May 12, 1864 A Mighty Oak

Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

According to legend, the infant Temujin was born sometime between 1155 and 1162 with a blood clot clutched in his fist, the size of a knucklebone. Mongol folklore holds such a sign to be prophetic. That one day the child would grow to be a great leader. Today we remember the young boy Temujin as the great and terrible chieftain, Genghis Khan.

Around that time some 6,500 miles to the west, an acorn sprouted from the soil in a place we now call Wyllys Hyll in Hartford, Connecticut. Through countless summers and frigid winters the sapling grew and transformed to become a mighty oak tree. Dutch explorer Adrian Block described the tree in a log, written in 1614. Twenty years later, local natives spoke with Samuel Wyllys, an early settler who had cleared the ground around it. Tribal elders spoke of this oak and its ceremonial planting, all those centuries before. They pleaded with Wyllys to preserve the great tree.

“It has been the guide of our ancestors for centuries as to the time of planting our corn; when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ears, then is the time to put the seed into the ground”.

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Hat Tip to photographer Robert Fawcett for this image, of a mighty oak

In 1662 Governor John Winthrop won from King Charles II a charter, legitimizing the settlements of Connecticut and establishing the colonists’ right, of self-rule. Twenty five years later, King James II wanted the New England and New York colonies integrated under central authority and sought to rescind, the charter. Sir Edmund Andros, hand selected to rule over this “Dominion of New England” marched on Hartford at the head of an armed force to seize the charter.

The next part fades into legend but the story is, that Governor Robert Treat and a group of colonists sat glaring across the table at Andros, and a group of his allies. The charter lay between them, on a table. The debate raged for hours when, somehow, the lights went out. On relighting the candles only moments later King Charles’ charter, was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth had snatched up the parchment and stashed it in a hollow, in that great old tree.

Fun Fact: The timber from 2,000 southern live oak trees was harvested in Georgia and used to construct the hulls of USS Constitution and five other US Navy frigates, constructed under the Naval Act of 1794. Today, “Old Ironsides” is the oldest commissioned warship on the planet, still afloat.

Despite all that the politicians folded and Andros made his appointments, but colonists never did vote to submit. With the Spring of 1689 came news of the Glorious Revolution, in England. King James had fled to France and Edmund Andros was arrested. So it is the New England colonies held and kept their independence. The “Charter Oak” depicted at the top of this page remains to this day, a part of our colonial history.

The majestic old tree blew over in a storm in 1856 when firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt sent a marching band to play funeral dirges, over its fallen timbers.

Live Oaks line the entrance to the Wormsloe Plantation, in Savannah, Georgia

From the frigid forests of the north to the beaches of our southern coasts some 90 species of oak tree stand as part of our personal memories, and our American history. The Water Oak shading the Brown Chapel African Methodist Church in Selma Alabama, where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “We Shall Overcome” speech before setting out on a 50-mile march, to Montgomery. The Overcup Oak beside the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. As a child, Helen Keller once climbed the branches of a 100-year-old Water Oak.

Descendants of these trees and hundreds more stand today at our nation’s most hallowed ground at Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington National Cemetery and Arboreta

Not far away, the Smithsonian owns another oak or, more accurately, the stump of a tree hewn to the ground, by gunfire.

Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.

The 16th President of the United States once said of general Ulysses Grant “I need this man. He fights”. A succession of Generals had failed in the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, but not Grant. You knock him down and he’ll dust off, and keep coming at you.

Following a terrible draw at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s army disengaged from that of Robert E. Lee and moved southeast, hoping to draw the Confederates into battle under more favorable conditions. It was a race to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Elements of Lee’s forces won the race and began to entrench. Off and on fighting began on May 8 and lasted, through May 21.

On May 12 some 1,200 Confederate troops waited in that once quiet meadow, sheltered behind an earthwork and timber revetment shaped, like a mule’s shoe. At the center stood that majestic oak. Some 5,000 Union troops assaulted the position from the Army of the Potomac. Some of the most savage and sustained fighting of the Civil War raged on all sides, of that tree. When it was over some twenty hours later that mighty oak, was no more. The tree was felled by small arms fire at a place we remember, as the “Bloody Angle’.

Both sides declared victory at Spotsylvania Courthouse and the war moved on. To places called Yellow Tavern (May 11), Meadow Bridge (May 12), North Anna (May 23–26), and others. By late June, Lee was forced into the nightmare position of defending the Confederate Capital, at Richmond.

Taken together Grant’s “Overland Campaign” carried out over those six bloody weeks in May and June resulted in some of the highest casualties, of the Civil War. Casualties crippling to Federal troops but in the end mortal, to the cause of southern independence.

Overland map, May and June, 1864

The modern mind is left only to contemplate, perhaps over the image of that tree stump. To imagine, what it all sounded like. What it all looked like. What it all smelled like.

That tree stump is all that remains of the apocalypse of May 12, of an oak tree surrounded by the cataclysm of Civil War and carried out inside a meadow, shaped like a mule’s shoe.

H/T Smithsonian, for this image of a once majestic oak tree. Felled, one bullet at a time, near a place called Spotsylvania.

Afterward

Many among us trace our personal ancestry, through the Civil War. For 52nd North Carolina infantry soldier James Tyner, the war came to an end in Spotsylvania Court House.

Tyner was captured and moved to the Federal prison camp in Elmira New York known as “Hellmira”.

There my own twice-great grandfather would spend the rest of the war, or most of it. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant only twenty-seven days later, at a place called Appomattox.

April 27, 1865 SS Sultana

At 2:00am on April 27, Mason’s temporary boiler patch exploded. Two more boilers detonated a split second later.  The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water.  The top decks soon gave way as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.

In April 1865, the Civil War was all but over.  General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on the 9th.  President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days later and John Wilkes Booth run to ground and killed, on the 26th.  Thousands of former POWs were being released from Confederate camps in Alabama and Georgia, and held in regional parole depots.

The sidewheel steamboat Sultana left New Orleans with about 100 passengers and a few head of livestock, pulling into Vicksburg Mississippi on the 21st to repair a damaged boiler and pick up a promised load of passengers.

With a bulging seam on her boiler, the ship’s mechanic wanted to cut it out and install a new plate, easily three day’s work.  Captain J. Cass Mason declined, for fear of losing his passengers.  He wanted the seam hammered back into place and covered with a patch and he wanted it done, in a day.

