March 5, 1776 Head Fake

It’s doubtful whether Washington possessed either powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that.

Over the night and the following day of April 18-19, 1775, individual British soldiers marched 36 miles or more, on the round-trip expedition from Boston.  Following the early morning battles at Lexington and Concord, armed colonial militia from as far away as Worcester swarmed over the column, forcing the regulars into a fighting retreat.

In those days, Boston was a virtual island, connected to the mainland by a narrow “neck” of land.  More than 20,000 armed men converged from all over New England in the weeks that followed, gathering in buildings and encampments from Cambridge to Roxbury.

siege-of-boston-1775-1776-grangerA man who should have gone into history among the top tier of American Founding Fathers, the future turncoat Benedict Arnold, arrived with Connecticut militia to support the siege.  Arnold informed the Massachusetts Committee of Safety that Fort Ticonderoga, located along the southern end of Lake Champlain in northern New York, was bristling with cannon and other military stores.  Furthermore, the place was lightly defended.

The committee commissioned Arnold a colonel on May 3, authorizing him to raise troops and lead a mission to capture the fort.  Seven days later, Colonel Arnold and militia forces from Connecticut and western Massachusetts in conjunction with Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” captured the fort, and all its armaments.

The Continental Congress created the Army that June, appointing General George Washington to lead it.  When General Washington took command of that army in July, it was a force with an average of nine rounds-worth of shot and powder, per man.  British forces occupying Boston, were effectively penned up by forces too weak to do anything about it.

The stalemate dragged on for months, when a 25-year-old bookseller came to General Washington with a plan. His name was Henry Knox. His plan was a 300-mile, round trip slog into a New England winter, to retrieve the guns of Ticonderoga:  brass and iron cannon, howitzers, and mortars.  59 pieces in all.  Washington’s advisors derided the idea as hopeless, but the General approved.

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Knox set out with a column of men in late November, 1775.  For nearly two months, he and his team wrestled 60 tons of cannons and other armaments by boat, animal & man-hauled sledges along roads little better than foot trails.  Across two barely frozen rivers, and through the forests and swamps of the Berkshires to Cambridge, historian Victor Brooks called it “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics” of the Revolution.  It must have been a sight on January 24, 1776, when Knox returned at the head of that “Noble Train of Artillery”.

For British military leadership in Boston, headed by General William Howe, the only option for resupply was by water, via Boston Harbor.  Both sides of the siege understood the strategic importance of the twin prominences overlooking the harbor, the hills of Charlestown to the north, and Dorchester heights to the south.  It’s why British forces had nearly spent themselves on Farmer Breed’s hillside that June, an engagement that went into history as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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With Howe’s forces in possession of the Charlestown peninsula, Washington had long considered occupying Dorchester Heights, but considered his forces too weak.  That changed with the guns of Ticonderoga.

In the first days of March, Washington placed several heavy cannon at Lechmere’s Point and Cobble Hill in Cambridge, and on Lamb’s Dam in Roxbury.  The batteries opened fire on the night of March 2, and again on the following night and the night after that.  With British attention thus diverted, American General John Thomas and a force of some 2,000 made plans to take the heights.

As the ground was frozen and digging impossible, fortifications and cannon placements were fashioned from heavy 10′ timbers.  With the path to the top lined with hay bales to muffle their sounds, these fortifications were manhandled to the top of Dorchester heights over the night of March 4-5, along with the bulk of Knox’ cannons.

General Howe was stunned on awakening, on the morning of March 5.  The British garrison in Boston and the fleet in harbor, were now under the muzzles of Patriot guns.  “The rebels have done more in one night”, he said, “than my whole army would have done in a month.”

Plans were laid for an immediate British assault on the hill, as reinforcements poured into the position.  By day’s end, Howe faced the prospect of another bunker Hill, this time against a force of 6,000 in possession of heavy artillery.

A heavy snowstorm descended late in the day, interrupting Howe’s plan for the assault.  A few days later, he had thought better of it.  A tacit cease-fire settled in over the next two weeks, with Washington’s side declining to open fire, and Howe’s side refraining from destroying the town, in the course of withdrawing from Boston.

British forces departed Boston by sea on March 17 with about 1,000 civilian loyalists, resulting in a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day. “Evacuation Day”:

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British evacuation of Boston. March 17, 1776

It’s doubtful whether Washington possessed either powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that. The mere presence of those guns moved General Howe to weigh anchor and sail for Nova Scotia. The episode may be the greatest head fake, in military history.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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March 4, 1789  A Self Governing Republic

Even at the convention, many of the framers were concerned about the larger, more populous states governing at the expense of the smaller states. The proverbial five wolves and a lamb, voting on what’s for lunch. 

Early discussions concerning the American experiment in self-government began nearly twenty years before the Revolution, with the Albany Congress of 1754 and Benjamin Franklin’s proposed Albany Plan of Union. The 2nd Continental Congress appointed a drafting committee to write our first constitution in 1776, the work beginning on July 12. The finished document was sent to the states for ratification on November 15, the following year.

