Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lewis & Clark arrogance ... and "coppolating" grizzlies

American Indians hunting grizzly bears,
by George Catlin (1796-1872)
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark brought just a little arrogance with them as they explored the undeveloped northwestern United States in the very early 1800s. For example, familiar with only the relatively small black bear of the eastern United States, they discounted Native American reports of a large, ferocious brown bear – the grizzly.

Lewis and his men looked forward to meeting some of these brown bears. With an air of superiority, he wrote that the Indians had only bows and arrows or “the indifferent guns with which the traders furnish them, with these they shoot with such uncertainty and at so short a distance that they frequently miss their aim & fall a sacrifice to the bear,” as noted in Stephen Ambrose’s 1996 book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Lewis also noted that the Indians prepared for a bear encounter with the same types of ceremonies in which they prepared for battle against other men, but felt certain that the animals would be no match for his men’s superior arms and expertise in using them.

The expedition’s first encounter with the grizzly was a little disconcerting. Lewis and another man, walking on the shore of the river on which their boats traveled, shot two bears. One ran away, but the other charged Lewis and pursued him for about 80 yards. He and the other man were able to reload their guns and shoot the animal again, killing it. Although this bear was not full-grown, it began to earn some respect for its species from Lewis, who wrote that it is “astonishing to see the wounds they will bear [certainly he meant no pun?] before they can be put to death.” He added, though, that “in the hands of a skilled rifleman [the bears] are by no means as formidable or dangerous” as the Indians believe, Ambrose reported in his book.

The next encounter, a few days later, ended with the death of another bear, but it wasn’t easy. Lewis described “a most tremendious [correct spelling wasn’t Lewis’ strongpoint] looking anamal, and extremely hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five other in various parts he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died.”

The expedition came across another grizzly a week later, but it ran away before it could be attacked, to which Lewis wrote that “I find that the curiosity of our party is pretty well satisfied with respect to this anamal.” The bears’ size and ferocity “has staggered the resolution [of] several of [the men], others however seem keen for action with the bear,” Lewis added.

Of those who looked forward to additional encounters with the grizzlies, Lewis added a bit of humor:  “I expect these gentlemen will give us some amusement shotly as [the bears] begin now to coppolate.”

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The swastika ... before Hitler and the Nazis

The front of a postcard mailed from New York
to Connecticut in 1910.
Before Hitler and the Nazis made it their symbol beginning in the 1930s, the swastika was a favorable, positive image among many cultures around the world for thousands of years.

“The first appearance of the swastika was apparently in the Orient, precisely in what country it is impossible to say, but probably in Central and Southeastern Asia among the forerunners or predecessors of the [Hindus of India and Nepal] and Buddhists,” wrote Thomas Wilson, curator of the U.S. National Museum, in his 1896 book titled The Swastika: The Earliest Known Symbol, and Its Migration; with Observations on the Migration of Certain Industries in Prehistoric Times (free Kindle edition or free Google Books edition).

Swastikas adorn pottery, dating
to about 780 B.C., from Greece.
The word itself comes from the ancient Sanskrit language, still in use in Hindu religious liturgies and Buddhist scholarly works. In Sanskrit, “svastika” derives from the smaller words “su,” conveying something positive, such as goodness or wellness or life (from what I can tell, there’s not really a direct translation in English), and “asti,”meaning “to be.” Adding a “ka” on the end makes it a noun – giving us “svastika” in Sanskrit today. And, of course, that easily becomes “swastika” in English.
Swastikas embedded in the design
of a weight used in Ghana
to determine gold amounts.
After spreading throughout the world, and perhaps developing independently among different cultures as well, the symbol became especially popular as a sign of good luck in Europe and the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Some scholars trace that development to archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s 19th century discovery of swastikas in the ruins of the ancient city of Troy. Noting their similarity to swastikas he had seen at archeological sites in Germany, and knowing of the symbol’s prevalence in ancient Indian civilization, Schliemann concluded that all three cultures – advanced ancient civilizations in India and near the Mediterranean Sea (such as Troy) as well as the less-impressive ancient cultures in Germany – must be closely related. Other Europeans took that to heart, too, as did the many Americans with strong ethnic ties to Europe. Soon, the symbol was not uncommon throughout the U.S., and a U.S. Army division even used it as a logo before World War II.
Swastikas on uniforms of the basketball team
from the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School,
Oklahoma, in 1909.
Other evidence that would seem to void that conclusion was overlooked, or perhaps even inexplicably dismissed. For example, the swastika was known to American Indian cultures long before Europeans arrived on American shores. So the European-American pride in the swastika seemed to swell in the early 1900s, and Hitler and his Nazi party took that to the extreme in their warped visions, believing that they represented a master race that was the modern incarnation of that ancient lineage. They co-opted the swastika, making a mockery of that distinctive design’s long history as a symbol of good in the world.

“Regardless of its context, I still cringe every time I see the mark, yet I’m continually drawn to it – perhaps in the same way that others have been drawn to it over the millenia,” writes Steven Heller, a long-time art director at the New York Times, in his 2008 book The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?Food for thought.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The North's General George McClellan ... and underestimating the South's Robert E. Lee

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left)
and Union General George B. McClellan (right)
As the Civil War ramped up in 1862, Union General George B. McClellan was glad that Robert E. Lee replaced the wounded Joseph Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, one of the major Confederate forces in the Civil War. McClellan had known both Lee and Johnston when all three men served in the U.S. Army prior to the war. McClellan believed that Lee would be a less formidable foe compared to Johnston.