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The passengers Mason was so afraid of losing were former prisoners of the Confederacy, and Confederate parolees, returning to their homes in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Federal government was paying $5 each to anyone bringing enlisted troops home, and $10 apiece for officers.  Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster at Vicksburg and one of the sleazier characters in this story, had approached Captain Mason with a deal.  Hatch would guarantee a minimum of 1,400 passengers and they’d both walk away, with a pocketful of cash.

As it was, there were other riverboats in the vicinity.  Mason didn’t have time to worry about boiler repairs.

The decks creaked and sagged, as beams were installed to shore up the load.  Sultana backed away from the dock on April 24 with 2,427 passengers.  More than six times her legal limit of 376.

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This animation gives a sense of the size, of Sultana’s boilers

Sultana spent two days traveling upstream, fighting one of the heaviest spring floods in the history of the Mississippi River.  She arrived at Memphis on the evening of the 26th, unloading 120 tons of sugar from her holds.  Already massively top heavy, the riverboat now lurched from side to side with every turn.

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SS Sultana was equipped with four such boilers, mounted from side-to-side.  Massively top heavy, water would run from left to right as she lurched from side to side, water then flashing to steam and creating enormous surges in pressure

The crew must have exceeded allowable steam pressure, pushing all that load against the current.  Pressure varied wildly inside Sultana’s four giant boilers, as water sloshed from one to the next with every turn, boiling water flashing to superheated steam and back to water.

At 2:00am on April 27, Mason’s temporary boiler patch exploded. Two more boilers detonated a split second later.  The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water.  The top decks soon gave way as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.

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Within moments, the entire riverboat was ablaze.  Those who weren’t incinerated outright now had to take their chances in the swift moving waters of the river.  Already weakened by terms in captivity, they died by the hundreds of drowning, or hypothermia.

Seven hours later the drifting and burnt out hulk of the Sultana, sank to the bottom.  The steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocahontas joined the rescue effort, along with the navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler.  700 were plucked from the water and taken to Memphis hospitals of whom 200 later died of burns or exposure.  Bodies continued to wash ashore, for months.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole. Like they never even happened. Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in American history, though her memory was swept away in the tide of events, that April.  The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known.  Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.

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Despite the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable.  One Union officer, Captain Frederick Speed, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the riverboat.  It was he who sent 2,100 prisoners from their parole camp into Vicksburg, but his conviction was later overturned.  It seems that higher ranking officials may have tried to make him into a scapegoat, since he never so much as laid eyes on Sultana herself.

Captain Williams, the officer who actually put all those people onboard, was a West Point graduate and regular army officer.  The army didn’t seem to want to go after one of its own.  Captain Mason and all of his officers were killed in the disaster.  Reuben Hatch, the guy who concocted the whole scheme in the first place, resigned shortly after the disaster, thereby putting himself outside the reach of a military tribunal.

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010
Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, 2010

The last survivor of the Sultana disaster, Private Charles M. Eldridge of the 3rd (Confederate) Tennessee Cavalry, died at his home at the age of 96 on September 8, 1941. Three months later, the air forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Naval anchorage, at Pearl Harbor.

April 19, 1961 Bay of Pigs

Castro proclaimed his administration to be an example of “direct democracy”, and dismissed the need for elections.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista seized power in March 1952, proclaiming himself president and labeling his new governing philosophy “disciplined democracy”. While Batista enjoyed limited popular support when he canceled presidential elections, many Cubans came to see the administration as a one-man dictatorship.  Opponents of the regime formed several anti-Batista groups, taking to armed rebellion to oust the government. The best known of these groups was the “26th of July Movement”, founded by the lawyer Fidel Castro and operated out of base camps in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

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Batista’s repressive tactics led to widespread disapproval by the late 1950s, culminating in his resignation on December 31, 1958.  By February 1959, Fidel Castro had installed himself as Prime Minister.

Castro proclaimed his administration to be an example of “direct democracy”, and dismissed the need for elections.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

“Trials” were carried out across the country, some in sports stadia in front of thousands of spectators.  Hundreds of supporters of the former regime were executed.  When Castro didn’t like the outcome, he would personally order a retrial.

American influence had once been widespread on the island, but that went away as the Castro regime adopted an increasingly leftist posture. “Until Castro”, said Earl Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, “the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.”

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When US authorities objected to being required to process oil purchased from the Soviet Union, Castro nationalized US controlled oil refineries run by Esso and Standard Oil as well as Anglo-Dutch Shell.  Tit-for-tat retaliations resulted in the expropriation of American owned banks and sugar refineries. By October 1960 the Castro regime had “nationalized” a total of 166 such businesses including Coca Cola, and Sears & Roebuck.

Secretary of State Christian Herter publicly stated that Castro was “following faithfully the Bolshevik pattern” by instituting a single-party political system, taking control of trade unions, suppressing civil liberties and sharply limiting both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Castro fired back, criticizing the way blacks and the working classes were treated in New York City, attacking US media as “controlled by big business” and claiming that the American poor were living “in the bowels of the imperialist monster”.

A “secret” operation was conceived and initiated under the Eisenhower administration, and approved by the incoming Kennedy administration.  Beginning on April 15, 8 B-29 CIA bombers attacked Cuban military aircraft on the ground at several locations. A B-26 bearing Cuban markings and perforated with bullet-holes later landed at Miami International Airport, the pilots claiming to be defecting Cubans. The story began to unravel, as soon as reporters noted the plane’s machine guns, hadn’t been fired.  Furthermore, Cubans didn’t operate that type of aircraft. Fidel Castro quipped, not even Hollywood would have tried such a feeble story.

The invasion began on the 16th, when 1,400 Cuban exiles landed on Cuba’s “Playa Girón”, or “Bay of Pigs”.  Snagged on razor sharp coral that reconnaissance had identified as seaweed, landing forces were pinned down as government forces responded in the early morning hours of April 17. The landing achieved a beachhead, but things quickly started to go wrong.  A freighter containing food, fuel, medical equipment and ten days’ ammunition, was sunk. The Cuban Air Force had taken a beating two days earlier, but “Brigade 2506” wasn’t supplied with fighter aircraft at all.  Wanting to preserve “plausible deniability”, President Kennedy refused to allow US fighters to go into combat, leaving the remnants of the Cuban Air Force unopposed. 