ArticlesOfConfederation (1)Twelve of the thirteen original states ratified these “Articles of Confederation” by February, 1779. Maryland would hold out for another two years, over land claims west of the Ohio River. In 1781, seven months before Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, the 2nd Continental Congress formally ratified the Articles of Confederation. The young nation’s first governing document.

The Articles of Confederation provided for a loose alliance of sovereign states. At the center stood a congress, a unicameral legislature, and that’s about it. There was no Executive, there was no Judiciary.

In theory, Congress had the authority to govern foreign affairs, conduct war, and regulate currency. In practice, these powers were limited because Congress had no authority to enforce requests made on the states, either for money or for troops.

The Union would probably have broken up if the Articles of Confederation were not amended or replaced. Twelve delegates from five states met at Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis Maryland in September 1786, to discuss the issue. The decision of the Annapolis Convention was unanimous. Representatives from all the states were invited to send delegates to a new constitutional convention in Philadelphia, the following May.

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The United States had won its independence from England four years earlier, when 55 state delegates convened in Philadelphia to compose a new constitution.

Delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met on May 25, 1787 at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania State House, the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.  Only Rhode Island abstained.  The building is now known as Independence Hall.

The assembly immediately discarded the idea of amending the Articles, instead crafting a brilliant Federal system of checks and balances over three months of debate. The Federal Republic crafted by the framers delegates specific, limited powers to the Federal Government, with authority outside those specified powers devolving to the states.

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Even at the convention, many of the framers were concerned about the larger, more populous states governing at the expense of the smaller states. The proverbial five wolves and a lamb, voting on what’s for lunch.  The “Connecticut Compromise” solved that problem, creating a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house (House of Representatives) and equal representation of the states in the upper house (Senate).

The Constitution was signed by 38 of the 41 delegates on September 17, 1787. As dictated by Article VII, the document would not become binding until ratified by nine of the 13 states.

Five states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut ratified the document in quick succession. Some states objected to the new constitution, particularly Massachusetts, which wanted more protection for basic political rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and of the press. They wanted it specified that powers undelegated to the Federal government, were reserved to the states. A compromise was reached in February, 1788 whereby Massachusetts and other states would ratify the document, with the assurance that such amendments would be immediately proposed.

The Constitution was ratified in Massachusetts by a two vote margin, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify on June 21. The new Constitutional Government would take effect on March 4, 1789.

On September 25, the first Congress adopted 12 amendments, sending them to the states for ratification. The states got rid of the first two, and so the Congress’ original 3rd amendment became 1st, of what we now call the “Bill of Rights”. Today, the United States Constitution is the oldest written national constitution in operation in the world.

united-states-founding-documents-vintage-american-flag-declaration-independence-constitution-america-58534238It’s interesting to note the priorities of that first Congress, as expressed in their original 1st and 2nd amendments. The ones that were thrown out. The first had to do with proportional representation, and would have led us to a 6,000-member House of Representatives, instead of the 435 we currently have. The second most important thing in the world, judging by the priorities of that first Congress, was that any future Congress could not change their own salaries. Any such change could affect only future Congresses.

That original 2nd amendment, reading that “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened”, took effect in 1992 as the 27th amendment, following a ratification period stretching out to 202 years, 7 months, and 12 days. We must not be too hasty about these things.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

March 2, 1864 A POW story

Four men, each of whom played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

In the early days of the Civil War, the government in Washington refused to recognize the Confederate states’ government, believing any such recognition would amount to legitimizing an illegal entity.  The Union refused formal agreement regarding the exchange of prisoners. Following the capture of over a thousand federal troops at the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas), a joint resolution in Congress called for President Lincoln to establish a prisoner exchange agreement.

In July 1862, Union Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D. H. Hill met under flag of truce to draw up an exchange formula, regarding the return of prisoners. The “Dix-Hill Cartel” determined that Confederate and Union Army soldiers were exchanged at a prescribed rate:  captives of equivalent ranks were exchanged as equals.  Corporals and Sergeants were worth two privates.  Lieutenants were four and Colonels fifteen, all the way up to Commanding General, equivalent to sixty private soldiers.  Similar exchange rates were established for Naval personnel.

My twice-great grandfather, Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th Pennsylvania Infantry,  was paroled in such an exchange.

President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of September 1862 not only freed those enslaved in Confederate territories, but also provided for the enlistment of black soldiers.  The government in Richmond responded that such would be regarded as runaway slaves and not soldiers.  Their white officers would be treated as criminals, for inciting servile insurrection.

The policy was made clear in July 1863, following the Union defeat at Fort Wagner, an action depicted in the 1989 film, Glory.  The Dix-Hill protocol was formally abandoned on July 30.  Neither side was ready for the tide of humanity, about to come.

