Sunday, December 23, 2012

When celebrating Christmas was illegal in America ...

The History Insider offered this item before Christmas a year ago, but thought it worth mentioning again for those who missed it or those find it interesting enough to want to be reminded.

Were America’s early English settlements home to widespread mirth and joy during the Christmas season? Did many of America’s English settlers – especially the most pious groups, such as the Puritans -- have a strong affinity to Christmas celebrations and what they represent? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. In fact, some of those first people to successfully settle in the New England had a strong aversion to Christmas celebrations, notes historian Stephen Nissenbaum in his book The Battle for Christmas.

“In New England, for the first two centuries of white settlement most people did not celebrate Christmas,” writes Nissenbaum. “In fact, the holiday was systematically suppressed by Puritans during the colonial period and largely ignored by their descendants. … It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681 (the fine was five shillings) …Puritans were fond of saying that if God had intended for the anniversary of the Nativity to be observed, He would surely have given some indication as to when that anniversary occurred.” Indeed, many scholars report that there is no biblical reference to December 25 as the date of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Nissenbaum also notes, among other interesting details, that Puritans had other reasons for opposing Christmas celebrations, too, based largely on what they had witnessed of those events – “… rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes.”

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Russian diplomats ... and American bread

Arkady N. Shevchenko – who in 1978 became the highest ranking official of the Soviet Union to defect to the United States – traveled to New York from Russia for the first time in 1958, on a three-month assignment as part of a Soviet delegation to the United Nations General Assembly.

In his 1985 book Breaking with Moscow, Shevchenko wrote of meals he took as he lived with his countrymen in a compound owned by his government in this first visit:  

“The cook was from Russia, but the food didn’t taste Russian – milk and eggs, among other foods, had different flavors. But it was the bread that gave us our biggest shock:  packaged white bread from a supermarket had the flavor and texture of glue. We couldn’t get over the idea that Americans really bought it and seemed to like it. If the bread was disappointing, however, there was nothing better than Coca-Cola; we drank it by the gallon during the warm autumn days.”

By the time Shervchenko defected 20 years after this initial visit to America, he had risen through the Soviet and United Nations systems to become the U. N.’s Undersecretary General, the No. 2 person in that body, behind only the Secretary General.

Shevchenko died at 67 in Maryland in 1998. He is buried in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis & Clark fame ... shot in the butt

Through its unprecedented exploration of what is today northwestern America from 1804 to 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition lost only one man (due apparently to appendicitis, very early on the journey) of the 30-plus men, one woman, and an infant who traveled more than 7,000 miles (from St. Louis to the Pacific and back) over vast, undeveloped and uncharted territories occupied by unfamiliar Indian tribes.  But the expedition came close to losing one of its leaders – Meriwether Lewis – when he was shot in the butt by one of his men in what seems to have been a hunting accident.

The incident occurred on the return journey, just off the Missouri River in what is today northwestern North Dakota. Lewis and the expedition’s other leader, William Clark, had split up, each taking a part of their men on different paths so that even more of the lands recently brought into the country through the Louisiana Purchase could be explored. On August 11, 1806, as Lewis and his group traveled down the Missouri, they stopped to go onshore and hunt for elk they had seen.  Lewis took one of his men, a Private Cruzatte, for the effort. The men became separated, and as Lewis raised his rifle to his shoulder for a shot, he himself was hit by a rifle bullet that entered his left butt cheek “an inch below his hip joint” and exited through his right butt cheek, “leaving a three-inch gash the width of the ball,” wrote Stephen E. Ambrose in his 1996 book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

Lewis called out to Cruzatte, but got no answer. Fearing an Indian attack, the severely wounded Lewis somehow made his way back to his other men on the river. He tried to lead them back to site of the shooting to save Cruzatte, but his injury became too painful and debilitating, so he told his men to leave him behind. Lewis struggled back to the boats on the river and armed himself, later writing that he “determined to sell my life as deerly as possible.” After about 20 minutes, the men returned with Cruzatte, who seemed oblivious to what had happened, and said he had not heard Lewis call out to him after he had been shot. Cruzatte denied being the culprit. But the bullet, which had lodged in Lewis’s leather breeches, was from the same type of late-model U.S. Army rifle carried by Cruzatte, which was not a weapon likely to be in the hands of a hostile Indian.

Lewis himself was the closest thing to a doctor on the expedition, although he had little training in the field – only a two-week tutelage under one of America’s leading medical experts, Dr. Benjamin Rush, as in preparation for the expedition. So Lewis dressed his wound himself, placing roles of lint into the holes in his butt. He was forced to lie on his stomach and the boats continued down the river. The pain became so great that he couldn’t be moved, so he spent the night, after the group made camp on the shore of the river, on his stomach in one of the boats. He became feverish, but the application of a poultice of Peruvian bark, seemed to control that, but not the pain.  

Lewis’ group rejoined Clark’s group the next day. Lewis was still on his belly, and fainted with pain when Clark changed the dressings on the wounds. Over the next days, the wounds appeared to be healing, but still Lewis couldn’t walk.  Improvement was again noted on August 22, when Clark wrote that Lewis “walked a little to day for the first time. I have discontinued the [lint] in the hole the ball came out.”  And the next day, Clark wrote that Lewis “is recovering fast the hole in his thy where the Ball passed out is Closed and appears to be nearly well. The one where the ball entered discharges very well.”
There were setbacks in Lewis’ recovery, though. Clark reported a few days later that Lewis“hurt himself very much by takeing a longer walk ... than he had Strength to undergo, which Caused him to remain very unwell all night.” The next morning, Clark wrote that Lewis“had a bad nights rest and is not very well this morning.” But by the time the expedition returned to St. Louis about a month later, in late September 1806, Lewis seems to have fully recovered.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

George Washington ... "Cards & other Play"

As a general, George Washington forbade gambling among his men, calling it “the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity and the father of mischief.” But in his private life, before being appointed head of the Continental Army, he enjoyed betting on “Cards & other Play” – the title he gave to a page of the extensive records he kept, in his own handwriting, of all types of financial transactions he made during his life.  Those entries in his so-called Ledger B note how much he won, how much he lost, and where he played from 1772 to early 1775.