Landing forces were bombed and strafed, at will.

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In the end, Kennedy was persuaded to authorize unmarked US fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Essex to provide escort cover for the invasion’s B-26 bombers, most of which were flown by CIA personnel in support of the ground invasion. Fighters missed their rendezvous by an hour, due to a misunderstanding about time zones.  Unescorted bombers are easy targets, and two of them were shot down with four Americans killed. The fiasco came to and end on April 19 with 118 dead and 1,202, captured.

In reality, the Bay of Pigs invasion was doomed from the start. Castro was popular at that time and the project had not exactly been a secret. The New York Times ran a story a month earlier, predicting a US invasion of Cuba in the coming weeks.  Another story ran on April 7, headlined “Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases,” reporting that invasion plans were in their final stages. When Kennedy saw the paper, he said that Castro didn’t need spies. All he had to do was read the news.

April 16, 1933 A Fish Story

Future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill faced the Cod in the direction of the majority party.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bay State politics that the thing has faced Left, from that day to this.  For Massachusetts’ minuscule Republican delegation, hope springs eternal that the Sacred Cod will one day, face Right.

The American Revolution was barely 15 years in the rear-view mirror, when the new State House opened in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston.  The building has expanded a couple of times since then and remains the home of Massachusetts’ state government, to this day.

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On January 11, 1798, a procession of legislators and other dignitaries worked its way from the old statehouse at the intersection of Washington and State Streets to the new location on Beacon Hill, a symbolic transfer of the seat of government.  The procession carried with it, a bundle.  Measuring 4-feet eleven-inches and wrapped in an American flag, it was a life-size wooden carving.  Of a codfish.

For the former Massachusetts colony, the lowly cod was once a key to survival.  Now, this “Sacred Cod” was destined for a new home in the legislative chamber of the House of Representatives.

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Mark Kurlansky, author of “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World”, laments the 1990s collapse of the Cod fishery, saying the species finds itself “at the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree.”

Records date back as early as AD985 when Eirik the Red, Leif Eirikson’s father, preserved Codfish by hanging them in the cold winter air.  Medieval Spaniards of the Basque region improved on the process, by the use of salt.  By A.D. 1,000, Basque traders were supplying a vast international market, in codfish.

By 1550, Cod accounted for half the fish consumed in all Europe.  When the Puritans set sail for the new world it was to Cape Cod, to pursue the wealth of the New England fishery.

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Without codfish, Plymouth Rock would likely have remained just another boulder. William Bradford, first signer of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 and 5-term governor of the Plymouth Colony (he called it “Plimoth”), reported that, but for the Cod fishery, there was talk of going to Manhattan or even Guiana:  “[T]he major part inclined to go to Plymouth, chiefly for the hope of present profit to be made by the fish that was found in that country“.

There are tales of sailors scooping codfish out of the water, in baskets.  So important was the cod to the regional economy that a carved likeness of the creature hung in the old State House, fifty years or more before the Revolution.

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Massachusetts’ old Statehouse

The old State House burned in 1747, leaving nothing but the brick exterior you see today, not far from Faneuil Hall.  It took a year to rebuild the place, including a brand new wooden Codfish.  This one lasted until the British occupation of Boston, disappearing sometime between April 1775 and March 1776.

The fish which accompanied that procession in 1798 was the third, and so far the last such carving to hang in the Massachusetts State House where it’s remains, to this day.  Sort of.

It was April 16, 1933 with the country mired in the Great Depression, when someone looked up in Massachusetts’ legislative chamber, and spied – to his dismay – nothing but bare wires.  The Commonwealth had suffered “The Great Cod-napping”, of 1933.

Newspapers went wild with speculation. What had happened to The Sacred Cod.

Suspects were questioned and police chased down one lead after another, but they all turned out to be red herring (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).  State police dredged the Charles River, (Love that dirty water).  Lawmakers refused to d’bait (pardon), preferring instead to discuss what they would do with those dastardly Cod-napper(s), if and when the evildoers were apprehended.

Soon, an anonymous tip revealed the culprits to be college pranksters. Three editors of the Harvard Lampoon newspaper, pretending to be tourists.  It was a two-part plan, the trio entering the building with wire cutters and a flower box, as other Lampoon members created a diversion by kidnapping an editor from the arch-rival newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.  The caper worked, flawlessly.  Everyone was busy looking for the missing victim, as two snips from a wire cutter brought down the Sacred Cod.

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On April 28, a tip led University Police to a car with no license plate, cruising the West Roxbury Parkway. After a 20-minute low speed chase, (I wonder if it was a white Bronco), the sedan pulled over.  Two men Carp’d the Diem (or something like that) and handed over the Sacred Cod, before driving away.

Once again the Sacred Cod ascended to its rightful place, and there was happiness upon the Land.  The Cod was stolen one more time in 1968, this time by UMASS hippies protesting some fool thing, but the fish never made it out of the State House.

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The “Holy Mackerel” of the Massachusetts State Senate

Years later, future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill faced the Cod in the direction of the majority party.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bay State politics that the thing has faced Left, from that day to this.  For Massachusetts’ minuscule Republican delegation, hope springs eternal that the Sacred Cod will one day, face Right.

Not to be outdone, the State Senate has its own fish, hanging in its legislative chambers.  There in the chandelier, above the round table where sits the Massachusetts upper house, is the copper likeness of the “Holy Mackerel”.  No kidding.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

Legend has it that, when you see those highway signs saying X miles to Boston, they’re really giving you the distance to the Holy Mackerel.

A tip of my hat to my friend and Representative to the Great & General Court David T. Vieira, without whom I’d have remained entirely ignorant of this fishy tale.

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Beacon Hill, seat of Massachusetts state government, where the author addresses an empty chamber. Who knows. Maybe The Sacred Cod™ was paying attention.

April 12, 1861 A Lady’s Thimble

Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all those slain in the coming conflict. Never one to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.

South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, leaving state government officials to consider themselves, a sovereign nation. Six days later, United States Army Major Robert Anderson quietly moved his small garrison from the Revolution-era Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the yet to be completed Fort Sumter, a brick fortification at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

Moultrie

President James Buchanan attempted to reinforce and resupply Anderson via the unarmed merchant vessel, “Star of the West”. Shore batteries opened up on the effort on January 9, effectively trapping Anderson and his garrison inside the only federal property in the vicinity.