“I prefer Lee to Johnston – the former is too cautious & weak under grave responsibility – personally brave & energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid and irresolute in action,” wrote McClellan to U. S. President Abraham Lincoln.

Although Lee had a bit of experience as a field commander earlier in the war, he was serving as an adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis when the appointment was made. At that time, approximately 105,000 Union troops under McClellan were advancing on the Confederacy’s capital city – Richmond, Virginia – which was defended by approximately 60,000 men. After assuming command of the Confederate Army, Lee initiated a series of surprise attacks and major counter-offensives that kept McClellan off guard and ended the threat to Richmond. For much of the rest of the war, Lee often out-maneuvered larger Union forces, proving much of McClellan’s judgment of him to be far from accurate.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Edwin M. Stanton ... greatly unimpressed upon meeting Lincoln

Edwin M. Stanton,
sometime between 1855 and 1865
Within a year after Republican Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as U.S. President in 1861, he appointed the very competent but ill-tempered attorney Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War. Not only was this appointment a surprise because Stanton was a Democrat, but because of Stanton’s role in humiliating Lincoln years earlier, when both men were supposed to be on the same side in an important trial.

The year was 1855, and Cyrus McCormick, who had invented and patented a mechanical wheat reaper, filed a lawsuit against John H. Manny, who had developed a similar machine and was manufacturing it in Illinois. Manny hired two of the nation’s most prominent patent lawyers – George Harding and Peter H. Watson, as well as an up-and-coming attorney named Stanton (Lincoln’s future cabinet member). Because the trial was originally set for Chicago, Watson – although not tremendously impressed with the disheveled-looking Lincoln – hired him as a local attorney who would be familiar to Illinois judges. Watson gave Lincoln a $500 retainer and promised the future president that he would give the closing argument in the trial.

“Lincoln determined to give this case his most careful preparation,” wrote Ronald C. White Jr. in his 2009 biography titled A. Lincoln: A Biography. But Lincoln received no further word from other attorneys on the Manny team, even after requesting copies of depositions that had been taken in the case.

Two weeks before the trial was set to begin, it was transferred to Cincinnati, Ohio. Lincoln received word of the change, and on the day the trial began, he tried unsuccessfuly to join the other members of the Manny legal team as they entered the courthouse.  Lincoln at the time was later described by Harding as “a tall rawly boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing.” Stanton was arguably even less impressed, later reportedly describing to a friend the encounter with a “long, lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat, on the back of which the perspiration had splotched two wide stains that, emanating from each armpit, met at the center, and resembled a dirty map of a continent.” 

During the week-long trial, “the defense team never included Lincoln in their deliberations, nor even invited him to join them for their meals at the hotel. Judge John McLean entertained all the lawyers at a dinner at his home, but Lincoln was not invited,” writes White.  If any doubt remained, Lincoln also learned that he would not give the closing argument, that the brief he had prepared had not been opened, and that he would have no role in the trial.

Lincoln watched the proceedings as a spectator. After the court ruled in favor of Manny, Lincoln returned to his office and home in Springfield, Illinois and told his law partner that he had been “roughly handled by that man Stanton.”

Following the trial, the Manny legal team’s Watson sent Lincoln a check for his participation. Lincoln returned it, saying he had contributed nothing to the trial, but Watson sent it back to him. Ultimately, Lincoln cashed the check – and also recognized that Stanton's knowledge and skills, if not his conceit and arrogance, would be of great value to the country.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Paul Revere ... less successful than others on that night

Paul Revere, circa 1768-1770
(Painting by John Singleton Copley)
Paul Revere today gets most of the credit for warning American patriots at Concord and Lexington that British soldiers were marching toward them from Boston in April 1785, but Revere was among the least successful of many messengers on similar missions that night.  Revere did reach Lexington, where he told patriots Samuel Adams and John Hancock, but he was captured by British soldiers as he rode to on to Concord. They took his horse and released him, and he walked back to Lexington.

But many others also rode or walked or rang bells or shot guns that night to successfully spread word of the British advance (which was not unexpected). In his 2004 book Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, historian Ray Raphael cites the work of another historian, David Hackett Fischer, who in 1994 identified dozens of people who were involved in passing along that night’s news through the New England countryside.

To be sure, Revere was a committed patriot who was involved in many of the events that led to the American Revolution.  But why has his Boston-to-Lexington ride, which was no great, singularly vital fete on a night when so many others made equal or greater contributions, won so much acclaim in popular American history? Revere himself made no special note of his actions that night in later accounts, and neither did his 1818 obituary. And historians over many decades didn’t mention it much, if at all, until the later 1800s – after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in January 1861.
“Paul Revere’s Ride” is a stirring, memorable piece of art, proof of Longfellow’s talent, from its very beginning:

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …”

And much for that reason, it became – and remains – well-entrenched in American culture even today. Unfortunately, its many historical inaccuracies have been repeated so much that they are often mistaken for fact.

“Although ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ has enjoyed more exposure than any other historic poem in American culture, it is riddled with distortions,” wrote Raphael. “These are not incidental – they are the very reasons the story has endured for almost a century and a half.”
So no, Paul Revere wasn't by any stretch the only person trying to warn other patriots that night, as Longfellow implies. And no, Paul Revere didn't reach his most important destination the village of Concord (although others did), as Longfellow wrote. And no, contrary to Longfellow, Paul Revere did not receive a signal from two lamps in the steeple of the Old North Church; Revere arranged for that signal to be sent. We could go on with troublesome parts of this supposed historical narrative set to the tune of great lyrical poetry ... but will end with a caution to avoid mistaking emotionally stirring art  whether in poetry, a novel, a painting, a film, or another medium  for historical fact.

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.