The US Army began construction the following month on the Rock Island Prison, built on an Island between Davenport Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. In time, Rock Island would become one of the most infamous POW camps of the north, housing some 12,000 Confederate prisoners, seventeen per cent of whom, died in captivity.

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On this day in 1864, the first prisoners had barely moved into the most notorious POW camp of the Civil War, the first Federal soldiers arriving on February 28.

The pictures at the top of this page were taken at Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville.  Conditions in this place defy description. Sergeant Major Robert H. Kellogg of the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, entered this hell hole on May 2:

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that he alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then”.

Over 45,000 Union troops would pass through the verminous open sewer known as Andersonville. Nearly 13,000 died there.

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Andersonville

Now all but forgotten, the ‘Eighty acres of Hell’ located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago was home to some forty thousand Confederate POWs between 1862 and 1865, seventeen per cent of whom, never left.  No southern soldier was equipped for the winters at Camp Douglas, nor the filth, or the disease. Nearby Oak Woods Cemetery is home to the largest mass grave, in the western hemisphere.

Union and Confederate governments established 150 such camps between 1861 and 1865, makeshift installations of rickety wooden buildings and primitive sewage systems, often little more than tent cities.   Some 347,000 human beings languished in these places, victims of catastrophically poor hygiene, harsh summary justice, starvation, disease and swarming vermin.

The training depot designated camp Rathbun near Elmira New York became the most notorious camp in the north, in 1864.  12,213 Confederate prisoners were held there, often three men to a tent.  Nearly 25% of them died there, only slightly less, than Andersonville.   The death rate in “Hellmira” was double that of any other camp in the north.

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“Hellmira”

Historians debate the degree to which such brutality resulted from deliberate mistreatment, or economic necessity.

The Union had more experience being a “country” at this time, with well established banking systems and means of commerce and transportation.  For the south, the war was an economic catastrophe.  The Union blockade starved southern ports of even the basic necessities from the beginning, while farmers abandoned fields to take up arms. Most of the fighting of the Civil War took place on southern soil, destroying incalculable acres of rich farm lands.

The capital at Richmond saw bread riots as early as 1862.  Southern Armies subsisted on corn meal and peanuts.  The Confederate government responded by printing currency, about a billion dollars worth.  By 1864, a Confederate dollar was worth 5¢ in gold.  Southern inflation exceeded 9000%, by 1865.

Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the stockade at Camp Sumter, was tried and executed after the war, only one of two men to be hanged for war crimes.  Captain Wirz appeared at trial reclined on a couch, advanced gangrene preventing him from sitting up.  To some, the man was a scapegoat. A victim of circumstances beyond his control. To others he is a demon, personally responsible for the hell of Andersonville prison.  I make no pretense of answering such a question.  The subject is capable of inciting white-hot passion, from that day to this.

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Family cemetery, Scotland County, North Carolina.  Note the peaked tops of Confederate stones.  It’s said they were shaped that way, so no Yankee could sit on them.

On a personal note:

There are many good reasons to study history, among which is an understanding of where we come from.  How do we know where we’re going, if we don’t understand where we’ve been.

Should our ancestors be towering historical figures or merely those who played a part, the principle applies on the micro, as well as a larger scale.

Among those farmers who laid down their tools were the four Tyner brothers of North Carolina:  James, William, Nicholas and Benjamin.  My twice-great Grandfather, Private James Tyner, 52nd North Carolina Infantry, was captured at Spotsylvania Courthouse and imprisoned at “Hellmira”.  He died in captivity on March 13, 1865, less than a month before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Nicholas alone survived the war, to return to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th PA Infantry re-enlisted with the Army of the James, after his parole.  He and Nicholas Tyner would lay down their weapons at Appomattox, former enemies turned countrymen, if they could only figure out how to do it.

William Christian Long was Blacksmith to the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and survived the war.  His name may be found on the Pennsylvania monument, at Gettysburg.

Archibald Blue of Drowning Creek North Carolina wanted no part of what he saw as a “rich man’s war” and ordered his five sons away.  He was murdered for his politics in 1865.  The killer was never found.

Four men, each of whom played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

Rick Long

February 23, 1908 Newsies

For thousands of homeless children, newspapers were all that stood in the way of an empty belly.

During the early colonial period, American newspapers were “wretched little” sheets in the words of America’s “1st newsboy”, Benjamin Franklin.  Scarcely more than sidelines to keep presses occupied.

Newspapers were distributed by mail in the early years, thanks to generous subsidies from the Postal Act of 1792. In 1800, the United States could boast somewhere between 150 – 200 newspapers.  Thirty-five years later, some 1,200 were competing for readership.

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Lithograph from the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835

Today we hear a lot about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.   The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from the Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, one of the best known astronomers of the time.

Whatever it took, to sell newspapers.

Two years earlier, Sun publisher Benjamin Day ran a Help-Wanted advertisement, looking for adults to help expand circulation. “To the unemployed — A number of steady men can find employment by vending this paper. A liberal discount is allowed to those who buy and sell again“. To Day’s surprise, his ad didn’t produce adult applicants as expected.  Instead, the notice attracted children.