For the newly founded Confederate States of America, the presence of an armed federal force at the mouth of Charleston harbor could not be tolerated. Secessionists debated whether the problem was that of South Carolina or the national government, in Mobile.

Meanwhile, the Federal government refused to recognize the Confederacy, as independent states.  It was a standoff. Both sides needed the support of border states, and neither wanted to be seen as the aggressor.

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Fort Sumter

Political opinion was so sharply divided at that time, that brothers literally wound up fighting against brothers.  By the time the war got going, every seceding state but South Carolina sent regiments to fight for the Union and even that state, contributed troops to the Union war effort.  A surprising number of northern soldiers resigned commissions and fought for the south including Barre, Massachusetts native Daniel Ruggles, Ohio Quaker Bushrod Johnson and New York native Samuel Cooper, to name a few.  

Fun fact: When South Carolina seceded that December the world waited to see, who would be next. With her January 9th departure from the federal union Mississippi was the next state to actually leave, though not the next to talk about it. That honor went not to a southern state but a northern city called New York on January 7, 1861.   Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the Common Council, requesting New York assert its independence as a “free city” by “disrupt[ing] the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master” (the federal government).

Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (I love that name) was placed in charge of Charleston in March and immediately began to strengthen the batteries surrounding the harbor.

Battle-Sumter

Fort Sumter was designed for a garrison of 650 in service to 130 guns, most of them pointed outward, positioned to defend the harbor against threats from the sea. In April 1861 there were only 60 guns, too much for Major Anderson’s 85-man garrison, nearly half of whom were non-combatants, mostly workmen and musicians.

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, the resupply of Fort Sumter became the first crisis for the new administration. Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens he was sending supply ships, resulting in Beauregard’s ultimatum:  the Federal garrison was to evacuate immediately, or Confederate batteries would open fire.

Major Anderson lacking the appropriate response, shore batteries opened fire at 4:30 am on April 12, 4003 guns firing in counter-clockwise rotation. Abner Doubleday, Federal 2nd in command and the man erroneously credited with the invention of baseball, later wrote “The crashing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort.”

Two years later at Gettysburg, Norman Jonathan Hall would lose over 200 men in furious fighting at a critical breach near the ”copse of trees”.  One day, a brass plaque would mark the spot as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  On this day, Lieutenant Hall raced through flames to rescue the colors, after a direct hit on the main flagpole knocked the flag to the ground.  His eyebrows were permanently burned off of his face, but Hall and two artillerymen were able to jury-rig the pole so, once again, Old Glory flew over Fort Sumter.

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The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter, 1861

Over 34 hours, thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter. Though vastly outgunned federal forces, fired back. For all that, the only casualty was a Confederate mule.

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The only fatalities in the whole mess occurred after the federal surrender, on April 13. One gun misfired performing a 100-gun salute while lowering the flag, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway.

The following day, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army.

Charleston, 1861

The Civil War had begun but few understood the kind of demons, now unleashed. Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all those slain in the coming conflict. Never one to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.

The war between the states would lay waste to a generation and end the lives of more Americans than the Revolution, World War 1, World War 2 and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Combined.

March 29, 1973 Vietnam War Veterans Day

The recognition and gratitude due those who honorably served in an unpopular war, is long overdue.

From the late 19th century, the area now known as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam was governed as a French Colonial territory.  “French Indo-China” came to be occupied by the Imperial Japanese after the fall of France, at the onset of WWII.  There arose a nationalist-communist army during this period, dedicated to throwing out the Japanese occupier.  It called itself the “League for the Independence of Vietnam”, or “Viet Minh”.

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France re-occupied the region following the Japanese defeat ending World War 2, but soon faced the same opposition from the army of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap.

What began as a low level rural insurgency later became a full-scale modern war when Communist China entered the fray, in 1949.

The disastrous defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 led to French withdrawal from Vietnam, the Geneva Convention partitioning the country into the communist “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in the north, and the State of Vietnam in the south led by Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

Communist forces of the north continued to terrorize Vietnamese patriots in north and south alike, with aid and support from communist China and the Soviet Union.

The student of history understands that nothing happens in a vacuum.  US foreign policy is no exception. International Communism had attempted to assert itself since the Paris Commune rebellion of 1871 and found its first major success with the collapse of czarist Russia, in 1917.

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US policy makers feared a “domino” effect, and with good cause. The 15 core nations of the Soviet bloc were soon followed by Eastern Europe as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia fell each in their turn, into the Soviet sphere of influence. Germany was partitioned into Communist and free-enterprise spheres after WWII, followed by China, North Korea and on across Southeast Asia.

Communism is no benign ideology, morally equivalent to the free market west.  Current estimates of citizens murdered by Communist party ideology in the Soviet Union alone, range between 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.

Agree or disagree with policy makers of the time that’s your business, but theirs was a logical thought process. US aid and support for South Vietnam increased as a way to “stem the tide” of international communism, at the same time when French support pulled back. By the late 1950s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the “National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam” (“NLF”, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders.  President John F. Kennedy responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.download (38)The war in Vietnam pitted as many as 1.8 million allied forces from South Vietnam, the United States, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Spain, South Korea and New Zealand, against about a half million from North Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union and North Korea. Begun on November 1, 1955, the conflict lasted 19 years, 5 months and a day. On March 29, 1973, two months after signing the Paris Peace accords, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam as Hanoi freed the remaining POWs held in North Vietnam.

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Even then it wasn’t over. Communist forces violated cease-fire agreements before they were even signed. Some 7,000 US civilian Department of Defense employees stayed behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting an ongoing and ultimately futile war against communist North Vietnam.

The last, humiliating scenes of the war played themselves out on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon on April 29 – 30, 1975, as those able to escape boarded helicopters, while communist forces closed around the South Vietnamese capital.

The “Killing Fields” of Cambodia followed between 1975 – ‘79, when the “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people, out of a population of 7 million. All to build the perfect, agrarian, “Worker’s Paradise”.

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Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of the alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family into a single diamond, and bite down on that stone so hard it embeds in your shattered teeth.  Forced to flee for your life and those of your young ones, you take to the open ocean in a small boat. 

