Boxing Day

In the 1950s, professional boxing was one of Americans’ favorite televised sports. Gillette sponsored Friday Night Fights, especially popular among hardworking men and women after putting in a five-day week. In the coal mining community of Midway, West Virginia, my father allowed his three sons to join the fun. My mother and two sisters generally avoided the entertainment.

So, I guess that explains the events of one Appalachian summer Saturday morning. My father usually worked overtime at the Slab Fork coal mines on Saturdays, but either there was too little work that Saturday or he just decided to take a well-deserved holiday.

I grew up in a modest four-room home, but the house had porches on the front and rear. The front porch stretched the width of the white clapboard house and afforded a wonderful spot for catching the mountain breezes.

Light heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore (Source:ProBoxingFan.com

Light heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore (Source:ProBoxingFan.com

This particular Saturday morning, my father’s cousin, Page, visited us. My father and Page had been good friends since their teenage years.

My father and Page sat on the porch, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking about God only knows what. Ralph, six years old, and I, older by 17 months, were at the other end of the porch minding our own business.

Page and Dad started talking about the prior night’s prize fight, when Page raised his voice excitedly and said, “Hey, John, let’s watch the boys box.”

“No, Page,” my father said. “They’re too young for that.”

“They’ve gotta start sometime,” Page retorted. “Besides, I’ve got some boxing gloves in my car. They can’t hurt each other too bad.”

Child-size boxing gloves. You’ve got to be kidding. He must have been planning this for months. It wasn’t enough entertainment to watch two adult men standing toe-to-toe, beating each other’s brains out. Let’s have some real fun and watch two young boys have at it.

Ingemar Johansson lies on the canvas after challenger Floyd Patterson flattened him in the fifth round at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960. With the knockout, Patterson regained the heavyweight championship. (Source: Boxnews.com) Copyright: Associated Press

Ingemar Johansson lies on the canvas after challenger Floyd Patterson flattened him in the fifth round at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960. With the knockout, Patterson regained the heavyweight championship. (Source: Boxnews.com) Copyright: Associated Press

I was game. After all, I had watched the professionals box. I could certainly bob and weave as well as any of those old men. Besides, I had spent much of my youth making life miserable for Ralph. When he was an infant, my mother put me in charge of swinging him in the baby swing in the backyard while she did housework. I swung him all right — I swung him harder and harder until the swing fell over. Reasoning (Do toddlers reason?) that I could no longer swing him since both the baby and the swing now lay on the ground, I ran off to play with my friends. I got a switching for that, but the punishment didn’t take. Heck, during a snowstorm just last winter, I had put Ralph in a metal tub on the sidewalk and filled the tub with water. Yes, I got a switching for that, too.

And now, at his cousin’s provocation, my father laced up my boxing gloves while Page did the same for my brother Ralph. After all the terrible things I had done to my brother, my father now gave me permission to beat the stuffing out of Ralph.

I stood there in my best Floyd Patterson or Archie Moore pose, ready to inflict one more injury on my brother, this time with the assurance that no switching would follow.

It was not to be.

I remember what happened next like it was yesterday. Just like Ralphie in the Christmas movie, my brother had had enough. I could pose like a boxer, but, unlike his older brother, Ralph could throw a punch. And I couldn’t do anything to defend myself. He backed me into the porch railing and threw punch after punch until my father pulled him off me.

That’s the day I learned to respect my younger brother. We got into other fights over the years, when we resolved any dispute with a wrestling match. He won some. I won some. But I never challenged him to a fistfight. Once was enough.

I never forgot Boxing Day.

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Grant’s Final Battle

Ulysses S. Grant (WhiteHouse.gov)

Ulysses S. Grant (WhiteHouse.gov)

We all hope to show courage in some form during our lifetimes. We are seldom required to do so in dramatic fashion. For most of us, it’s limited to the courage required to put bread on the table or to put our children through school.

Ulysses S. Grant had shown great courage on the battlefield in the Mexican War. Afterward he struggled with near-poverty, dressing shabbily and working long days at Hardscrabble – 60 acres of Missouri farm land his father-in-law gave to Grant’s wife, Julia. Just before the Civil War, Grant had been reduced to going hat in hand to his father, accepting employment as his father’s store clerk in a last-ditch effort to keep his family above water.

Then came Fort Sumter. The rest, as they say, is history. Grant, of course, went on to rise to the rank of commanding general over all the Union armies and in 1868 was elected as the country’s 18th President.

Between his times of military service and occupation of the White House, Grant had struggled to achieve some form of financial security. In early 1884, he smiled at the thought that he had finally gotten the knack of finances or, at the very least, had met someone who had the knack. On paper, Grant was almost a millionaire.