Today, kids make up a minimal part of the American workforce, but that wasn’t always so. Child labor played an integral part in the agricultural and handicraft economy, working on family farms or hiring out to other farmers.  Boys customarily apprenticed to the trades, at 10 – 14. As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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Brooklyn newsboy, ca. 1910 Photo by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

Benjamin Day’s first newspaper “hawker” was Bernard Flaherty, a ten-year-old Irish immigrant. The kid was good at it too, crying out lurid headlines, to passers-by: “Double Distilled Villainy!” “Cursed Effects of Drunkenness!” “Awful Occurrence!” “Infamous Affair!” “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

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Hordes of street urchins swarmed the tenements and alleyways of American cities. During the 1870s, homeless children were estimated at 20,000 – 30,000 in New York alone, as much as 12% of school-age children in the city.

Lewis Hine - Indianapolis Newsboys waiting for the Base Ball edition, in a Newspaper office. Bad environment. Tough negroes etc., 1908
Indianapolis newsies, waiting for baseball edition

For thousands of them, newspapers were all that stood in the way of an empty belly.

article-2467498-18D8276800000578-777_964x699Adults had no interest in the minuscule income, and left the newsboys (and girls) to their own devices.  “Newsies” bought papers at discounted prices and peddled them on the street.    Others worked saloons and houses of prostitution.  They weren’t allowed to return any left unsold, and worked well into the night to sell every paper.

article-2467498-18D8273A00000578-282_964x688For all that, newsies earned about 30¢ a day.  Enough for a bite to eat, to afford enough papers to do it again the following day, and maybe a 5¢ bed in the newsboy’s home.

Lewis Hine - Have been selling 2 years. Youngest, Yedda Welled, is 11 years old. Next, Rebecca Cohen, is 12. Next, Rebecca Kirwin, is 14. Hartford, Connecticut, 1909
“Newsies” were not always, boys. These are Yedda Welled, 11 years old. Rebecca Cohen, 12. and, Rebecca Kirwin, 14. Hartford, Connecticut, 1909. H/T historyinphotos.blogspot.com

Competition was ferocious among hundreds of papers, and business practices were lamentable.  In 1886, the Brooklyn Times tried a new idea. The city was expanding rapidly, swallowing up previously independent townships along the Long Island shore. The Times charged Western District newsboys a penny a paper, while Eastern District kids paid 1 1/5¢.

The plan was expected to “push sales vigorously in new directions.” It took about a hot minute for newsies to get wise, when hundreds descended on the Times’ offices with sticks and rocks. On March 29, several police officers and a driver’s bullwhip were needed to get the wagons out of the South 8th Street distribution offices. One of the trucks was overturned, later that day.

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That time, the newsboy strike lasted a couple of days, enforced by roving gangs of street kids and “backed by a number of roughs”. In the end, the Times agreed to lower its price to a penny apiece, in all districts. Other such strikes would not be ended so quickly, or so easily.

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New York, 1896 Alice Austen newsboys

In those days, the Caribbean island of Cuba was ruled from Spain. After decades spent in the struggle for independence, many saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and America’s own Revolution of the previous century.  In 1897-’98, few wanted war with Spain over Cuban interests more than Assistant Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, and New York publishers Joseph Pulitzer & William Randolph Hearst.

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This was the height of the Yellow Journalism period, and newspapers clamored for war. Hearst illustrator Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba, to document “atrocities”.  On finding none, Remington wired: “There will be no war. I wish to return”.  Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” President McKinley urged calm, but agreed to send the armored cruiser USS Maine, to protect US “interests”.

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The explosion that sank the Maine on February 15 killing 268 Americans was almost certainly accidental, but that wouldn’t be known for decades. Events quickly spun out of control and, on April 21, 1898, the US blockaded the Caribbean island. Spain gave notice two days later, that it would declare war if US forces invaded its territory. Congress declared on April 25 that a state of war had existed between Spain and the United States, since the 21st.  Soon, newsboys were shouting the headline:  “How do you like the Journal’s war?

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The Spanish-American War was over in 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, but circulation was great while it lasted.  Publishers cashed in, raising the cost of newsboy bundles from 50¢ to 60¢ – the increase temporarily offset by higher sales. Publishers reverted to 50¢ per 100 after the war, with the notable exceptions of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

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Now, newsboys of the era weren’t the ambitious kids of a later age, hustling to make a buck after school.  These were orphans and runaways, with little to count on but themselves.  The half-cent profit on each paper was all each had to get through the day, with some held back to buy more papers.

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Newsboys selling papers by the Brooklyn Bridge, February 23, 1908 H/T UK Guardian

50¢ to 60¢ for the same bundle was an insurmountable increase.   On July 18, 1899, a group of Long Island newsboys overturned a distribution wagon, refusing to sell Hearst of Pulitzer newspapers until prices were returned to 50¢.  Newsboys from Manhattan and Brooklyn joined the strike, the following day.