During those years, he recorded playing 64 times, coming out ahead – financially speaking – 28 times and behind 36 times.  His biggest one-day (or perhaps one-night) losses were 6.5 pounds on two dates, March 28, 1772 and April 6, 1772, when he played at Williamsburg, Virginia. The most he earned came on October 7, when he played at Annapolis, Virginia and earned a whopping 13.7 pounds.

During this period, before the American Revolution, Washington was a well-known Virginia planter and landowner, apparently enjoying the good life. He represented Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Burgesses, which met in Williamsburg. As the Burgesses took steps toward criticizing the British Crown, Virginia’s Royal Governor dissolved the organization in 1774. In response to this and other grievances, American patriots held their First Continental Congress, which met in September and October of 1774. Washington was one of the representatives from Virginia, and recorded “Cards & other Play” items in his ledger only twice after that point, and never after he was appointed commander of the patriots’ Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress in 1775. But it's hard to believe that he gave it up for good!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

President Truman ... backing his daughter's singing abilities

Margaret Truman
(undated photo)
Margaret Truman, an aspiring singer and daughter of President Harry S. Truman, was 26 when she performed at Washington’s Constitution Hall before 3,500 people in December 1950. But her efforts were panned by Washington Post critic Paul Hume, who wrote that she had “a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality … cannot sing very well … is flat a good deal of the time … has not improved in the years that we have heard her … [and] still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.”

Hume’s review incensed President Truman, and he let Hume know about his anger in a letter written the same day. In part, it said that  “I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert … It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man [Hume was 34] who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock … it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and a least four of your ulcers are at work. Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below! Pegler [Westbrook Pegler was a columnist disliked by President Truman], a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope that you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.”

The letter itself was sold by Hume in 1951, and has remained in private hands since, according to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.  Today, the letter is reportedly among the collections of the private Harlan Crow Library in Dallas.

Margaret Truman, while finding little success as a singer, became an accomplished radio and television host. She also authored an acclaimed biography of her father, a personal biography of her mother, and nonfiction works about previous presidents and families who lived in the White House. She also wrote numerous works of fiction, primarily murder mysteries set in the Washington area, remaining active into her 80s.

Margaret married Clifton Daniel, a New York Times reporter and later managing editor of that paper, in 1956. They had four children – all boys.  Margaret was 83 when she died in 2008.  


Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Lewis & Clark air gun ... and a dangerous demonstration

As Meriwether Lewis prepared for his early 19th century trip with William Clark to explore what is today is the American Northwest, he bought an air gun – a rifle that used compressed air, stored in its stock, to shoot a large, .46 caliber lead ball about as well as any other gun of the day. Each air gun held about 22 of these balls in a magazine attached to the gun, which could be much more rapidly fired (the entire magazine in about a minute) than any muzzle-loader. The downside is that it took about 1,500 strokes of a small air pump, similar to today’s bicycle pump, to fully pressurize the gun at 600 to 800 pounds per square inch. Also, the effectiveness of the gun dropped as pressure was lost with each shot.

The Girandoni air gun.
(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Lewis enjoyed demonstrating the gun, and one of the first entries in his account of the expedition mentions an incident that could have been an ominous beginning for the trip. After Lewis demonstrated the gun to some “gentlemen” on August 30, 1830, he allowed them to inspect it. It discharged, with the ball from it striking a woman bystander, as told in Lewis’ own words (and with his own punctuation and spelling):

“Left Pittsburgh this day at 11ock with a party of 11 hands 7 of which are soldiers, a pilot and three young men on trial they having proposed to go with me throughout the voyage.  Arrived at Bruno's Island 3 miles below halted a few minutes.   went on shore and being invited on by some of the gentlemen present to try my airgun which I had purchased brought it on shore charged it and fired myself seven times fifty five yards with pretty good success; after which a Mr. Blaze Cenas being unacquainted with the management of the gun suffered her [referring to the gun] to discharge herself [again, referring to the gun] accedentaly  the ball passed through the hat of a woman about 40 yards distanc cuting her temple about the fourth of the diameter of the ball; shee fell instantly and the blood gusing from her temple  we were all in the greatest consternation  supposed she was dead by [but] in a minute she revived to our enespressable satisfaction, and by examination we found the wound by no means mortal or even dangerous; …”  

During the rest of the expedition to the West Coast, when Lewis and Clark encountered new groups of Indians, they reported demonstrating the rapid fire of the air gun. Many people who have studied the Lewis and Clark expedition believe that these demonstrations of firepower suggested that the expedition was more formidable that it was, helping ensure its continued well-being as it traveled through lands occupied only by Indians.

Based on a written description of the gun by a “gentleman” who saw it demonstrated by Lewis a few days after the unfortunate shooting of the bystander described by Lewis above, it was almost certainly a design developed earlier by G.C. Girandoni in Europe, and adopted for use in the Austrian army from the late 1700s until the early 1800s.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

An escaped German P.O.W. ... finding a new life in America

Relatively few of the hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war held in the U.S. during World War II escaped from their prison camps. Most of them were easily captured when they couldn’t blend into American society very well. By the end of the war, when those prisoners were sent back to Germany, only 12 remained at large. And by the 1960s, all but one – a man named Georg Gaertner – hadn’t been accounted for.

Georg Gaertner, also known
as Dennis Whiles, in 2009

As the war neared its end, Gaertner learned that his home town in Germany had been taken by the Russian army. Russian revenge against the German population in such towns was brutal, and most are now part of Poland. To avoid being sent back there and face Russian wrath, Gaertner decided to try to remain in America. On September 21, 1945, he escaped from a prison camp in New Mexico and hopped onto a freight train that took him to California.

Gaertner could speak English and had served as a prison translator, and that skill would serve him well. He took a series of odd jobs, working as a dishwasher and farm laborer and keeping a low profile as he moved from town to town to avoid attention. As he improved his English-language skills, he also learned how to fit into American life. He carried a Social Security card under the name of Dennis Whiles, married an American woman with two kids in the 1960s, and took on higher-paying jobs in construction and sales, and even as a ski instructor and tennis instructor. In the early 1980s, Gaertner’s wife – whom knew nothing of his past – became suspicious when he refused good job opportunities that would have required background checks. When she threatened to leave him, he told her the truth and decided to come clean.