All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.

That is but one story among more than three million “boat people”.  Three million from a combined population of 56 million, fleeing the Communist onslaught in hopes of temporary asylum in other countries in Southeast Asia or China.

They were the Sino-Vietnamese Hoa, and Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge.  Ethnic Laotians, Iu Mien, Hmong and other highland peoples of Laos.  The 30 or so Degar (Montagnard) tribes of the Central Highlands, so many of whom had been our steadfast allies in the late war.  Over 2.5 million of them were resettled, more than half to the United States.  The other half went mostly to Canada, Europe and South Pacific nations.

A half-million were repatriated, voluntarily or involuntarily.  Hundreds of thousands vanished in the attempt to flee, never to be seen again. Vietnam_war_early_years (31)The humanitarian disaster that was the Indochina refugee crisis was particularly acute between 1979 – ’80, but reverberated into the 21st century.

Graduating UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force, during the war in Vietnam.  The pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, sometimes returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard his C-141 transport aircraft.

Today, we remember Ogonowski as Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11, one of thousands murdered by Islamist terrorists on September 11, 2001. 

When he wasn’t flying jumbo jets, John Ogonowski was a farmer.  Until being murdered in his own cockpit, John mentored Cambodian refugees turned farmers on his Dracut, Massachusetts “White Gate Farm“, helping a fresh wave of immigrants grow familiar crops in an unfamiliar climate.  Just as those old Yankees had once mentored his Polish immigrant ancestors, generations before.

The wall

Military Working Dogs (MWDs) served with every service branch in Vietnam, mostly German Shepherds and Dobermans but many breeds were accepted into service.

It is estimated that 4,900 dogs served between 1964 and 1975. Detailed records were kept only after 1968, documenting 3,747.

A scant 204 dogs ever left during the ten-year period. Some remained in the Pacific while others returned to the United States. Not one ever returned to civil life. An estimated 350 dogs were killed in action as were 263 handlers.  Many more were wounded. As to the rest, many were euthanized, or left with ARVN units or simply abandoned, as “surplus equipment”.

There would be no war dog adoption law until 2000 when WWII Marine War Dog Platoon Leader and Veterinarian Dr. William Putney made it happen, with assistance from Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland.

The day it opened in 1982 there were 57,939 names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall,  Over the years, the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained in the war, were added to the wall. As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307.

Vietnam MemorialIn the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war in Vietnam.  We feel the political repercussions, to this day.  I was ten at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968.  Even then I remember that searing sense of humiliation and disgrace, at the behavior of some fellow Americans.

Those Eyes

In 2012, President Barack Obama declared a one-time occasion proclaiming March 29 National Vietnam War Veterans Day and calling on “all Americans to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.

In 2017, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) co-sponsored a measure to declare March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day from that day forward, to honor US service members who served in the war in southeast Asia. The measure passed the United States Senate on February 3 and the House of Representatives on March 21. President Donald Trump signed the measure into law on March 28 designating the following day and every March 29 henceforward, Vietnam Veteran’s Day.

The recognition and gratitude due those who honorably served in an unpopular war, was long overdue.

Vietnam Veterans Day Tweet

March 27, 1915 Typhoid Mary

“In time of war, soldiers, however sensible, care a great deal more on some occasions about slaking their thirst than about the danger of enteric fever. Better known as typhoid, the disease is often spread by drinking contaminated water”. – Winston Churchill

In 1841, US President William Henry Harrison died only 32 days into his only term, in office. The killer was a common culprit in Harrison’s day, one destined to end the life of Stephen A. Douglas of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates, William “Willy” Lincoln (right), the 11-year-old son of President Abraham & First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, and Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, mother of President Theodore Roosevelt and grandmother on her father’s side, of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Historians believe Typhoid fever to be the causative agent behind the plague which killed the great statesman Pericles and a third the population of Athens, in 430BC. Typhoid killed as many as 6,000 settlers in the English colony at Jamestown and may have been responsible for eliminating the entire colony.

In 1880, German pathologist Karl Joseph Eberth first described the bacillus involved but, throughout the 19th century, Typhoid could be counted upon to kill more combatants, than any given war in which they had come, to fight.

There’s no polite way to say this. Typhoid is spread by fecal contamination. Between humans. Today, simple acts like flushing a toilet and washing one’s hands are parts of daily routine. In an age before modern plumbing and sewage, we’re talking about a plague sufficient to make the bogey man himself, quake with terror.

Salmonella enterica enterica serovar Typhi

Even now, sciencemag.org reports some ten to thirty million cases per year and about 200,000 deaths. Today, scientists across the African continent and Asia contend with the multi-drug resistant strain H58, but now we’re ahead of the story. In a century beginning with the Napoleonic wars and ending with the gilded age, the “germ theory” of disease we know so well rose only gradually to the fore, eclipsing the “miasma” theory so familiar to contemporaries, of the Black Death.

Like the Chinese coronavirus of another century, Typhoid symptoms range from excruciating death to nothing, whatsoever. Mary Mallon was one of the latter. Born in 1869 in the north of Ireland, Mary was almost certainly infected in utero as her mother was so tainted, at the time of birth.

Mary emigrated to the United States at age fifteen and lived for a time, with an aunt and uncle. She worked as a maid at first but it didn’t take long to realize…Mary Mallon could cook. Soon she was hiring on with wealthy families, as a personal chef.

In 1906, New York banker Charles Henry Warren arranged a treat, for his family. A summer rental seemed just the thing. Warren rented the summer home of George Thompson and his wife in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Naturally, Warren went looking for a cook. Mary Mallon accepted the job.

That August, one of the Warren daughters fell ill with Typhoid fever. Mrs. Warren was soon to follow and then two maids. In total, six of eleven people in the household came down with the disease. Fearing they wouldn’t be able to rent the place, Thompson hired investigators to find the cause.

That first group found nothing and Thompson hired George Soper, a civil engineer known even then as, the “epidemic fighter”. It was Soper who first hypothesized that Mary herself, might be the cause. Mallon had left the family three weeks earlier at this point. Soper examined Mallon’s employment history from 1900 to the present, and there it was. There were seven jobs during that time in which 22 people became ill. With Typhoid. One little girl died of the disease, shortly after Mary came to work for the family.

