Panama Canal Turns 100

Panama Canal toy (Source: Ebay.com)

Panama Canal toy (Source: Ebay.com)

When I was five years old, I inherited a plastic Panama Canal play-set. I could not have been happier.

But the toy contained a crack – in the wall of the literally man-made lake – through which little toy ships had to be floated between the two sets of elevators. The crack required me to constantly refill the lake. On one summer weekday morning, I filled a glass jar for probably the twelfth time, and, as I carefully poured the water into the plastic lake, I dropped the jar on the concrete sidewalk. Shards of glass went everywhere, of course, but most significantly, one shard lodged in my neck.

All ended well, obviously, but the attending physician told me the glass had come within an inch of my windpipe. When I responded with a confused expression, he said, “Son, you came within an inch of losing your life.”

Another photo of the Panama Canal toy (Source: Ebay.com)

Another photo of the Panama Canal toy (Source: Ebay.com)

At the tender age of five, I had survived a near-death experience. None of my five-year-old pals could claim such notoriety. Even better, I retained a tiny scar even after the stitches were removed. That meant that in the never-ending show-and-tell game of battle scars played by young boys, my battle story outshone all the rest.

So, what’s the point? The Panama Canal opened for operation on August 15, 1914. That 100-year anniversary reminded me of my childhood encounter with a smaller version of the real thing. The Panama Canal is often cited as one of the engineering wonders of the twentieth century.

Much like the 1950’s toy, the real canal is divided into essentially three parts. A series of locks on each end of the canal allows the ship to rise to the level of fresh-water lakes before descending to sea level on the other end. The canal extends approximately 50 miles between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Just like the toy, the locks are built in pairs to accommodate two-way traffic.

Many of the newer freight carriers are too large to pass through the current canal. The larger cargo ships sailing from Asia, which otherwise would transport cargo to the United States East Coast, currently have to drop their cargo at Long Beach, California, where freight trains carry the cargo to its ultimate destination. The Panama Canal is nearing completion of an expansion project that will double the canal’s capacity and thereby allow those cargo ships to bypass West Coast ports. The Canal will have to further expand its capacity, however, because shipbuilding companies continue to build even larger ships.

Happy (belated) 100th birthday to the man-made wonder that has captivated my attention from 5 years old until now at the ripe old age of…well we’ll leave it at ripe old age!

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

When I attended law school at the University of Richmond in the 1970’s, my classmates included FFV’s (First Family of Virginia), the NY/NJ (New York/New Jersey) crowd, and the rest of us, who fell into a wide range of categories. For most of us, our social hour and dinner hour were one and the same – filling ourselves with the poor to fair offerings of the university cafeteria while discussing a wide range of topics. While young male humor accounted for most of the conversation, more interesting topics sometimes arose.

Aerial view of Monument Avenue

Aerial view of Monument Avenue (Source: Monument Avenue Wiki)

One evening, an FFV student decided to wax on and on about his Confederate ancestors and the Confederate statuary for which one of Richmond’s most prominent streets is named – Monument Avenue. (The Arthur Ashe statue would come years later.) All of the non-FFV’s found the subject matter uncomfortable. Protests to the contrary, the Civil War was about slavery. Lincoln’s Republicans wanted to preclude extension of slavery into the territories and Southern politicians wanted no bar whatsoever on the practice. So there we sat, all but the FFV student very uncomfortable.

After almost fifteen minutes of revisionist Confederate history and accolades about Monument Avenue, one NY/NJ student finally spoke up: “Oh, you’re talking about the street where they keep the second-place trophies.” The FFV student’s face turned fire engine red. The rest of us broke out in uncontrollable laughter. So ended the social hour.

I digress.

(Source: Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File)

(Source: Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File)

In August, 1864, the Union Navy won a major victory in Mobile Bay, Grant’s forces stretched the rebel line near Petersburg, and Sherman was poised to take Atlanta. But Confederates could cite their victories on other fronts.

Although his commanding officers did not use his talents to their greatest effect, Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest remained a thorn in Sherman’s side. In the early morning hours of August 21, armed with detailed information from his home-town Memphis spies, Forrest led a small cavalry unit into Memphis, hoping to capture three Union generals, free Confederate prisoners from a Union prison, and compel Union forces to withdraw from northern Mississippi.