Gaertner knew that he had been mentioned in a book titled Nazi Prisoners of War in America, so in November 1983 he called the author – Texas A&M University professor Arnold Krammer.

"The caller identified himself as Dennis Whiles and commented that he had enjoyed reading my book," Krammer was quoted in a 1985 Houston Chronicle article. "He also said that it was very accurate, admitting that he had once been a German prisoner of war." The men spoke for a long time, and eventually Gaertner told Krammer who he really is.
Krammer and Gaertner collaborated to write another book, titled Hitler's Last Soldier in America, published in 1985. Gaertner reportedly obtained U.S. citizenship in 1989 and lives today in Colorado.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Jefferson ... on the "degeneracy of the human body"

Today’s Americans are continually bombarded with messages urging them to get more exercise, but even centuries ago, America’s Thomas Jefferson thought that the domestication of the horse was to blame for reducing the health of the European-Americans who rode them most often and regularly.  He questioned whether the advantages of riding were greatly outweighed, over the long run, by the disadvantages brought through a reduction in the amount of exercise his countrymen enjoyed.

His thoughts were put on paper in an August 19, 1785 letter to his 15-year-old nephew, Joseph Carr. Jefferson wrote: “The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses.”

Several of Jefferson’s letters include his extensive thoughts on the value of exercise – and walking in particular – are provided on the website for Monticello, his home in Virginia.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Washington's teeth ... not for the squeamish

One of several sets of Washington's false teeth
Despite his efforts to take care of his teeth throughout his life, George Washington had only a single remaining natural tooth by the time he was inaugurated as U.S. president in 1798, according to several of his biographers. By that time, he also had his first set of full dentures, made by dentist John Greenwood, who had previously also supplied him with partial dentures that hooked to his natural teeth. All of these various sets of false teeth were made primarily of a base carved from hippopotamus ivory, into which human or cow teeth were attached. Small screws and springs were also part of these state-of-the-art 18th century dentures.

Washington’s apparently ongoing, painful problems with his teeth and these dental contraptions over many years – issues that thankfully do not confront so many Americans today – are noted in several letters he wrote. For example, at least as early as May 1781 he wrote to another dentist, John Baker, seeking his help: 

Sir, A day or two ago I requested Col. Harrison to apply to you for a pair of Pincers to fasten the wire of my teeth.  I hope you furnished him with them. I now wish you would send me one of your scrapers as my teeth stand in need of cleaning, and I have little prospect of being in Philadelph. soon.It will come very safe by the Post & in return, the money shall be sent so soon as I know the cost of it. I am Sir Yr Very Hble Serv.  G. Washington

In another letter, to the dentist Greenwood and dated February 20, 1795, Washington offers his thanks for a new set  (his first complete set?) of false teeth and writes that he is enclosing $60 in payment:

Washington, with dentures seemingly in place,
in portrait by Gilbert Stuart
Sir, Your last letter, with its accompaniment, came safe to my hands on tuesday last. Enclosed you will receive sixty dollars in Bank notes of the United States. In addition to which, I pray you to accept my thanks for the ready attention which you have at all times, paid to my requests, and that you will believe me to be, with esteem, Sir … Your very Hble Serv. G. Washington

The $60 cost of those dentures was quite a sum in the late 18th century. In today’s dollars, that amount would be roughly equivalent to $1,090.

Portraits of Washington as an older man are notable for the puffy, slightly distorted appearance of his cheeks and lips, which many historians have attributed to his false teeth. But you have to wonder if … or why … he would have kept them inside his closed mouth, which couldn’t have been comfortable, for the many hours that he stood or sat still for a portrait. Was it that his lips and cheeks would have looked even worse if he not worn his dentures in place of his nonexistent natural teeth?


Saturday, September 15, 2012

President Hoover ... authorizing a break-in

As the Great Depression continued in the early 1930s, U.S. President Herbert Hoover faced growing criticism, and that bothered him greatly – so much that he went to great, and illegal, attempts to stem it, writes Christopher Andrew in his 1996 book For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush.

It seems that Lawrence Richey, Hoover’s personal assistant who previously worked closely with the Secret Service, ensured that people on the president’s enemies list were kept under surveillance as needed. And possibly as a result of that effort, Hoover received a report indicating that New York Democrats had collected some type of information – its nature unknown – that would damage him politically.

Hoover turned to a former aide, Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss, to find out more. Strauss approached U.S. Navy intelligence officer Glenn Howell, who wrote in his log, according to Andrew’s book: “Strauss told me that the President is anxious to know what the contents of the mysterious documents are, and Strauss is authorized by the President to use the services of any one of our various government secret services.”

When Howell and another man broke into the office in which the damaging information was said to be held, they found it vacant.  So then they identified and followed the former tenant, a Democratic operative named James J. O’Brien.

“We shadowed him for a bit and then came to the conclusion that no President of the United States need be afraid of a ham-and-egger [someone not possessing any particularly striking qualities] like O’Brien,” Howell later wrote. He added that after reporting their findings, they received word to end the operation.
The incident remained secret for many years, but became public after Rutgers University history professor Jeffrey M. Dorwart discovered evidence of it in the early 1980s.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The 3 a.m. president ... not whom you might think

Most of us who've worked in large organizations, whether public or private, know that the process for making big decisions can be surprising. No matter how many formal procedures are established, decision-making often comes down to the whims of people on whom the final choice depends. And the White House is no exception.

In his 1997 book Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter: Five Presidents and Other Political Adventures, former presidential speechwriter James C. Humes, who served in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations, offered some interesting insight into this phenomenon:

“Sometimes – even if the general details of a legislative message have been hammered out – unagreed matters remain because of fights between competing departments. As the various drafts of the proposed message are relayed to various cabinet heads for approval, one cabinet secretary knocks out one work or item and his rival puts it back in. A change goes in – then it’s taken out.  … The hours pass from late night into the wee hours of the next day, when the president is scheduled to deliver the message. Finally, the department heads to go bed and final decision is left to the (speech)writer – hence the 3 a.m. president," Humes wrote.