In the early 1880’s, Ulysses, Jr. (“Buck”) partnered with a young wizard of Wall Street, Ferdinand Ward, to form the investment house of Grant & Ward. Ward had the charm and apparent investing talent that drew many wealthy clients. Adding the Grant name to his business did not hurt. All of the Grants bought in. The former general and President saw double-digit returns between 1881 and 1884.

But just like many victims before and since, the Grant family ultimately realized they had bought into a pyramid scheme. The jig was up in May of 1884. Ward could no longer cover his loans and his clients were left with nothing.

Grant, who previously had resisted writing articles for the magazine Century about some of the great battles of the Civil War, no longer had any choice. He wrote articles about Shiloh and Vicksburg for $500 each. The Century’s subscriptions and advertising business increased dramatically.

Century Magazine (Source: Wikipedia)

Century Magazine (Source: Wikipedia)

Grant was prepared to write his memoirs for a 10% royalty when his friend Samuel (“Mark Twain”) Clemens learned about the arrangement. Clemens was aghast when he heard about the small fee Grant had received for his articles and persuaded Grant to negotiate better terms before signing a contract for his memoirs. Grant ultimately reached an agreement to allow Clemens’ publishing company to publish the memoirs, and went to work.

In October, 1884, a physician gave hints that Grant’s horribly sore throat probably was due to cancer. Grant did not falter. He had to provide something for his widow. At the invitation of industrialist Joseph Drexel, Grant spent the spring of 1885 at Drexel’s rambling cottage in the Adirondacks. On July 22, he completed his over 200,000-word memoirs. He died the following morning.

He had done what he must to provide for his widow. In the fall of 1886, Clemens presented Julia Grant with a royalty check of $200,000 (equivalent to between five and six million dollars in 2014 currency). Another $250,000 in royalties would follow. Between Grant’s perseverance and Clemens’ good timing, Julia Grant could spend her remaining years in comfort.

Grant’s military talents are beyond dispute. His Presidency – perhaps not. But as a man in the really hard times, when events did not turn his way, he soldiered on, doing the best he could for his family. In the end, his perseverance and, finally, one turn of good luck in the form of Mark Twain, won out. He provided for the woman he loved his entire adult life. This is the Grant I admire the most.

SOURCES:

Brands, H.W. The Man Who Saved the Union. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2012.

Mark Twain Project. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Smith, Jean Edward. Grant. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

__________________________________________________

See also The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (reprinted by Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, Connecticut).

 

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The Battle of Nashville – General George Thomas’s Christmas Gift to Lincoln

Battle of Nashville (Source: History.com)

General George Thomas (Source: History.com)

Just as this month marks the 150th anniversary of General Sherman’s capture of Savannah, it marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville, when Virginia-born General George Thomas led his forces to a resounding victory over Confederate General John Bell Hood’s army.

I particularly admire those southern-born United States military officers who did not abandon their union loyalties to serve in the Confederate ranks. They had to prove themselves one-better than their fellow officers, as their loyalty to the Union was often called into question. And George Thomas proved himself on more than one occasion.

He built a strong record, defeating Confederate troops led by General George Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862. He followed up that victory with service at Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River. He achieved his greatest fame as “the Rock of Chickamauga” in September 1863, when he mounted a stubborn resistance to General Braxton Bragg’s assault on Horseshoe Ridge, allowing other Union troops to retreat to safety.

By the end of 1864, one would think that Thomas’s reputation was secure. While Sherman made his March to the Sea, he left Thomas to deal with John Bell Hood, who planned to march 39,000 Confederate troops north into Tennessee and beyond. In the Battles of Spring Hill and Franklin, Thomas’s forces inflicted devastating casualties on the ever-aggressive Hood, whose numbers had fallen to 26,500 men by the time Hood sought to engage the heavily fortified Union troops at Nashville.

But Lincoln and Grant grew frustrated that Thomas appeared to repeat the same pattern as other Union generals – McClellan at Antietam and Meade at Gettysburg – allowing the Confederates to lick their wounds and recover their strength rather than taking the opportunity to take a major army out of play.

Confederate General John Bell Hood (Source: Wikipedia)

Confederate General John Bell Hood (Source: Wikipedia)

Hood was not looking to retreat and Thomas was nothing like McClellan or Meade. While severe winter weather delayed his movements, Thomas used the time to rest and refit his troops, particularly the cavalry. He moved forward only when the weather cleared, and, even then, a layer of ice still covered the ground. But he had a battle plan in place, and his troops were prepared to execute it.

Even as Grant sent General John Logan to replace a general he and the President thought too reluctant to destroy the enemy, General Thomas employed one corps to pin down Hood’s right and then applied the bulk of his force on Hood’s left. The sunset on December 14 before Thomas’s men could destroy Hood’s army, but after another day of battle, Hood’s army was a mere shell of its former self.