He accomplished only the third objective, although he did manage to take Union General Washburne’s uniform, which Washburne left behind as he rushed from his lodging to avoid capture. Forrest returned the uniform under a flag of truce. Washburne later returned the favor, by sending Forrest a uniform made by Forrest’s personal tailor. While Forrest failed to capture the generals or free the Confederate prisoners, he let the Union commanders know he was still active, seemingly able to harass them at will.

At sea, the Confederates dispatched the CSS Tallahassee to disrupt Yankee shipping. Over a 19-day period in northern waters, the Tallahassee destroyed 26 private vessels and captured seven others, which were bonded or released. (Department of the Navy, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships) The ship sailed into Halifax for a fresh supply of coal and a new main mast, before making her way back to Wilmington, North Carolina. Built in England, the ship began her life as the Atalanta, a blockade-runner, was commissioned as the Tallahassee in August 1864, was later re-named the Olustee, and finally was re-named once again, perhaps most appropriately, the Chameleon, before its commander turned the ship over to the Confederacy’s financial agent in Liverpool on April 9, 1865. The British seized the ship and turned it over to the United States government on April 26, 1866.

Thus, while August witnessed great success by the Union forces on land and sea, the Confederates demonstrated they would not go away without inflicting considerable damage.

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“Damn the Torpedoes” The Battle of Mobile Bay

Torpedo: 1. electric ray; 2. a large, cigar-shaped, self-propelled underwater projectile for launching against enemy ships from a submarine, airplane, etc.; it is detonated by contact, sound, etc.; 3. a metal case containing explosives, especially one used as an underwater mine.

                                      – Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th edition)

Growing up in the 1960’s, I was a history buff and a big fan of World War II movies. For me, the second definition of “torpedo” came to mind whenever I heard the term.

Admiral David Farragut famously said, "Damn the torpedoes." (Source: NPS.gov)

Admiral David Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes.” (Source: NPS.gov)

You might remember United States Admiral David Farragut’s famous quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” a quote which seemed out of kilter with a sea battle that took place in August, 1864. The Confederates had invented the first submarine, the CSS Hunley, but it was nothing like its progeny of the first and second world wars, and it certainly did not launch torpedoes.

My fifth-grade teacher recognized the annual confusion of young boys who watched too many war movies. She explained that during the Civil War, a torpedo referred to the third definition, a metal case containing explosives. “Ohhh,” all of my male classmates nodded as one, “just like the mines the Nazis planted in the English Channel at Normandy in The Longest Day (for the younger readers, The Longest Day was a three-hour 1962 black-and-white movie about D-Day).

The significance of the Battle of Mobile Bay cannot be overstated. Grant’s troops were bogged down at Petersburg. Sherman had not yet taken Atlanta. Lincoln expected to be a one-term President.

Southern-born, Admiral David Farragut led the Union armada. Maryland-born and a former United States Naval Academy superintendent, Admiral Franklin Buchanan commanded the Confederate forces.

The Southerners had built an ironclad, the Tennessee, to thwart the Union’s largely wooden-ship navy. Fully understanding the probable outcome of challenging the iron beast with wooden ships, Farragut waited for the arrival of four ironclads of his own.

Entitled "Surrender of the 'Tennessee,' Battle of Mobile Bay", it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source: history.navy.mil)

Entitled “Surrender of the ‘Tennessee,’ Battle of Mobile Bay”, it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source: history.navy.mil)

Three forts stood in the Union’s path: Fort Powell near Cedar Point, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point. Chief among these was Fort Morgan. Farragut had hoped to employ a large contingent of infantry on Dauphin Island to keep the rebels at Fort Gaines occupied. Because the Union had lost so many troops in Grant’s Virginia campaign, only 2,000 soldiers were available. The number proved sufficient.

The Union spent weeks attempting to remove the torpedoes in their path. Farragut had doubts about whether they could remove all of them, but found some comfort in reports that many of them had corroded and were no longer effective. On Friday morning, August 5, Farragut’s armada tested the waters. One ironclad, the Tecumseh, hit one or more non-corroded mines. The Tecumseh went down with 94 of her 114-man crew. The commanding officer of the lead ship, the Brooklyn, declined to go forward, for fear of the mines.