The civil engineer turned “private eye“ went looking for Mary herself. He found found her in March 1907, working for the family of Walter Bowen.  

Soper explained who he was and requested samples of Mary’s blood, urine and feces.  Mallon responded as might be expected, of a cornered wildcat.  She came at him with a shriek and a carving fork and put the man to flight, for his life.

Once again Soper tracked her down and showed up, where she lived. This time he brought help in the person of one Dr. Bert Raymond Hoobler. And now there were two of them, fleeing for their lives.

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker was dispatched from the New York city health department but by now, Mallon wasn’t hearing a word of it. Next came Soper with five police officers, and an ambulance. Let the epidemic fighter describe what happened next.

“Now thoroughly convinced of her own persecution, “Mary was on the lookout and peered out, a long kitchen fork in her hand like a rapier. As she lunged at me with the fork, I stepped back, recoiled on the policeman and so confused matters that, by the time we got through the door, Mary had disappeared. ‘Disappear’ is too matter-of-fact a word; she had completely vanished”.

George Soper

There followed a five-hour cat & mouse before they found her, hiding in a closet. It took several of them to wrestle Mary to the ground. Soper himself sat on her, all the way to the hospital. He said it was like being in a cage, with an angry lion.

Mary was taken to Willard Parker hospital where stool samples demonstrated the presence of Typhoid. Under questioning she admitted to “almost never” washing her hands, a practice not uncommon, at that time. There followed a period of incarceration between 1907 and 1910 on North brother island on the East River, near the Bronx.

The press had a field day with the story. “Typhoid Mary” they called her.

“I never had typhoid in my life, and have always been healthy. Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement with only a dog for a companion?”

Mary Mallon

In that time, 120 of 163 samples tested positive. Mary herself couldn’t understand why she was being treated this way. She had broken no laws. She’d been taken by force and against her will. There was a nervous breakdown. Her own samples smuggled out with the help of a friend, tested negative. The time when she sued for her freedom. And lost. The courts didn’t want anything to do with it. Soper would visit from time to time and sometimes explained the importance of handwashing. She wasn’t buying any of it. It was all she could think of. Why…Would… They…DO THIS TO ME!?

In 1910, Mary was released to the mainland with an agreement t0 “take such hygienic precautions as will protect those with whom she comes in contact, from infection.” She promised not to accept work as a cook. Now here she was, working as a laundress, earning $20 a month. Without a home of her own, and always on the brink of destitution. She used to make $50 a month, as a cook.

She broke her word. Now it was “Marie Breshof” or “Mrs. Brown,” cooking for the restaurant on Broadway, or that hotel in Southampton. There was an inn in Huntington. A sanatorium in New Jersey. The cooking gigs were always short-term and always followed by Typhoid outbreaks.

Then came the job at Sloan Hospital for Women. 20 people fell ill with Typhoid. Two died. Even the other other servants were now calling the new cook, “Typhoid Mary”.

North Brother island

This time when they came for her, she didn’t resist. On this day in 1915, Mary Mallon was returned to quarantine on North Brother Island. She had a stroke there in 1932 and spent the last six years of her life, partly paralyzed. She contracted pneumonia and died there on Armistice Day, November 11, 1938. Nine people attended her funeral.

Over her lifetime, Typhoid Mary is believed to have sickened no fewer than fifty, three of whom, died. Some put her death toll, as high as fifty. In a nation of laws the civil liberties side of her story stands to this day as an historic, unmitigated, disaster.

Mary Mallon spent her last years alone in this small house on North Brother Island in the East River, near the Bronx

The history of Mary Mallon, declared “unclean” like a leper, may give us some moral lessons on how to protect the ill and how we can be protected from illness…By the time she died New York health officials had identified more than 400 other healthy carriers of Salmonella typhi, but no one else was forcibly confined or victimized as an “unwanted ill”.

Annals of Gastroenterology, 2013

March 26, 1881 Old Abe

About a week after Confederates first fired on Fort Sumter a female bald eagle laid a clutch of eggs, somewhere in Wisconsin.

Ahgamahwegezhig

In 1861, leader of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe band O-k-ma-key-sik, “Chief Big Sky” captured an eaglet, and sold it for a bushel of corn to saloon keeper Daniel McCann of Chippewa County, Wisconsin.

Captain John Perkins, Commanding Officer of the Eau Claire “Badgers”, bought the young bald eagle from Daniel McCann.

The asking price was $2.50. 

1861 quarter eagle

Militia members were asked to pitch in twenty-five cents as was one particular civilian:  tavern-keeper S.M. Jeffers.  Jeffers’ refusal earned him “three lusty groans”, to which he laughed and told them all, to keep their quarters. 

Jeffers threw in a single quarter-eagle, a gold coin valued at 250¢, and that was that.   From that moment onward, the militia unit called itself the Eau Claire “Eagles”.

Perkins’ Eagles entered Federal Service as Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  It wasn’t long before the entire Regiment adopted the bald eagle, calling themselves the “Eagle Regiment”, in honor of their new mascot.  Much deliberation followed as to what to name him, before it was decided.  The bird would be called “Old Abe”.

Old Abe accompanied the regiment as it headed south, travelling all over the western theater and witness to 37 battles. David McLain wrote “I have frequently seen Generals Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Rosecrans, Blair, Logan, and others, when they were passing our regiment, raise their hats as they passed Old Abe, which always brought a cheer from the regiment and then the eagle would spread his wings”.

Old Abe

Abe became an inspirational symbol to the troops, like the battle flag carried with each regiment. Colonel Rufus Dawes of the Iron Brigade recalled, “Our eagle usually accompanied us on the bloody field, and I heard [Confederate] prisoners say they would have given more to capture the eagle of the Eighth Wisconsin, than to take a whole brigade of men.”

OldAbe

Confederate General Sterling Price spotted Old Abe on his perch during the battle of Corinth, Mississippi.  “That bird must be captured or killed at all hazards”, Price remarked. “I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags”.

Old Abe was presented to the state of Wisconsin at the end of the war. He lived 15 years in the “Eagle Department”, a two-room apartment in the basement of the Capitol, complete with custom bathtub, and a caretaker.  Photographs of Old Abe were sold to help veteran’s organizations. He was a national celebrity, traveling across the country and appearing at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the 1880 Grand Army of the Republic National Convention, and dozens of fundraising events.