“I remember one message on mass transit by President Nixon. The bone of contention was funding” from either the gasoline tax or general revenues, he wrote. “I had to decide. I chose general revenues. Strangely, my decision drew no backlash. Everyone assumed the president had made the decision.”

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Roosevelt ... the target of a hapless U.S. Navy ship

Security might have been tight when U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt traveled secretly across the Atlantic on an American battleship as the first part of a journey to meet with Britain’s Winston Churchill and Russia’s Joseph Stalin in Tehran, Iran for a discussion of the war in late 1943 – but that mattered little when another American warship providing “protection” sent a live torpedo toward the ship carrying Roosevelt.
The story, relayed through a few newspaper accounts and a 1994 article by naval historian Kit Bonner in The Retired Officer Magazine, reproduced on the USS Iowa Veteran's Association website, goes something like this: Roosevelt was aboard the USS Iowa, which was accompanied by three smaller warships for the voyage in November 1943. After the convoy passed Bermuda, weather balloons were launched from the Iowa for a demonstration of the big ship’s anti-aircraft guns. Some of the balloons drifted into the area of the destroyer USS William D. Porter, one of the escort ships. The Porter’s captain – Lt. Commander Wilfred Walter – sent his crew to battle stations to join in the anti-aircraft gun show for Roosevelt. Walter also decided, although it’s not clear from published accounts if this was a planned part of the demo or not, to simulate a torpedo attack against the Iowa.
The torpedoes were supposed to be disarmed before firing, but one was not – and it quickly made its way toward the Iowa and Roosevelt, much to the horror of Walter and his officers and crew. After a few frantic attempts to contact the Iowa through signaling, the Porter broke the radio silence that had been in force for the voyage and informed the Iowa of the mistake. The Iowa turned in time to avoid the torpedo, which exploded behind the ship, after hitting its wake.
Fearing an assassination attempt on Roosevelt, the Iowa trained its guns on the Porter, but backed down after Walter told of the mistake. But Walter and his entire crew were ordered back to Bermuda with their ship. Ultimately, a crewman was found guilty in a court martial and sentenced to 14 years of hard labor for his mistake and attempt to destroy evidence, but Roosevelt overrode that punishment. Walter and at least some of his officers reportedly found themselves in dead-end Navy positions after the incident, too.

Unfortunately, the Porter seemed to be jinxed, finding itself on the wrong end of this and other mishaps throughout the war, as Bonner noted in the article referenced above. The ship met its end in an unusual way, too, in June 1945. A Japanese kamikaze, or suicide, plane carrying a large bomb failed to hit the Porter, but crashed alongside, without its payload exploding on impact. The plane slowly sunk under the water, where its huge bomb finally exploded, ripping apart the Porter’s hull under its waterline. The ship sank within hours.



Saturday, August 25, 2012

Amelia Earhart ... a reluctant bride

Six years before aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator mysteriously disappeared over the South Pacific while attempting to fly a plane around the world in 1937, she married publisher and publicist George Putnam after he asked for the sixth time – but not before making it clear that she would in no way be a lesser partner in the union. On their wedding day, she gave Putnam a note that he made public after her disappearance, calling it “brutal in its frankness but beautiful in its honesty.” An objective reader might also wonder why Earhart went through with the wedding, based on her words.

Putnam’s typed version of the letter, dated February 7, 1931, is part of Purdue University’s George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart papers. It is addressed to “GPP” and signed “A.E.”:

“There are some things which should be writ before we are married – things we have talked over before – most of them.
You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me. I feel the move just now as foolish as anything I could do. I know there may be compensations, but have no heart to look ahead.
On our life together I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. If we can be honest I think the differences which arise may best be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else.
Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.
I must exact a cruel promise and this is that you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.
I will try to do my best in every way and give you that part of me you know and seem to want.”

The couple must have found that level of happiness, because their union was still in place when Amelia’s plane disappeared long after the ceremony.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Washington ... turning from politics to alcohol

When George Washington’s second term as president ended in early 1797, his attention turned in large measure to a new endeavor – making whiskey. The idea came from his farm manager James Anderson, who had previous distillery experience in his native Scotland and Virginia. Anderson pointed out to Washington that a distillery would be a big success, taking advantage of his grist mill, a good supply of running water, and crops grown on Washington’s Mount Vernon lands, according to information from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DSCUS).

Initially, Washington had his reservations about the proposal, writing that “idlers (of which, and bad people there are many around it) under pretence of coming there with grist could not be restrained from visiting the Distillery, nor probably from tempting the Distiller, nay more robbing the Still; as the Mill would always afford a pretext for coming to that place.” But soon he came around, and authorized Anderson to establish the distillery at the Mount Vernon estate’s grist mill.

The initial distillery operation, overseen daily by Anderson’s son, with the help of a hired assistant and six slaves, became successful quickly. By early 1798, a new, stone distillery building was completed, housing five stills with a total capacity of 616 gallons – a much bigger operation that the typical distillery of the time, which had only one or two stills, according to the DSCUS.  In addition, Washington’s distillery building – measuring 75 by 30 feet – was the largest distillery in the country at the time.

Whiskey production reached nearly 11,000 gallons in 1799, valued at about $7,500 then (in the neighborhood of $100,000 in today’s dollars). The recipe called for 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 5 percent malted barley. Because it wasn’t aged, the whiskey was clear – looking similar to moonshine. But Washington’s operation was legal, and he paid federal taxes on his stills.

After Washington died in 1799, his will left the distillery to a relative, who leased the operation to others. Production appears to have declined over the years, ending by 1815.

More recently, archeologists began exploring the site in 1997. The effort received a substantial boost in 2001, when the DSCUS supported the project with a $2.1 million grant that also allowed reconstruction of the distillery. The reconstructed, working distillery opened to the public in 2007.