It was under these circumstances that Farragut’s flag ship, the Hartford, took the lead. Farragut had climbed the mainmast rigging above the smoke and ordered a sailor to tie him there with a rope. He would not be denied. The line between folly and courage is a thin one. From his vantage point, like Ulysses tied to the mast when skirting the sirens, he shouted his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Not all went smoothly afterward. Buchanan (who previously had commanded the ironclad Virginia) commanded the Tennessee and inflicted considerable damage on the Union fleet before taking a hit that fractured his knee. The ironclad and the rest of his fleet ultimately succumbed to superior numbers. By August 23, all three forts were in Union hands. The victor of New Orleans sixteen months earlier, Farragut had added Mobile Bay to his list of major conquests. With the Union victory, Lincoln’s autumn prospects brightened significantly.

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The Red Cross and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross (Source: National Park Service)

Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross (Source: National Park Service)

August 8, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Red Cross. While Clara Barton worked tirelessly on behalf of the Union injured on Civil War battlefields, it was a Swiss citizen whose observations of an Italian battlefield motivated him to lead the efforts to establish the Red Cross.

In 1859, Dr. Henry Dunant witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, where more than 45,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded on the battlefield. In 1862, he published Memory of Solferino, in which he proposed to set up volunteer groups in every country to take care of casualties in wartime and to persuade governments to agree to protect first aid volunteers and wounded on the battlefield. Thus, the Red Cross was initially founded to ameliorate conditions in times of war.

In 1864, the First Geneva Convention adopted an emblem that reversed the colors of the Swiss flag. During its war with Russia 22 years later, the Ottoman Empire substituted the crescent for the cross, which was offensive to Muslim religious beliefs.

Clara Barton led the effort to establish the American Red Cross in 1881. The charity was largely identified with her during her lifetime. The American Red Cross immediately went to work leading efforts to aid victims of natural catastrophes, beginning with a Michigan forest fire in 1881; helping Ohio River and Mississippi River flood victims in 1884; leading 50 volunteers to help the victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889. The American Red Cross elected her “president for life” in 1901. She resigned three years later at the age of 82 in response to criticism about her management style, abilities, and age.

The American Red Cross received its first congressional charter in 1900, and its second in 1905, one year after Barton’s resignation.

On Thursday, April 19, 1906, disaster met opportunity. One day after the great earthquake, while fires raged across San Francisco, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a telegram to Dr. Edward Devine, the General Secretary of the Charity Organization of New York. Roosevelt requested that Devine represent the Red Cross in the San Francisco relief operation. After Devine accepted the appointment, Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring that “the out-pouring of the nation’s aid should as far as possible be entrusted to the American National Red Cross, the national organization best fitted to undertake such relief work.”

By that proclamation, Roosevelt established a practice that would be followed by his successors, recognizing the American Red Cross as the leader of emergency relief in times of disaster. If the Red Cross lost one identity with the departure of Clara Barton, it forged its own two years later and regained its moral force with the Chief Executive’s imprimatur.

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July 31, 2014 · 11:19 pm

The Little Bank that Could and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Amadeo P. Giannini (Source: PBS.org)

Amadeo P. Giannini (Source: PBS.org)

It’s like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life. A small bank provides a place for small depositors and borrowers to do business in a city dominated by big banks that serve only the wealthy. Then, after an earthquake and a fire destroy a quarter of the city, the small bank immediately rises from the ashes to provide its customers loans to rebuild and a place to safely deposit their money while the big banks close their doors for six months.

But unlike the popular movie, this story is true. In 1901, Amadeo P. Giannini had retired at the age of 31 after selling his share of a produce business for $100,000 ($2.7 million in 2014 dollars). He came out of retirement three years later to establish the Bank of Italy as “the little people’s bank,” eighteen months before the April 18, 1906 earthquake.