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Louis Balletti,”Kid Blink”

Boys and men who tried to break the strike were mobbed and beaten, their papers destroyed.

Competing publishers such as the New York Tribune couldn’t get enough of the likes of strike “President” Dave Simmons, the boy “prize-fighter”, Barney “Peanuts”, “Crutch” Morris, and others.

The charismatic, one-eyed strike leader “Kid Blink”, was a favorite:

“Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind”.

The newsboy strike of 1899 lasted two weeks, in which Pulitzer’s New York World plummeted from 360,000 papers a day, to 125,000.  Women and girls had more success as strike breakers than boys and men.  As Kid Blink put it, “A feller can’t soak a lady.”  In the end, it didn’t matter.  Most news readers took the side of the strikers.  Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer ever dropped their price, but both agreed to buy back unsold papers.

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Some worked well after midnight, to sell every paper

The New York newsboys’ strike of 1899 inspired later strikes including Butte, Montana in 1914, and a 1920s strike in Louisville, Kentucky.  In time, changing notions of urban child-welfare led to improvements in the newsboys’ quality of life.  For now, street kids had precious few to look out for them, beyond themselves.

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Brooklyn’s “Racetrack Newsie” “Dutch” Johnson caught cold, in 1905.  The illness soon turned more serious.  He was found unconscious on a pile of catalogs.  Brought to Bellevue Hospital by the East River,  the 16-year-old was informed it was pneumonia.  This was before the age of antibiotics.  There was no hope.

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“It goes”, Dutch said, in a voice so soft as to be barely audible.  “Only I ain’t got no money and I’d like to be put away decent”.

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H/T http://newsieshistory.tumblr.com

Bookmaker “Con” Shannon offered to take up a collection for the burial.  He could’ve easily produced hundreds from bookies and gamblers, but Dutch’s diminutive successor “Boston”, spoke up.  “Naw”, he said “we’re on de job and nobody else”.

So it was that “Gimpy”, “Dusty”, and the other urchins of Sheepshead Bay pitched in with their pennies, their nickels and dimes.  $53.40 bought a plot in the Linden Hill Cemetery, with a little stone marker.  Dutch Johnson would be spared the plain black wagon and the nameless grave, in some anonymous Potter’s Field.

February 20, 1945 Falling on Grenades: the Indestructible Jack Lucas

On one training jump, both parachutes failed.  Somehow, Lucas fell 3,500-feet and sustained only minor injuries. According to his team leader, “Jack was the last one out of the plane and the first one on the ground”.

In the days and weeks following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, enlistment and recruiting offices across the nation were flooded with volunteers. Birmingham Alabama saw 600 men in the first few hours, alone. In Boston, lines snaked out the door as men waited for hours, to volunteer.

But for his age, Jack Lucas would have been right there with them.

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At 5’8″ and a muscular 180-pounds, Jacklyn Harrell “Jack” Lucas was big for his age. On August 8, 1942, Lucas forged his mother’s signature on parental consent papers and claimed to be seventeen, enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. He was fourteen years old.

A year later, a letter to a girlfriend from V Amphibious Corps at Pearl Harbor, revealed his true age of fifteen. Military censors had Lucas removed from his combat unit and nearly sent him home, but Jack was vehement.  He was assigned to driving a truck, but this was a problem.  Being in the “rear with the gear” was not his idea of military service.  Lucas got into so many fights he was court-martialed, sentenced to five months of breaking rocks, given nothing but bread & water.

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Iwo Jima

Lucas was released from the brig in January 1945, when he deserted his post, stowing away on the transport USS Deuel to get closer to the action.  He turned himself in on February 8, volunteering to fight.  Jack turned seventeen on February fourteen.  Six days later, he got his wish.

February 20 was day two of the five-week battle for Iwo Jima, some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific war, in WW2.   Advancing toward a Japanese airstrip under heavy fire, Lucas and three Marines took shelter in a trench, only to realize there were eleven Japanese soldiers, barely feet away. He managed to shoot two when his rifle jammed, looking down as that first grenade, came over the parapet.

Without a moment’s thought, Lucas dove over his fellow Marine and onto the grenade, as another fell by his side.  Let his Medal of Honor citation, pick up the story:

381“Quick to act when the lives of the small group were endangered by two grenades which landed directly in front of them, Private First Class Lucas unhesitatingly hurled himself over his comrades upon one grenade and pulled the other one under him, absorbing the whole blasting force of the explosions in his own body in order to shield his companions from the concussion and murderous flying fragments”.

Only when a second company moved through the area, did someone realize he was still alive.

Six days later, Jack Lucas’ deserter classification was removed from his record.  In time, all seventeen of his military convictions were overturned.  He’d endure twenty-one surgeries and even then, no fewer than two hundred pieces of metal remained in his body, some the size of .22-caliber bullets.