And yes, you can buy whiskey produced by the distillery when limited amounts are produced today. It was last available in April 2012, when 600 bottles (375 milliliters each) were offered at $95 each. And you could only buy it by visiting Mount Vernon’s gift shop or the nearby gristmill and distillery.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

John Adams ... "His Rotundity"

After George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States, Congress – especially the Senate – witnessed heated debate on how he should be addressed.  Vice President John Adams, with a reputation for at least a bit of vanity in his personal view of life, argued fervently for a grand title befitting his view of the great dignity of the office and the respect that it should receive.  He and a few others suggested titles including the terms “His Majesty” and “His Excellency” in one form or another.  And a committee appointed to resolve the issue seemed to agree, recommending “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of Rights of the Same.”

But others in Congress, such as Virginia Representative and future president James Madison, thought a less pretentious title would be better for the country. And soon, Adams’ unyielding support for an imposing, majestic title soon made him something of a joke on the issue, even among his friends.  One senator, Ralph Izard of South Carolina, suggested that the rather short, heavy-set Adams be himself called “His Rotundity,” and the joke spread throughout the chamber.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives also had fun at Adams’ expense. In his 2001 biography entitled John Adams, author David McCullough wrote that Representatives John Page of Virginia and Thomas Tucker of South Carolina amused themselves with humorous notes to each other during the too-long debates on the issue.  Speaking of Adams, Tucker wrote to Page, “In gravity clad, He has nought in his head, But visions of Nobels and Kings.” Responded Page: “I’ll tell in a trice –, ‘Tis old Daddy Vice, Who carries of pride as ass-load; Who turns up his nose, Wherever he goes, With vanity swelled like a toad.”

Despite his considerable prominence even among those who laughed at his personality quirks, Adams lost this battle. Both the House and the Senate voted to address Washington and future presidents as "The President of the United States."  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The General who dissed Lincoln ...

As the Civil War began, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln struggled to find a competent general to lead Union forces against those of the Confederacy. His first choice was Robert E. Lee – an option that evaporated when Lee declared his allegiance to his native Virginia as it joined the Confederacy.

General George McClellan
By fall 1861, following a series of battlefield disappointments, Lincoln turned to George McClellan, known primarily for his organizational skills and abilities. McClellan was appointed general-in-chief for Union armies.

McClellan’s contempt for civilian leadership became apparent a mere two weeks later. On November 13, 1861, Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Lincoln’s secretary John Hay went to McClellan’s Washington home to discuss issues related to the war. In his diary, Hay recorded the event:

“I wish here to record what I consider a portent of evil to come. The President, Governor Seward and I went over to McClellan's home tonight. The servant at the door said the General was at the wedding of Colonel Wheaton at General Buell's and would soon return. We went in, and after we had waited about an hour, McClellan came in, and without paying any particular attention to the porter who told him the President was waiting to see him, went up-stairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about half an hour, and sent once more a servant to tell the General they were there; and the answer came that the General had gone to bed,” Hay wrote.

“I merely record this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes without comment. It is the first indication I have yet seen of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities,” he continued.

“Coming home I spoke to the President about the matter, but he seemed not to have noticed it, specially, saying it was better, at this time, not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity,” Hay added.

Despite McClellan’s insubordination, Lincoln did his best to support the General – who called the President a “baboon” in letters to his wife – in coming months. But over time, Lincoln became more and more disillusioned with the General, who tended to spend almost all of his efforts preparing his army for a fight rather than meeting the enemy on the battlefield.  And when McClellan did move against the Confederate Army, his efforts were weak, tentative, and unimaginative, producing few if any victories, according to his many critics. He was very popular among his soldiers, however.

Lincoln’s growing frustration with McClellan’s military dithering reached a head in May 1862, and he demoted McClellan from his general-in-chief position. A series of other generals followed, none achieving much success for the Union until Ulysses S. Grant became general-in-chief in late 1863.

McClellan became the Democratic nominee for president in 1864, but lost the race to Lincoln, who won his second term. And Grant, of course, was elected President in 1868.

An interesting side note, though probably of questionable value:  McClellan ranked second among 59 students in his West Point military academy class, while Grant ranked 21st among 39 students in his class there.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Uh-oh ... Roosevelt didn't ride in the Capone car

Uh-oh. Ever heard the story about President Franklin Roosevelt using former crime boss Al Capone's armored car, which reportedly had been seized by the Internal Revenue Service upon Capone's conviction, to move around Washington when security concerns became a big issue as World War II began? The History Insider noted this supposedly well-documented item in a December 2011 entry, but new research suggests that the story is only that -- a story. In other words, it's bogus. False. Myth.

The car in question -- a 1928 Cadillac town car -- is being sold this weekend through RM Auctions. And research noted by RM suggests that the U.S. government never possessed the car, and might not have known that it existed. Instead, it appears that one of Capone's associates sold it in 1932 to a couple who worked for a traveling carnival. Their plan to make money by showing the car to through the carnival never paid off, and they sold it about a year later to someone else, who took it to England, where it was displayed. The car was sold and resold privately several times, and ended up back in the the mid-1960s, where it's been since.

Think you might want to bid on it this weekend? That'll set you back an estimated $300,000 to $500,000, according to the auction house's announcement.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The troubled history of the Washington Monument

Stone of a slightly different shade
completes the upper two-thirds
of the Washington Monument.
   A close look at the Washington Monument in our nation’s capital shows a subtle – but very discernible – difference in color, or shade, of the stone beginning nearly one-third of the way up this memorial to the nation’s first president. That’s a testament to the troubled history of this structure.