Hood had left Atlanta with 39,000 men. After casualties and desertions, his army arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi, with less than 15,000 men – a force that could not be wholly ignored, but one that could cause little more trouble and deprived Lee of a serious counterweight to keep Union troops occupied outside Virginia. Jefferson Davis’s choice to replace Joe Johnston, John Bell Hood resigned his command. Johnston would return to lead the beleaguered force.

It was Lincoln’s last, of course, but Sherman and Thomas had made December 25, 1864, the President’s best Christmas of the Civil War. Lincoln saw genuine hope that the country’s nightmare was near its end.

Battle of Nashville Then & Now, from the Tennessean: www.tennessean.com/videos/news/local/davidson/2014/12/13/20352329/

SOURCES:

  • Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York, New York: Random House, 1958 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974 (First Vintage Books Edition, 1986).

Postscript: Thomas devoted the rest of his life to the United States Army. He assumed command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869. He died of a stroke at the Presidio in 1870.

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Savannah – Sherman’s Christmas Gift to Lincoln

Sherman's handwritten note to Lincoln

Sherman’s handwritten note to Lincoln

For some of us, the City of Savannah elicits thoughts of ghosts in America’s Most Haunted City. Many southern college students see the city as a St. Patrick’s Day celebration when the city is awash with green beer and visitors in the tens of thousands.

But this month also marks the 150th anniversary of General William T. Sherman’s capture of Savannah. On November 15, 1864, after Confederate General John Bell Hood left Georgia for his army’s ultimate destruction in Nashville, Tennessee, Sherman left Atlanta for his famous march to the sea to make Georgia howl. He cut his supply lines behind him and his men grew fat on the livestock and produce that lay in their path from Atlanta to Savannah.

On December 13, Union troops took Fort McAllister, outside Savannah. Eight days later, Mayor Richard Arnold surrendered the city to Sherman and Union troops marched into Savannah. Afterward, Sherman sent President Lincoln a message:

I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.

Lincoln received the dispatch on Christmas Eve. Sherman, who had wrecked Atlanta and pillaged and burned his way through Georgia, had applied a gentle touch to Savannah.

In one rare moment, after burning his way through Georgia and before doing the same to South Carolina, Sherman spared the town’s historic architecture from the hard hand of war.

Sherman's march into Savannah "March to the Sea" (Source: CivilWarTraveler.com)

Sherman’s march into Savannah (Source: CivilWarTraveler.com)

If you have the pleasure of visiting this historic Southern city with its many beautiful town squares, whether to search for ghosts or to lift a glass of green beer, pause to give thanks to “Uncle Billy” (the troops’ nickname for General Sherman) for sparing much of the beauty that surrounds you.

SOURCES:

  • Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965 (republished by Fall River Press, New York, NY, in 2001).
  • Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Red River to Appomattox. New York, New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Woodworth, Steven E. Nothing but Victory: the Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

 

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Mono Lake

mono-lake-dec-2011

Mono Lake, California (Source: TripAdvisor)

When I traveled California Route 395 to Yosemite from Reno 14 years ago for a family vacation, I had no idea that Mono Lake and the Sierra Nevada would serve as the setting for a major segment of a future novel. My first novel, New Garden (2013), opens in the High Sierra. My second novel, a stand-alone sequel to New Garden that should be available by March 2015, includes one major section where the action takes place in the High Sierra and the Mono Basin.

But when the California State Park Ranger told my tour group about kutsavi (see October 1, 2013 article on this blog), I knew I would work it into a future story. And I did, telling how the food source allowed my protagonist, Jack Grier, to survive a winter at Mono Pass.

Cover of my book, New Garden

Cover of my book, New Garden

As part of my research, I came across Up and Down California in 1860-1864; the Journal of William H. Brewer. Mr. Brewer served on Josiah Whitney’s geological survey team during the stated time period. In his journal, Brewer describes his 1863 experience at Mono Lake:

Lake Mono

July 9 we came on about ten miles north over the plain and camped at the northwest corner of Lake Mono. This is the most remarkable lake I have ever seen. It lies in a basin at the height of 6,800 feet above the sea. Like the Dead Sea, it is without an outlet. * * * * The waters are clear and very heavy – they have a nauseous taste. When still, it looks like oil, it is so thick, and it is not easily disturbed. Although nearly twenty miles long it is often so smooth that the opposite mountains are mirrored in it as in glass. The water feels slippery to the touch and will wash grease from the hands, even when cold, more readily than common hot water and soap. I washed some woolens in it and it was easier and quicker than in any “suds” I ever saw. It washed our silk handkerchiefs, giving them a luster as if new. It spots cloths of some colors most effectually.