Jack Lucas was ruled unfit for duty and discharged on September 18, 1945.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S Truman, on October 5, at seventeen the youngest recipient of the nation’s highest award for military valor, since the Civil War.

The man had more than earned the name “indestructible”, but wait.  There’s more.

Lucas earned a business degree and returned to military service at age thirty-one, this time with the 82nd Airborne, of the United States Army.  On one training jump, both parachutes failed.  Somehow, Lucas fell 3,500-feet and sustained only minor injuries. According to his team leader, “Jack was the last one out of the plane and the first one on the ground“.

Two weeks later, he was back to jumping out of perfectly good aircraft.

Jacklyn Lucas, older

Lucas was married several times in civil life, including to one woman, who attempted to have him killed.  He later wrote his autobiography with help from writer D.K. Drum, appropriately entitled, “Indestructible”.

 

The USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) is a Wasp-class amphibious assault vessel, commissioned in 2001. When her keel was laid, Jack Lucas placed his Medal of Honor citation inside her hull, where it remains, to this day.

On August 3, 2006, sixteen living Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipients including Jack Lucas were presented the Medal of Honor flag by Commandant of the Marine Corps General Michael Hagee, in front of over a thousand family, friends, and fellow Marines. Lucas commented, “To have these young men here in our presence — it just rejuvenates this old heart of mine. I love the Corps even more knowing that my country is defended by such fine young people.”

Jacklyn Lucas

The Indestructible Jacklyn Lucas died of Leukemia on June 5, 2008.  He was eighty years old.  On September 18, 2016, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced plans to build a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. DDG-125 is expected to be commissioned in 2023, to be named in his honor, the USS Jack H. Lucas.

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Artist’s depiction, USS Jack H Lucas
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

February 19, 1807 Burning Ambition

Behind the scenes, the vice president secretly corresponded with the British and Spanish Ministers to the United States, offering in the first case to detach Louisiana from the Union and in the second, to orchestrate an overthrow, of Mexico.  He himself would do nicely to found the new dynasty, thank you very much, for asking.

What would it be like to turn on CNN or Fox News, to learn that Former Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew had been party to a duel, and he was near death after being shot by Vice President Mike Pence.

The year was 1804.  President Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President Aaron Burr, had a long standing grudge against Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington.

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Aaron Burr

The animosity between the two went back to the Senate election of 1791, and escalated during one of the ugliest election seasons in American history.  It’s been called the “Revolution of 1800”, the election pitting Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson, against one-term incumbent John Adams, of the Federalist party.

Both sides were convinced beyond doubt, that the other side would destroy the young nation. Federalists attacked Jefferson as an un-Christian deist, a populist whose sympathies with the French Revolution would bring about a similar cataclysm in the young American Republic. Democratic-Republicans criticized the alien and sedition acts, and the deficit spending the Adams administration employed to support Federal policy.

At the time, electors cast two votes, the first and second vote-getters becoming President and Vice President.

“The father of modern political campaigning”, Aaron Burr had long since enlisted help from New York’s Tammany Hall, transforming what was then a social club into a political machine.  The election was a decisive victory for the Democratic-Republicans.  Not so much for the candidates themselves.

The electoral vote tied at 73 between Jefferson and Burr, moving the selection to the House of Representatives. Hamilton exerted influence on behalf of Jefferson, who was elected on the 36th ballot.  Aaron Burr was relegated to the vice-Presidency.

John Nance Garner served as 32nd vice president between 1931 – ’41. With precisely zero influence over Presidential authority, Garner described the position as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”.  The sentiment is cleaned up and commonly retold as, “warm spit”.

A man with the towering ambition of Aaron Burr could certainly relate.  Behind the scenes, the vice president secretly corresponded with the British and Spanish Ministers to the United States, offering in the first case to detach Louisiana from the Union and in the second, to orchestrate an overthrow, of Mexico.  He himself would do nicely to found the new dynasty.  Thank you very much, for asking.

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Justice Samuel Chase

We’re accustomed today to the idea of “Judicial Review”, the idea that Supreme Court decisions are final and inviolate, but that wasn’t always the case. The landmark Marbury v Madison decision established the principle in 1803, a usurpation of power so egregious to Democratic-Republicans, as to bring about the impeachment of Associate Justice Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

As VP, Burr presided over Chase’ impeachment.  It was the high point of the only term he would ever serve.

Relations were toxic between Jefferson and Burr.  The VP knew he wouldn’t be around for the 1804 re-election campaign, so he ran for Governor of New York, losing in a landslide to a virtual unknown, Morgan Lewis.

It was a humiliating defeat.  Burr blamed Alexander Hamilton over comments made during the election, and challenged him to a duel.  Dueling was illegal at this time but enforcement was lax in New Jersey. The pair rowed across the Hudson River with their “seconds”, meeting at the waterfront town of Weehawken. It was July 11, 1804. Hamilton “threw away” his shot, firing into the air. Aaron Burr shot to kill.

missedinhistory-podcasts-wp-content-uploads-sites-99-2015-07-hamilton-burr-660x357Murder charges were filed in both New York and New Jersey, but neither went to trial.