   Congress authorized a monument to George Washington soon after his death in 1799, but nothing came of it until 1832, when a group of private citizens established the Washington National Monument Society. They raised funds for the project and held a design competition for it in 1836. The winner was well-known and highly recognized architect Robert Mills. His design included an obelisk (a tall, four-sided column) with a nearly flat top, surrounded with columns at its base, enclosing statues of 30 other Revolutionary War heroes. Although the $1 million cost was well beyond what the Society had collected, work was begun on the obelisk, in hopes that its construction would spur more people to donate money to the project.
Design of the national Washington Monument
Only some elements of the
Washington Monument's original design
were ultimately put in place.
   As part of its fundraising efforts, the Society also solicited the donation of large commemorative stones to be used for the construction of the interior of the monument. Many stones arrived at the site, but some were inscribed with controversial statements, often without any reference to Washington.  And one stone, donated by Pope Pius IX, appears to have be stolen and destroyed by members of a secretive political organization called the Know-Nothings (based on their “know nothing” response to questions about the organization’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic beliefs, which were based on concerns that rising numbers of German and Irish immigrants threatened native-born Protestants in the U.S.).
   Construction began in 1848 and continued until 1854, when private funding became exhausted, leaving the obelisk somewhat less than one-third completed. Congress appropriated $200,000 to the effort in 1855, but quickly rescinded the money after members of the Know-Nothing organization engineered a takeover of the Monument Society at about the same time. Ultimately, the Know Nothing-led Monument Society funded only a bit of more work, which was of such low quality that it was later replaced. By 1858, leadership of the Society returned to people without the divisive beliefs of the Know-Nothings, but interest in completing the monument fell victim to the political and other pressures that led to the outbreak of the Civil War only a few years later.
5.  Photocopy of photograph (from collection of the Smithsonian Institution) sometime between 1855 and 1880 UNFINISHED SHAFT OF MONUMENT - Washington Monument, High ground West of Fifteenth Street, Northwest, between Independence & Constitution Avenues, Washington, District of Columbia, DC
The Washington Monument
remained an unattractive, unfinished
stub of stone for about 25 years.
   The unfinished, neglected monument stood as an eyesore before, during, and after the war. Mark Twain, writing just after the war, noted that it “has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off…you can see cow-sheds about its base, and the contented sheep nibbling pebbles in the desert solitudes that surround it, and the tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow.”
   After the Civil War, interest in the monument renewed, but it wasn’t until 1876 that Congress again appropriated money – again, $200,000 – for the effort. Before work began, questions arose about design of the monument. Some people wanted to proceed with the original Mills plan from 1836, but others sought or submitted new plans. While these new designs were under consideration, Congress in 1879 ordered work to continue on the obelisk, and ultimately no additional structures were added. The final two-thirds or more of the obelisk, taking it to a height of just over 555 feet, were completed in December 1884 – but with stones from a different quarry than when the lower part of the structure was put in place some 25 years earlier. At first, the newer stones appeared to match the color of the original stones. But over time, they have weathered differently, producing the different shade we see today.

   Since it was completed, the Washington Monument has been closed to the public several times for routine maintenance or restoration. A 2011 earthquake caused significant damage, and the monument was closed again in July 2012 for repairs. Reopening is expected in 2014.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ben Franklin's son ... a Royal Governor and British loyalist

American patriot Ben Franklin did his best to ensure the success of his son in colonial America, but regretted it when the son became too successful and dedicated to meeting his professional responsibilities … leading to an estrangement that never reconciled between the father and son.

William Franklin

Born illegitimately to a mother who is unknown to history, William Franklin grew up with his father and a stepmother, Ben Franklin’s common-law wife Deborah. The stepmother/stepson relationship tended to be strained.

As William became a young adult, his father arranged for him to study law under a respected Philadelphia attorney. And after Ben was appointed deputy postmaster for pre-revolutionary America in 1751, he appointed William as postmaster of Philadelphia, a post that the elder Franklin held previously. Father and son appeared to be very close during this stage of their lives, not only in the professional world, but personally as well, with William serving as Ben’s only assistant for his famous kite experiment. Both men jointly speculated in acquiring western lands, too, believing strongly in their growing value as the colonies expanded.

William joined his dad on a trip to England in 1757. Ben had been appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly to approach the British government with concerns about the Penn family’s control of the colony as its “proprietors.” At the time, the Assembly could pass its own laws, but the Penn family, which technically owned the colony based on the original land charter given to it by the British king more than 75 years earlier, had final say on any such action by the Assembly. That governance structure produced a considerable amount of conflict in the rapidly growing colony. During his visit to England, Ben was unsuccessful in his efforts to loosen the proprietors’ control.

But Ben – and William – did enjoy another success that surprised almost everyone.  Thanks to the elder Franklin’s connections with the British prime minister, Britain’s newly crowned George III appointed William to be the Royal Governor of New Jersey. William took the position seriously and never wavered in performing his responsibilities. He remained a dutiful British loyalist even as his father and others moved toward revolution during the late 1760s and early 1770s. William and Ben grew further and further apart during those years.

“Away from his father, [William] had grown into a man of his own, as convinced of the correctness of his principles as his father was of his principles, and as stubborn in defending them,” wrote H. W. Brands in his 2000 book The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. “The apple had fallen close to the tree in regard of character, if not of politics.”

As hostilities between the colonists and British broke out and continued for years, colonial militiamen put William Franklin under house arrest in 1776. A few months later, he was seized and taken to Connecticut, where he remained under control of Governor Jonathan Trumbull. In contrast to William, Trumbull supported the American cause despite his appointment to his position by the British crown.

Released as part of a prisoner exchange in 1778, William lived among other loyalists in New York. He then went to England about 1782, never to return to America. In 1784, William wrote to his father, who was nearing the end of a stint as the American ambassador to France, that he wished to “revive that affectionate intercourse and connexion which till the commencement of the last troubles had been the pride and happiness of my life.”

On his way back to America, Ben agreed to meet with William when he passed through England. Ultimately, it became a business meeting to tie up legal and financial issues involving land William owned in America and debts that he owed to his father. A complicating issue was the presence of Temple Franklin, William’s own illegitimate son (fathered prior to his marriage, also with a mother unknown to history), who Ben had taken in and raised, although William later acknowledged Temple as his own.

“The meeting of the three generations occurred under inauspicious circumstances,” wrote Brands in his Ben Franklin biography. “[Ben] Franklin’s guests were coming and going … the three had scarce time and less privacy for the sort of soul-searching a genuine reunion required. Doubtless Franklin preferred it this way. Scars had formed over wounds he felt at what he considered his son’s betrayal; better not to reopen them.”

“William found the encounter acutely distressing,” added Brands. “His hopes for reconciliation were dashed, his ties to his homeland severed.”

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The fascinating fate of the Bounty's mutineers ...

