everyone was there.

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The cataclysm could have been averted, as late as the last day of July. By the first of August, mutual distrust had brought events past the point of no return. By the time it was over a generation was shattered, a continent destroyed and a new century, set on a difficult and dangerous course. Some 40 million were killed in the Great War, either that or maimed or simply,…vanished. 

It was a mind bending number, equivalent to the entire population in 1900 of either France, or the United Kingdom. Equal to the combined populations of the bottom two-thirds of every nation on the planet.  Every woman, man, puppy, boy and girl.

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The United States entered the conflict in 1917, suffering casualties of 320,518 in only a few short months.

The idea of honoring the unknown dead from the “War to end all Wars” originated in Europe. Reverend David Railton remembered a rough cross from somewhere on the western front, with the words written in pencil:  “An Unknown British Soldier”.

In November 1916, an officer of the French war memorial association Le Souvenir Français proposed a national-level recognition for the unknown dead of the Great War.  Across the English Channel, Reverend Railton proposed the same.

The two nations performed ceremonies on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the Unknown Warrior laid to rest at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 1920. 

La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu was simultaneously consecrated under the Arc de Triomphe with the actual burial taking place, the following January.

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Left to Right:  Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London.  La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu. lArc de Triomphe, Paris.

That was the year, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring her own, unknown dead.

Four unidentified bodies were selected from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel cemeteries and carefully examined, lest there be any clues to identity. The four were then transported to the Hôtel de Ville at Châlons-sur-Marne, and placed in a makeshift chapel.

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Six soldiers were invited to act as pallbearers, each man a highly decorated and respected member of his own unit. 

Outside the chapel, Major Harbold of the Graves Registration Office handed a large spray of pink and white roses to twice-wounded Sergeant Edward F. Younger, of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  It was he who would perform the final selection.

Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me“.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

The body was transferred to a black casket bearing the inscription:  “An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War”.

The casket passed from French soil on October 25, 1921. Up the gangplank to the the protected cruiser USS Olympia, even as the band segueued from La Marseilles, to the Star Spangled Banner.

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Flags at half-mast with stern bedecked with flowers, Commodore George Dewey’s former flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay received the precious cargo and returned to the United States, arriving in the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9, 1921.

There the flag draped casket was solemnly transferred to the United States Army, and placed under guard of honor on the catafalque which had borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.

On November 11, the casket was removed from the Rotunda of the Capitol and escorted under military guard to the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. In a simple ceremony, President Warren G. Harding bestowed upon this unknown soldier of the Great War, the nation’s highest military decorations.  The Medal of Honor.  The Distinguished Service Cross.

Special representatives of foreign nations then bestowed each in turn, his nation’s highest military decoration.  The Croix de Guerre of Belgium.  The English Victoria Cross. Le Medaille Militaire & Croix de Guerre of France.  The Italian Gold Medal for Bravery. The Romanian Virtutes Militara.  The Czechoslavak War Cross.  The Polish Virtuti Militari.

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With three salvos of artillery, the rendering of Taps and the National Salute, the ceremony was brought to a close and the 12-ton marble cap placed over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The west facing side bears this inscription:

“Here Rests In
Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God”

Two years later, a civilian guard was placed at the tomb of the unknown.  A permanent Military guard took its place in 1926 and there remains, to this day.

In 1956, President Dwight David Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknown dead of WW2 and the American war in Korea. Selection and interment of these Unknowns took place in 1958.

The Unknown from the American war in Vietnam was selected on May 17, 1984, but wouldn’t remain unknown, for long.

Advances in mitochondrial DNA led to the exhumation and identification of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie of St. Louis, Missouri, shot down near An Lộc, in 1972.

The Tomb of the Unknown from the Vietnam conflict remains empty.  It is unlikely any future war is capable of producing a truly “Unknown”.

Sharing Today in History:

So it is through bitter cold and scorching heat, through hurricanes and blizzards and irrespective of day or night or whether Arlington is open or closed, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands under guard.

This Guard of Honor is performed by a carefully selected elite body of the 3rd Infantry Division.  The “Old Guard”.  In service since 1784, the Tomb Guard is part of the longest-serving active infantry unit in the United States military.

Since the 14th-century, the cannon salute signified the recognition of a sovereign state and a peaceful intent, among nations.  The 21-gun salute is the highest military honor, a nation can bestow.   The Tomb Sentinel who “walks the mat” walks precisely 21 steps down the 63-foot black mat laid across the Tomb of the Unknown, signifying that 21-gun salute.   The Guard then turns east to face the Tomb, pauses another 21-seconds, before beginning the return walk of 21-steps.

The Tomb Sentinel will continue in this manner for a half-hour, one hour or two depending on the time of day, and the season of the year.  If you have witnessed the Changing of the Guard, you are not likely to forget it.  My brother and I were once privileged to experience the moment, in the company of an Honor Flight of World War 2 veterans. If you’ve never seen the ceremony, I recommend the experience.

Back in 1919, AEF commander General John Pershing and Allied Supreme Commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France were adamantly opposed to the treaty, at Versailles. Germany had been defeated they argued, but not Beaten. Without destroying the German war machine on its own soil, Pershing believed the two nations would once again find themselves at war. Marshall Foch agreed, reading the treaty with the remark: “This isn’t a peace. It’s a cease-fire for 20 years!

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He got that wrong.  By 36 days.

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