To his surprise on the morning of the earthquake, his employees had removed the bank’s $80,000 dollars in gold and silver from the Crocker National Bank vaults, and were ready to operate business. By early afternoon, he realized he had to remove the bank’s assets out of the city. He and an employee acquired two wagons to haul the bank’s fixtures and, more importantly, the money.

They hid the bags of money under crates of oranges. They traveled only four miles, during daylight, to the home of Giannini’s brother. After nightfall, they resumed the journey to Giannini’s home in San Mateo, fourteen miles south of San Francisco, where they hid the money in the ash pit of the living room fireplace.

The old Bank of Italy in San Francisco (Source: ItaloAmericano.com)

The old Bank of Italy in San Francisco (Source: ItaloAmericano.com)

As important as it was to get the bank’s assets out of the city, it is what Giannini did the next two days that set his bank apart from the big banks. He encouraged his customers to borrow money to rebuild and to deposit their money in his bank, where it would be safer than in the refugee camps that sprang up to house San Francisco’s homeless 225,000 citizens. He set up the bank’s “main branch” at his brother’s house and a second branch on the waterfront once the fires were contained. While the big bankers wrung their hands, Giannini put his bank to work, affording average San Franciscans the means to begin rebuilding the city.

Giannini made loans based on his knowledge of the borrowers’ character, not their credit reports. Years later, after he expanded and merged his way to build the Bank of America, he said every one of those 1906 loans had been repaid. The early version of the “Bailey Savings and Loan,” i.e., the Bank of Italy, did not remain small for long. At his death in 1949, the Bank of America was the largest bank in the United States.

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Battle of the Crater: It’s Not As Though This Was the First Time

Painting depicting the Battle of the Crater (Source: The Petersburg Express)

Painting depicting the Battle of the Crater (Source: The Petersburg Express)

It boggles the imagination. Former Pennsylvania coal miners accomplished what the West Point engineers, both North and South, said could not be done. The officers said a mine shaft over 400 feet long could not be built without installing air vents at various points along the tunnel, which would be readily visible to the rebels. The miners were not deterred. They installed an airtight canvas door just inside the entrance, ran a wooden pipe along the floor of the shaft to where the miners were working, and built a fireplace near the airtight door to send heated air up a camouflaged chimney (which drew the stale air from the far end of the tunnel and pulled in fresh air through a pipe, whose mouth was beyond the door).

Within a month, the miners had built a tunnel over 500 feet long, putting them twenty feet below the enemy’s artillery battery. They then extended the tunnel to the right and left, creating a chamber in which they set four tons of explosives. On the morning of July 30, 1864, they lit the fuse. An unusually long delay required two volunteers to enter the shaft to investigate. They discovered the fuse had burned out at the splice. They cut and relit the fuse, then ran for their lives. At 4:44 a.m., the charge erupted below the rebels’ feet. A brigadier general described the explosion:

Without form or shape, full of red flames and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, it mounted toward heaven with a detonation of thunder [and] spread out like an immense mushroom whose stem seemed to be of fire and its head of smoke. — [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, p. 535]

Did this foreshadow man’s twentieth-century discovery, capable of wiping our species from the planet?

The explosion killed or wounded 278 Confederates. The resulting crater stretched sixty feet by two hundred feet and ranged from ten to thirty feet deep.

General James Ledlie (Source: CivilWar.org)

General James Ledlie (Source: CivilWar.org)

What should have been a significant Union victory, breaking Lee’s lines, quickly turned into disaster for the men in blue. While the commanding officers (Generals James Ledlie and Edward Ferrero) hid safely behind the lines sharing a bottle of rum, 15,000 men poured into the crater and lingered long enough for the rebels to recover their bearings. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. By the battle’s end, the Union suffered over 3,800 casualties, three times the number suffered by the Confederates. The rebels took out much of their anger against Ferrero’s African-American troops, bayonetting and shooting many who tried to surrender.

But as I intimated in the title to this piece, the Petersburg siege was not the first time Union forces attempted to undermine a rebel position. They had done so previously in the siege of Vicksburg (1863), with mixed success. In Vicksburg, the Union command identified a Confederate redan sitting on top of a towering bluff as their most formidable obstacle. Led by Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, Union soldiers took a less covert approach than the one taken later at Petersburg. They had to cover a distance of four hundred yards and no one thought they could build a tunnel to cover the distance. They initially dug a trench, employing various defensive measures to protect the workers.