The story of the mutiny on the British ship Bounty in 1789 doesn’t end with the near-miraculous voyage to safety of Lieutenant William Bligh and the men loyal to him after mutineers set them adrift in a small boat. The fates of the mutineers are fascinating too.

After the mutiny, 27 men remained on the Bounty. A small number of them had been loyal to Bligh, but were either kept on the larger ship because their skills were needed or there was no room to put them into the smaller craft with the captain. Still others still on the Bounty hadn’t been aligned with the mutineers, but took no action to help Bligh. So the crew manning the troubled ship wasn’t a tremendously harmonious group.

Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers, first took the Bounty to the island of Tubuai, about 350 miles south of Tahiti. But within a week, the Bounty sailed to Tahiti, remembered fondly by the crew as a paradise, for food. They returned to Tubuai with some Tahitian women and men, and spent three months trying to establish a settlement there. But arguments, especially over women, and other differences doomed that endeavor. The Bounty and its crew and the Tahitians returned to Tahiti once again. There, the crew split, with some taking up life on the island while Christian and the eight sailors most closely aligned with him left for the high seas on the Bounty.  With them were nine Tahitian women, six Tahitian men, and one Tahitian child.

Upon finding lonely and small Pitcairn Island at a different place than indicated on sea charts, the mutineers decided to settle there – and ensured it by running the Bounty aground, salvaging supplies and equipment from her, and burning the ship.

No one in the rest of the world knew what became of the Bounty and the mutineers who sailed with her on that final voyage until 1808, when an American ship named the Topaz stumbled across Pitcairn’s Island and noticed signs of habitation. Further exploration by the Americans revealed a settlement led by one Alexander Smith (whose real name was John Adams), the sole surviving mutineer, who told the visitors of the others’ fate.

“The colony … prospered, although two of the mutineers died in the first two years, one of ‘sickness,’ one by jumping off the towering rocks in a fit of insanity,” wrote Caroline Alexander, author of the 2003 book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, in summarizing Smith’s account. “Four or five years later, six of the seven remaining mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, were killed in the night by their ‘Otaheite [Tahitian] servants,’ who had risen against them. Only [mutineer] Alexander Smith had been left alive, although badly wounded. The [Tahitian] widows of the mutineers then in turn killed their Tahitian kinsmen in revenge, and so Smith had been left with all the women, and their various offspring.” Of course, there’s no good way to verify Smith’s account, but no good reason to doubt the gist of it either – although he reportedly offered conflicting details in later retellings of his story.

The captain of the Topaz reported his find to British authorities, but Britain didn’t pursue it. And a when couple of British ships happened up the Pitcairn Island colony in 1814, they had no clue that it had been discovered years earlier.  This re-discovery brought much attention, however, and John Adams [aka Alexander Smith] was granted amnesty in 1825. Pitcairn and surrounding islands were made part of the British Empire in 1838.

But many of the mutineers who remained on Tahiti when the Bounty took its last voyage to Pitcairn weren’t as fortunate as Adams/Smith. After Bligh returned to England and reported the mutiny, British authorities sent another ship – the Pandora – to hunt down them down.  Fourteen former Bounty crewmen were found on Tahiti, arrested, and placed in a cage on the Pandora’s deck. A search for the other mutineers on neighboring islands proved fruitless, so the Pandora set sail back to England. Tragedy struck when the ship ran aground and sank with the loss of 31 crewmen and four of the prisoners.

When the ten surviving prisoners finally arrived back in England, they were court martialed. Three were found guilty and hanged, three were found guilty but pardoned, and four were acquitted.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Why did John Hancock sign his name so large?

July 4 approaches. And as we think about what happened on that day in 1776, when the U.S. Declaration of Independence was approved by our Continental Congress, chances are that some of our beliefs are based on popular myths.

In our mind’s eye, we see how it went down – a bunch of patriotic men in one large room, nobly arguing for and ultimately signing a document that is among the most revered in our history. We think, too, of John Hancock, president of that Continental Congress, signing his name largely and boldly at the center of the place in the document for signatures to demonstrate his defiance of the British Crown and to encourage others to sign the document as well. At least that’s how the story goes.

But much of it isn’t accurate. Take Hancock writing his name so large, for example. Analysis of his signature from other documents shows that he always signed his name in that kind of a super-sized style. So the size of it on the Declaration of Independence was typical for him. He wasn’t trying to send a personally defiant message to Britain’s King George, as legend has it. Quotes with that message attributed to him are simply myths.

What about Hancock placing his large signature so boldly at the top center of the space for the delegates to sign? Hancock, as president of the Continental Congress that approved the Declaration, signed it first. Most probably, as head of the body and without guidance from anyone or anything else, he simply put his name where he thought it most appropriate in that role. After all, there was only a huge blank space for signatures, not signature lines and other indicators so common in modern documents.

Also, it wasn’t until August 2, after the Declaration was made available in a final, clearly written version on parchment, that Hancock and other delegates signed it. Most other delegates then added their names, placing them on the document to match the general location of the geographic locations represented, beginning with Georgia on the upper left and ending with New Hampshire on the lower right. A few delegates signed the document after August 2, and a handful never signed it, although they had voted for approval.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Captain Bligh ... villain or hero?

William Bligh, captain of the British ship Bounty in the late 1700s, might be viewed too harshly by today’s popular culture. Although depicted in 20th century movies and fictional narratives as a merciless tyrant, Bligh probably treated the Bounty’s crew no worse than any other 18th century British sea captain would have treated them, and there is some evidence that he treated them better than most. For example, in preparing for the ill-fated voyage of the Bounty to the Pacific island of Tahiti, where the crew mutinied, Bligh hired a fiddler for the trip – based on Bligh’s belief that regular dancing would help improve the health and well-being of the ship’s crew, wrote Caroline Alexander in her 2003 book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. On the other hand, rather than merely providing the opportunity for dancing, Bligh required it, and punished a couple of men who did not participate in the three-hour nightly sessions. So there was a demanding, unforgiving side to Bligh as well, although that characteristic was probably needed to establish and keep control over the type of unruly men who served on British ships of the day.