OLD_ABE_AND_GEORGE_GILLES

A small fire broke out in a Capitol basement workshop, fed by cleaning solvents and shop rags.  The fire was quickly extinguished thanks to the bald eagle’s cries of alarm, but not before Old Abe inhaled a whole lot of that thick, black smoke.  Abe’s health began to decline, almost immediately.  Veterinarians and doctors were called, but to no avail.  Bald eagles have been known to live as long as 50 years in captivity. Old Abe died in the arms of caretaker George Gilles on March 26, 1881.  He was 20.

His remains were stuffed and mounted.  For the next 20 years his body remained on display in the Capitol building rotunda. On the night of February 26, 1904, a gas jet ignited a newly varnished ceiling, burning the Capitol building to the ground.

Old_abe_capitol

Since 1915, Old Abe’s replica has watched over the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber of the new capitol building.

In 1921, the 101st infantry division was reconstituted in the Organized Reserves with headquarters in Milwaukee.  It was here that the 101st first became associated with the “Screaming Eagle”.  The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne participated in the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden, and Bastogne and late became the basis of the HBO series “A Band of Brothers”.

101st_Airborne_Division_patch

After WWII, elements of the 101st Airborne were mobilized to Little Rock by President Eisenhower to protect the civil rights of the “Little Rock Nine”, a group of black students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in September 1957, as the result of the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case.

Old_Abe_Case_mascot

For 104 years, Old Abe appeared in the trademark of the J.I. Case farm equipment company of Racine, Wisconsin.

Winston Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”  We all know how stories change with the retelling.  Some stories take on a life of their own.  Ambrose Armitage, serving with Company D of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote in his diary on September 14, 1861, that Company C had a “four month old female eagle with them”.   Two years later, Armitage wrote, “The passing troops have been running in as they always do to see our eagle. She is a great wonder”.

Abe Feathers

Ten years after his death, a national controversy sprang up and lasted for decades, as to whether Old Abe was, in fact, a “she”.  Suffragettes claimed that “he” had laid eggs in the Wisconsin capitol.  Newspapers weighed in, including the Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Oakland Tribune, and others.

Bald eagles are not easily sex-differentiated. There are few clues available to the non-expert, outside of the contrasts of a mated pair.  It’s unlikely that even those closest to Old Abe, had a clue as to the eagle’s sex.

University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center Sequencing Facility researchers had access to four feathers, collected during the early days at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall.  In March of 2016, samples were taken from the hollow quill portion (calamus) of each feather, and examined for the presence of two male sex chromosomes (ZZ) or both a male and female chromosome (ZW). After three months, the results were conclusive.  All four samples showed the Z chromosome, none having a matching W.  

After 155 years, Old Abe wasn’t about to lay any eggs.

March 11, 1805 Why can I not Fight for my Country too?

“Wrought upon at length, you may say, by an enthusiasm and frenzy that could brook no control – I burst the tyrant bands, which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity, which custom and the world seemed to deny, as a natural privilege”. – Deborah Sampson

Her mother was Deborah Bradford Sampson, great-granddaughter of William Bradford, the Mayflower passenger and later Governor of Plymouth Colony. As the mother of seven, Deborah did the best she could. She also raised her young niece whose parents and baby brother were killed and scalped, by Indians. She was not one to make great choices in men, though. Jonathan Sampson would abandon his wife and children to start a new life, in Maine.

Deborah Sampson was the 5th child of this union, born in 1760 in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Plympton. Her father left the family destitute, and all the Sampson children were sent off to live with friends and relatives, a common practice at that time.

Today her bronze likeness greets visitors to the Sharon town library, 22 miles south of Boston. So, who is Deborah Sampson?

Sharon town library

At age ten, Deborah became an indentured servant to the family of Jeremiah Thomas, of Middleborough. She was treated well but, in 18th century New England, female education wasn’t a priority. Deborah would overcome the obstacle, persuading the Thomas sons to share their lessons with her. The episode would reveal a lot of who she’d become in later life.

As Revolution came to the soon-to-be former British colonies, Deborah supported herself as a schoolteacher. She became skilled at weaving and light carpentry and sold milking stools and pie crimpers, door to door.

In 1782, Deborah Sampson entered the life for which we know her, today. She bound her breasts with a linen cloth, donned male attire and went to war for her country. As a soldier.

In an age when the average man stood five-foot six-inches tall, Deborah stood 5’8″. With “plain features” according to a neighbor and what her biographer described as a “waist [which] might displease a coquette”, the transition wasn’t as unlikely as it would seem.

She joined an army unit in Middleborough under the assumed name of Timothy Thayer. She almost pulled it off too before being recognized, by a local. She paid back that part of her signing bonus not already spent and tried again, this time where she wouldn’t be known. Fifty miles away, in Uxbridge.

Sampson joined a light infantry unit under the assumed name of Robert Shirtliff, part of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment.

Deborah Sampson fought for a year and a half, as a man, and not in some rear-echelon outfit. The light infantry soldier was specifically chosen to be bigger and stronger than average, charged with rapid flanking movements, rearguard defense and forward reconnaissance, for units on the move. It was not a place where anyone would expect to find someone of her sex.

That baby-smooth chin earned her no end of grief from her fellow soldiers, but she persevered. Sampson fought in several skirmishes, the first outside Tarrytown New York, on July 3, 1782. There she received a deep gash on the forehead and two musket balls, to her thigh. Terrified that her sex would be discovered, she begged her fellow soldiers not to intervene. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. She was put on a horse, and dragged off to the hospital.

Doctors tended to her forehead but she sneaked out before they could get a look at that leg. Using a pen knife and sewing needle, Deborah removed one of the balls, herself. The other was too deep. She would carry it with her for the rest of her life, deep inside a wound that never quite healed.

The war was basically over following the American victory at Yorktown, yet negotiations dragged on, for a year. Even then, American soldiers remained in uniform.

On April 1, 1783, Sampson was assigned to be waiter to Major General John Paterson. That June a contingent of soldiers under General Paterson, were ordered to put down an anti-government protest by some 400 continental soldiers known as the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1783.