On June 25, the miners reached the edge of the bluff, where they dug a tunnel and set off explosives, creating a crater forty feet wide and twelve feet deep. Union troops charged, only to find that the Confederates had pulled out of the redan and had set up new defenses in anticipation of an attack. The losses were lighter (34 dead and 209 wounded) than later on the Petersburg line, but the results were similar – the siege was not broken. Six days later, Union troops conducted another mining operation, which achieved more positive results when they set off 1,800 pounds of explosives. They did not follow up with an infantry charge, apparently learning from their prior experience. By this time, however, the Confederate forces were exhausted and starving, with no help on the way. Formal surrender came only three days later.

Edward Ferrero (Source: Dickinson College)

Edward Ferrero (Source: Dickinson College)

Clearly, Grant recalled the miners’ mixed success at Vicksburg when he approved a similar scheme at Petersburg. But just as had happened on too many other occasions, Grant’s subordinates failed him. In this instance not only did they fail to execute the battle plan, they chose to share a bottle of rum far from the battle, missing the action altogether, while almost four thousand men either died, were wounded, or marched off to a Confederate prison.

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You Can’t Please Everybody: The 1824 Presidential Election & the Twelfth Amendment

1824 election results (Source: WW Norton & Company)

1824 election results (Source: WW Norton & Company)

Last week’s article explored how the 1800 Presidential election motivated the highly partisan Democratic-Republicans and Federalists to pursue Article V’s extremely challenging process of amending the Constitution in order to avoid a repeat of the Jefferson-Burr fiasco (caused largely by the Democratic-Republicans’ failure to order one of its electors to vote for a favorite son, thereby avoiding a tie vote for its two candidates).

The Twelfth Amendment cured what in 1800 proved to be the most significant defect of Article V by requiring each elector to cast one vote for President and one vote for Vice President. The Twelfth Amendment further provides that in the event no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives will select the President among the three candidates who receive the most electoral votes. This provision became important in the second, and last, election in which the House of Representatives selected the President.

John Quincy Adams (Source: Biography.com)

John Quincy Adams (Source: Biography.com)

By 1824, the Federalist Party had collapsed, leaving the Democratic-Republicans to run a candidate or candidates for President. Four men ran to become the nation’s sixth President: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. It is the rare history buff who remembers Crawford, who served as Secretary of the Treasury, but he was the official candidate of the party caucus even though he was in poor health.

Jackson garnered the most popular and electoral votes, but not a majority. Clay came in fourth, so he was out of the running. Clay, however, wielded great influence as Speaker of the House. He detested Jackson and threw his support to Adams in exchange for Adams’ promise to make Clay Secretary of State. Adams won the Presidency on the first vote, as contrasted with 1800’s thirty-six.

Jackson had his revenge four years later when he swamped Adams by a 2-1 margin in the Electoral College. By that time, only two state legislatures selected their electors, meaning that most electors were determined by the popular vote.

The 1824 election fractured the Democratic-Republican Party. Those who followed Jackson ultimately became the Democratic Party. Those who followed Adams and Clay founded the Whig Party, the predecessor to yet another party, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party.

Andrew Jackson (Source: Biography.com)

Andrew Jackson (Source: Biography.com)

The take-away from the 1824 election is two-fold: the Twelfth Amendment worked, thus avoiding another Constitutional crisis; and the election generated a split in what had been the only viable political party, the Democratic-Republicans.

As I said earlier, the House of Representatives has not selected the President since the 1824 election. We have witnessed what can happen even when a candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes (civil war). How will American voters react in a future election if a candidate does not receive a majority of the electoral votes (most likely due to a tie)?

Remember, the Twelfth Amendment did not change the voting methodology in the House of Representatives – each state has only one vote. This country has had some very close Presidential elections in the not-too-distant past (2004, 2000, 1968, 1960). Will Americans take a collective deep breath and accept as President a candidate who wins neither the popular vote nor the electoral vote, but wins a majority of states in the House of Representatives? We can only hope we do not have to answer that question in the not-too-distant future.

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