The Bounty’s mission on this fateful trip was to collect breadfruit plants on Tahiti and take them to the West Indies, in hopes of establishing the plants there as an inexpensive supply of food. But the trip from England to Tahiti was especially difficult. For a month, the ship attempted to leave the Atlantic and enter the Pacific by sailing east around the southern tip of South America, but storms and rough seas prevented that approach.  So instead, Bligh took the ship on a longer route to the west, past the southern tip of Africa, then crossing the Indian Ocean and finally into the Pacific and Tahiti. After 10 months at sea, the Bounty reached the island, where it remained for five months, waiting for native breadfruit plants to grow enough to be removed successfully.

No one is certain today what led to the Bounty mutiny, in which a group of crewmen led by Fletcher Christian, reported to be Bligh’s friend and protégé, took control of the ship on April 28, 1789, several weeks after leaving Tahiti. Many on-the-scene accounts appear to be contradictory and self-serving, unfortunately. Today, some believe it was simply Bligh’s harsh demands on his crew. Others believe that the crew wished to return to the comparative comfort of their five-month stay at Tahiti, where many of them began to live among the natives and adopted a relaxed lifestyle.

But what happened next might one of the most fascinating parts of the Bounty story. Bligh and 18 men loyal to him (a few others wouldn’t fit in the boat and remained on the Bounty) were set adrift – in the middle of the South Pacific – in a small open boat that measured about 23 feet long and a bit less than seven feet wide. Fortunately, the mutineers gave them some food and water, as well as some navigational equipment. And with that alone, Bligh took that small boat and its crew some 3,600 nautical miles across the Pacific in 47 days to a Dutch settlement on the island of Timor. The only casualty of the journey was a man killed by natives of an island at which the boat visited to add to its food and water supplies, although several of the British sailors died soon after arriving on Timor.

Bligh made it back to England, where he was court-martialed for losing the Bounty but acquitted. After several more ship commands (including a second – and successful – trip to Tahiti for breadfruit plants), he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia. He later returned to England, where he died at 64 in 1817.

And what happened to the Bounty mutineers?  That's another fascinating story, for another time. 

Note:  In late October 2012, a replica of the Bounty sunk off the Eastern United States. The ship was a victim of Hurricane Sandy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The bureaucrat who put his own face on our money

As the Civil War continued into the early 1860s, U.S. money in the form of coins was in short supply. People tended to hold on the coins as more intrinsically valuable than paper money in such troubled times. And there’re some reports that the war effort’s demand for metals crimped the supply of coins too, even driving up the cost of metal so high that at least some coins became worth more than their face value.

In response, the U.S. government issued fractional notes – paper money in denominations of less than a dollar – beginning in 1862. At one point or another during the war and in the years that followed, paper bills were issued for 3 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 15 cents, 25 cents, and 50 cents.

During the first several issues of these fractional notes, portraits of either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson were on the bills for every denomination. But that changed with a new issue of notes in late 1864, when the 5 cent note carried the portrait of Spencer M.Clark, the first superintendent of the National Currency Bureau (now the Bureau of Engraving and Printing). The Bureau was the agency responsible for the design of the notes.

Members of Congress were outraged when they saw the bureaucrat's likeness on the new notes, and soon passed legislation prohibiting U.S. bills from carrying the portraits of anyone still living.

Clark reportedly kept his job at the time only through the intervention of U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Clark resigned in 1868, however, as a result of a congressional investigation into alleged improprieties at the Bureau.

Clark is generally credited for organizing and developing the Bureau, creating the basic design for one of the seals appearing on U.S. bills today, and for implementing security measures such as a standard reproduction of federal officials signatures on the bills rather than having those officials signatures penned by Bureau workers. Little definitive information about his life and contributions seems easily or widely accessible, however.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

General Washington's wayward stepson ...

As American patriots rejoiced following the British defeat at Yorktown in fall 1781, General George Washington found himself dealing with a family tragedy involving his stepson.

When Washington married Martha Custis 22 years before the Yorktown battle, she brought her two children to the union – Patsy, 2, who later died as the result of an epileptic seizure when she was a teenager, and John, 4, nicknamed “Jack.”

Jack, who enjoyed partying and other frivolities much more than tending to his responsibilities even after he married and became a father, exasperated Washington. In school, he lived on the edge of being expelled, and he dropped out of college years later. As a husband and father, he became so angered when his wife delivered a daughter instead of a son that his mother sought to adopt the baby. In his business dealings, he cheated Washington in a cattle purchase – calculating the price based on only the least-desirable animals and applying that value to the entire herd that he was buying from his stepfather, who was away leading troops.

But despite his notable shortcomings, “Jack remained Martha’s darling. She would not tolerate any criticism of him from anyone, even George,” wrote Thomas Fleming in his 2009 book The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.

Martha would not consider allowing Jack to become a soldier for the American cause. But as the British army under Lord Cornwallis became trapped at Yorktown in fall 1781, Jack pleaded with Washington to join his staff as an aide. Because the battle was shaping up as only a siege of the British garrison, and that Jack would face even less danger if he remained with Washington’s staff, he was allowed to join the general at Yorktown.

As the American siege of British forces came to a head in October, Jack became ill with “camp fever,” which was probably typhus. After the British surrender, Washington sent Jack to the home of Jack’s maternal uncle, about 30 miles away, for better care and recovery. Washington’s wartime duties fell to a level that allowed him to visit Jack and check on his status a week or two later.

Upon arriving at the uncle’s home, Washington was surprised to find Martha, Jack’s wife Nelly, and Jack and Nelly’s eldest daughter there, all deeply upset. Jack was near death. Only 27, he soon succumbed, and Martha in particular was overwhelmed with grief.
“Washington spent the next five days there, overseeing the funeral and trying to console his wife ... while everyone else in Virginia and the rest of America was celebrating the Yorktown victory over the British,” wrote Fleming. Depite that victory, the war was not over, and Washington had to return to his troops, for whom war raged for another two years. Martha's brother reportedly agreed to oversee Jack's estate, but refused an offer to take responsibility for Jack's wife and children. So George and Martha ultimately took on much of that role.