Aaron Burr went on to preside over Justice Chase’ impeachment, the high point of a career otherwise ended, the day he met Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken.

Burr headed for New Orleans where he got mixed up with one General James Wilkinson, one of the sleazier characters of the founding generation. At that time, Wilkinson was a paid agent for Spanish King Charles IV. 100 years later Theodore Roosevelt would say of Wilkinson, “In all our history, there is no more despicable character.”

Wilkinson took his payments in silver dollars, hidden in rum, sugar and coffee casks. All those clinking coins nearly undid him, when a messenger was caught and killed with 3,000 of them. The messenger’s five murderers were themselves Spaniards, who testified at trial the money belonged to the spy, James Wilkinson. Payment for services rendered to their King. Wilkinson’s luck held, as the killers spoke no English. Thomas Power, interpreter for the Magistrate, was another Spanish spy. He threw those guys so far under the bus, they’d never get out: ‘They just say they’re wicked murderers motivated by greed.’

The nature of Burr’s discussions with Wilkinson is unclear but, in 1806, Burr led a group of armed colonists toward New Orleans, with the apparent intention of snatching the territory and turning the place into an independent Republic. It’s probably safe to assume that Aaron Burr saw himself at the head of such a Republic.

Seeing no future in it and wanting to save his own skin, General Wilkinson turned on his former ally, sending dispatches to Washington accusing the former Vice President of treason. Burr was tracked down in Alabama on February 19, 1807, arrested for treason and sent to Richmond, Virginia, for trial.

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The size and shape of the “Burr Conspiracy” remain unclear, to this day.  Historians claim the Vice President intended to take parts of Texas and the Louisiana Purchase, forming his own independent Republic. Others claim he intended to conquer Mexico,  That Aaron Burr had a following among prominent politicians and soldiers is beyond question, but estimates of their numbers range from forty, to over seven-thousand.

Burr himself claims only to have wanted the 40,000 acres in the Texas Territory, deeded him by the Spanish crown.  On this there is no uncertainty.  The lease still exists.

Burr was acquitted on September 1, on grounds he had not committed an “overt act” as specified in the Constitution. He was not guilty in the eyes of the law, but the court of public opinion would forever regard him as traitor. Aaron Burr spent the next several years in Europe before returning to New York, and resuming his law practice.

The Vice President who killed the man on our $10 bill, died in obscurity on September 14, 1836, at the age of 80.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 18, 1817 The Awful Tragedy, of Friends at War

Three years came and went before the old friends once again faced each other, this time across the field of battle.   Gettysburg.

Armistead is a prominent name in Virginia.  The family goes back to colonial days.  Five Armistead brothers fought in the war of 1812. Major George Armistead commanded Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner.

Major Armistead became an uncle this day in 1817, to Lewis Addison Armistead, the first of eight children born to General Walker Keith and Elizabeth Stanley Armistead.

“Lothario” or “Lo” to his friends, Armistead followed the family footsteps, attending the Military Academy at West Point.  He never graduated.  Some say he had to resign after breaking a plate over the head of fellow cadet and future Confederate General, Jubal Early.  Others say it was due to academic difficulties, particularly French class.

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Lewis Addison Armistead

Be that as it may, Armistead’s influential father gained him a 2nd Lieutenant’s commission awarded in 1839, about the time his former classmates, received theirs.

Armistead’s field combat experience reads like a time-line of the age:  cited three times for heroism in the Mexican-American War, wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, going on to serve in the Mohave War and the Battle of the Colorado River.

Stellar though his military career was, the man’s personal life was a series of disasters.  Armistead survived two wives and two daughters, only to lose the family farm in a fire.  All while fighting a severe case of Erysipelas, a painful and debilitating Streptococcal skin infection known in the Middle Ages as “St. Anthony’s Fire”.

The act of conjugating the “Be” verb changed after the Civil War.  Before, it was the United States “are”.  Afterward, it became the United States “is”, and not for no reason.  This was a time when Patriotic Americans felt every bit the attachment to states, as to the nation itself.

Though often plagued with doubt, fellow Americans took sides on the eve of the Civil War.  Even brothers.   Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Armistead wanted no part of secession, but followed his state when the break became inevitable.

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Winfield Scott Hancock

Pennsylvania native Winfield Scott Hancock went the other direction, staying with the Union.  Years later, “Hancock the Superb” would be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, narrowly losing to Republican James A. Garfield.

At a time of rampant political corruption, Hancock was noted for personal integrity.  Though himself a Republican, President Rutherford B. Hayes spoke in terms of admiration:

“[I]f…we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.”

Neither Armistead nor Hancock were politicians, nor the sort of hotheads responsible for starting the war.  These were professional soldiers, serving together and developing a close personal friendship, as early as 1844.  On final parting on the eve of Civil War, Armistead made Hancock the gift of a new Major’s uniform.