Deborah fell ill while in Philadelphia. Delirious, fading in and out of consciousness it was doctor Barnabas Binney who removed her clothes only to find the linen cloth, which bound her breasts. Thus discovered she was removed to the doctor’s home where the female members of the household joined in her care, with a trained nurse.

“Robert Shirtliff” recovered and, handed a note to give to General Paterson, assumed her secret was betrayed. She was right. Other women had been reprimanded for what she had done but Paterson seemed to admire what she’d accomplished. She was sent home with an honorable discharge, a few words of advice and enough money, to get home to Massachusetts.

She married one Benjamin Gannett two years later and moved to the Gannett family farm, in Sharon. There the couple raised three kids plus an orphan, but life was hard. As farms go this one was small, the soil depleted from generations of use.

In 1792 she petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for back pay, withheld because of her sex. She was awarded 34 pounds plus interest dating back to her 1783 discharge. The measure was signed by governor John Hancock.

Sampson went on a speaking tour where she’d extoll traditional feminine roles. Then she’d step out and return to the stage in uniform, flawlessly performing a long and taxing series of military drills. She did it for money but, once expenses were paid there was little left. She often borrowed money from her family and from a friend, named Paul Revere.

Revere wrote to Massachusetts member of Congress William Eustis in 1804: “I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own gender… humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman with handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent.

On this day in 1805, Congress approved her application. An invalid pension of $4 a month.

Deborah Sampson wasn’t the first woman awarded a military pension, that honor went to Margaret Cochran Corbin. At the battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, Corbin continued to fire the gun in whose service her husband was killed, only minutes before. A fine job she did too, before being hit by enemy fire. With her jaw and her left breast severely damaged, her left arm all but ripped from her body, Corbin entered captivity following British victory.

Corbin never did regain use of that left arm. Gruff and thoroughly unfeminine she made few friends among the women of her age, preferring instead the rough and masculine company of fellow soldiers.

Deborah Sampson adopted the more traditional role of wife and mother and died of yellow fever in her 66th year. She went to her rest in the Rock Ridge cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts. So it is the bronze likeness of Massachusetts’ “official heroine” greets visitors to the Sharon town library, the only person so honored, by an American state.

Every day, visitors of all ages pass her likeness, in front of that library. Do they know her name? Who knows, but wouldn’t she set a fine example for our daughters and granddaughters. Not at all the sort of role model our girls are subjected to, in our own day and age.

March 9, 1953 Always be a Good boy

For that one moment one signal operator was the only man in the free world, who knew what the world would soon learn


All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive even one vote. During the late 1970s, Pol Pot and a revolutionary leftist cadre called the Angka murdered 1/5th the population of the southeast Asian nation, of Cambodia. Communist Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million fellow Chinese citizens, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest thirty million.

Life in Mao’s China was quite different from that depicted in the propaganda posters.

From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin joined this parade of horribles with the deliberate starvation of as many as ten million Ukrainians in 1932-’33, a political famine known as the Holodomor. Estimates of the dead attributed to the Communist monster run as high as 60 million, surpassing that of even the National Socialist dictator, Adolf Hitler.

Stalin suffered from poor health in his final years. He was found on the floor of his Kuntsevo Dacha on March 1, 1953, semiconscious, suffering from a brain hemorrhage. His was “a difficult and terrible death” according to Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, lasting four days. Josef Stalin died on March 5, perhaps of natural causes, perhaps he was murdered. Few knew. Fewer cared. The beast was dead.

Fifteen hundred miles to the west in Landsberg Germany, a young staff sergeant was listening. Landsberg was a forward base at this time in the decades-long standoff we remember, as the “Cold war”.

John enlisted in the Air force in 1950, reporting for duty at Lackland AFB, in Texas. He met the woman who would become his first wife there, Vivian, but that was all four years in the future. For now, the budding romance would have to wait. John had deployment papers, to Landsberg.

Today if we want to talk with someone we pick up the phone, but it wasn’t always that easy. In the early 19th century, Europeans experimented with various electrical signaling devices.

Samuel Morse developed a system of timed signals in the early 1840s. Two tones, one short and one long, combined to represent every letter in the alphabet, and every number.

Dots and dashes. Dits and Dahs

John had talent when it came to Morse code. Signals were anything but clear but he could almost anticipate the patterns, coming out of the ether.

Rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant, John was often placed at the forward position, straining to derive meaning through the static from the distant Dits and Dahs of Soviet communications.

The work was demanding and highly secretive. He wasn’t allowed to leave base and when he did, privileges were sharply limited. He couldn’t even share the work with his sweetheart, back in Texas. In hundreds of letters home he never could talk about what he did. He may as well have been in prison.

John saw an American film around this time, a film noir crime drama called Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison. He could relate.

At night, “Johnny” would seek a kind of lonely solace with his old guitar. He found a rhythm, a melody of sorts in the dots and dashes, of Morse code.

Dit-Dah-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dit-Dah-Dah, Dit-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dah-Dah

He even started a band, called the “Landsberg Barbarians”.

So it was the young Staff Sergeant was listening to Soviet chatter on March 5, 1953, straining to pull some order out of faint and distant signals confused and all but obliterated, by static. And then it came to him. The one word standing out from the sequence.

DDah-Dit-Dit
EDit
ADit-Dah
DDah-Dit-Dit

He listened to it again, and again. The news was momentous if true but he had to get this right. In all the free world he alone knew, what the rest would soon learn. The Soviet leader, the Great Beast Josef Stalin, was dead.

Sergeant Cash told his superiors of what he had learned, and the rest is history. Josef Stalin lay in state for three days at Moscow’s House of Unions where the crush of crowds killed 100 people. He was laid to rest in Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square on March 9.

Johnny went back to his job. At night he’d pick up his guitar. The Dits and Dahs. The words would come later but, for now, the melody. A song begun in Landsberg so many would come to believe had arrived later, following that famous visit to Folsom Prison.

For many years, Johnny Cash could tell no one about the Stalin intercept. 3 Hall of Fame inductions, 9 CMA awards and 17 Grammys would have to wait. For now he went back to his job save for nights spent alone. Nights when the talent which had found its voice in that rare ability to find patterns in Morse code found another voice, one we could all understand.

Dit-Dah-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dit-Dah-Dah, Dit-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dah-DahWhen I was just a baby, my mama told me “Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns…“”