Three years came and went before the old friends once again faced each other, this time across the field of battle.   Gettysburg.

Robert E. Lee intended to break the Federal will to fight at Gettysburg, before moving on to threaten the Union capital, in Washington DC.  ‘Marse Robert” attacked his adversary’s right on that first day, looking for a soft spot in the line. On day two, he went after the left.  On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, Lee came straight up the middle.

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A Union perspective, from Cemetery ridge

Armistead and Hancock looked out across the same field as gray and butternut soldiers formed up along seminary ridge.  The action began with the largest bombardment in the history of the western hemisphere, the mighty crash of 170 guns spread over a two-mile front.  The attack lasted for an hour, most shells flying harmlessly over the Union line and exploding, in the rear.  One shell disturbed the lunchtime mess of that “damn old goggle-eyed snapping turtle” George Gordon Meade, cutting one orderly in half and sending much of the senior staff, diving for cover.

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The eighty guns of the Union line responded at first, before going silent, one by one.  In the smoke and confusion, it was easy to believe they were put out of action, but no.  These would be held, until the final assault.

The action has gone into history as “Pickett’s Charge”, though that’s a misnomer.  Major General George Pickett commanded only one of  three Divisions taking part in the assault, under Corps Commander Lieutenant General James Longstreet.

The pace was almost leisurely as Pickett’s, Trimble’s and Pettigrew’s gray and butternut soldiers stepped out of the forest, and over the stone wall.  Twelve to fifteen thousand men crossing abreast, bayonets glinting in the sun, banners rippling in the breeze.  One Yankee soldier described the scene as “an ocean of men sweeping upon us.”

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You can’t escape the sense of history, if you’ve ever crossed that field. Stepping off Seminary Ridge with nearly a mile to go, you are awe struck by the mental image of thousands of blue clad soldiers, awaiting your advance.  First come the shells, exploding and tearing jagged holes, where men used to be.  Halfway across and just coming into small arms range, you can’t help a sense of relief as you step across a low spot and your objective, the “copse of trees”, drops out of sight.  If you can’t see them they can’t shoot at you.  Then you look to your right and realize that cannon would be firing down the length of your lines from Little Round Top, as would those on Cemetery Hill, to your left.

Rising out of the draw you are now in full sight of Union infantry.  You hear the tearing fabric sound of rifle fire, exploding across the stone wall ahead.  Cannon have converted to canister by now, thousands of projectiles transforming federal artillery into giant shotguns.  You quicken your pace as your lines are torn apart from the front and sides. Fences hold in some spots along the Emmitsburg Road.  Hundreds of your comrades are bunched up in the attempt to climb over, mowed down where they stand.

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Canister shot, Gettysburg

Finally you are over, closing at a dead run.  Seeing his colors cut down, Armistead put his hat atop his sword, holding it high and bellowing above the roar of the guns “Come on, boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me!”

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Eight months before, Federal troops were cut down like grass in that frozen December, attacking the Rebel-held stone wall at Fredericksburg.  So numerous were the multitudes of dying and maimed as to inspire the Angel of Marye’s Heights, one of the great acts of mercy, in the history of war.

Now on this hot July day, came the payback.  All along the Union line, the chant arose to a roar, resounding above the din of battle:  “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”

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Alonzo Cushing

The savagery of that desperate struggle, can only be imagined.  With a shell fragment entering his shoulder and exiting his back and holding his own intestines with a free hand, Brevet Major Alonzo Cushing directed battery fire into the face of the oncoming adversary, until the bullet entered his mouth and exited the back of his skull.

150 years later, the 22-year-old received the Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded by President Barack Obama.

The “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” marks the point between the corner of a stone wall and that copse of trees, the farthest the shattered remnants of Longstreet’s assault would ever get.  Lewis Armistead made it over that wall before being shot down, falling beside the wheels of a Union cannon.

One day, the nation would reunite.  The two old friends, never did.  As Armistead sat bleeding in the grass, he was approached by Major Henry Bingham, of Hancock’s staff.  Hancock was himself wounded by this time, the bullet striking his saddle pommel and entering his thigh, along with shards of wood and a bent saddle nail.

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Armistead was grieved at hearing the news.  Bingham received the General’s personal effects, with instructions they be brought to his old friend. To Almira (“Allie”) Hancock, the General’s wife, Armistead gave a wrapped bible and his personal prayer book, bearing the inscription ”Trust In God And Fear Nothing”.

There are those who debate the meaning of Lewis Armistead’s last message, though the words seem clear enough: “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.”

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From the film, Gettysburg’

Feature image, top of page:  “The Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial is on the south side of Gettysburg in the National Cemetery Annex off Taneytown Road at the intersection with Steinwehr Avenue. (39.8210° N, 77.23177° W)” H/T Gettysburg.stonesentinels.com

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.