Arial view of Mono Lake (Source: Wikipedia.org)

Arial view of Mono Lake (Source: Wikipedia.org)

At the time, the territory east of the Sierra Nevada was chock-full of boom-and-bust mining towns. Brewer describes the region, including the bustling town (population of approximately 5,000) of Aurora:

Immense sums of money have been spent here in this region, an immense number of claims have been taken up, nearly twenty quartz mills have been erected . . .; but whether the mines will ever pay is to me a question. * * * One or two mines may pay, the majority never will.

Where Aurora is, is as yet known. We think it in California, but there is a dispute whether it be not over the line and in Nevada Territory. Most of the inhabitants wish it there, so that Uncle Sam will pay their bills of government, but like true American citizens, who will not be deprived of their rights, they vote in both places, in California and in Nevada, and their votes have thus far been accepted in both.

Aurora was ultimately determined to be three miles inside the Nevada line.

Mono Lake was a valuable resource to Aurora’s residents, because some men made a living by gathering duck eggs from Mono Lake’s islands and selling them in Aurora for $1.00 to $1.50 per dozen ($30-$45 in 2014 U.S. dollars).

Whenever I travel south on California 395, I can’t help but think of the old mining towns and the steep prices the miners paid for life’s necessities. Mostly, however, I enjoy the jaw-dropping views from Vista Point – ancient Mono Lake dead ahead; the White Mountains to the east; the Sierra Nevada to the west; the Mono Craters just beyond Mono Lake. It’s another incredible experience before driving west up Tioga Road into the stunning High Sierra.

For more information about Mono Lake, check out the following websites:

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Thanksgiving 1864

In November 1864, the Confederacy was on life support. Its leaders had held on in the early years of the conflict, hoping for recognition from Great Britain or France. They then held on in the hope that Lincoln would be supplanted by a President who would allow the South to leave the Union in peace. This last hope was dashed when Lincoln won reelection earlier in the month. Now Southern leaders were merely “holding on.”

In 1864, the Union League decided to raise a fund to supply Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 1864 for the Union soldiers and sailors fighting in the East. The reaction of the Northern public to this plan was overwhelming. Over $56,000 in cash was raised, an enormous sum at the time and 250,000 pounds of fowl.

In 1864, the Union League decided to raise a fund to supply Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 1864 for the Union soldiers and sailors fighting in the East. The reaction of the Northern public to this plan was overwhelming. Over $56,000 in cash was raised, an enormous sum at the time and 250,000 pounds of fowl. (Source: almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com)

Meanwhile, the soldiers, North and South, did the fighting and the dying. The Southern lines at Petersburg (and on every other front) stretched thin and the rations fell to near-starvation levels. The Northern lines grew stronger and the soldiers enjoyed bountiful rations when they were not dodging bullets or cannon fire. My maternal ancestors include soldiers who served in the Army of Northern Virginia, and most likely were among those men who struggled for life on the Petersburg line. But survive they did, due to the randomness of war which allows me to write this piece today.

Thirteen months earlier, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1864, the Union League of New York was determined to do something special for the Northern soldiers. My paternal ancestors likely benefitted from the League’s efforts, which produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of food of every variety (turkey, ham, pies) and $56,000 in cash (equivalent to $1.7 million in 2014). The League’s officers included Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the future President.

The trenches at Petersburg Battlefield (Source: That National Archives and Records Administration)

The trenches at Petersburg Battlefield (Source: That National Archives and Records Administration)

On this Thanksgiving Day, as we sit around enjoying one another’s company, overstuff ourselves with nature’s bounty, and finish off the day with three professional football games, all of us should set aside a few minutes to think about how the random nature of events allows us to enjoy the holiday with family and friends. You may look to any of a panoply of events – war, disease, or other catastrophes. I can look to both sides of the Petersburg line. Happy Thanksgiving!

For more detailed articles about Thanksgiving, 1864, see:

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A Long, Cool Drink

Several years ago, I was on the hunt for water bottles that would keep ice water cold for long periods of time. My search carried me to a local hiking/biking/climbing store. When I told a store clerk about my dilemma, he told me that the body better absorbs the benefits of the water if the water temperature approximates that of the human body. My jaw dropped to the floor. While he may have been right, the last thing I want during a hike is 98.6-degree water. I think most people would side with me on the question.

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.com)

Ice harvesters use a horse-drawn device to mark ice for cutting in Pennsylvania in 1907. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.com)

Our ancestors were no different. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans enjoyed ice-cold beverages whenever they could get their hands on ice. Yes, I’m talking about the wealthy and powerful ancient ones.

Fast forward to 1850 America, and ice had become the United States’ second leading export, thanks in large part to the “Ice King,” Frederic Tudor of Massachusetts. The wealthy had had access to ice long before Tudor arrived on the scene. Initially, in 1806, he focused on making deliveries to the Caribbean. He continued to export ice around the world, but by 1830, he devised the infrastructure within the eastern United States to make ice available to people of modest means.

In the East, the ice was harvested in New York and New England. In the West, Californians got their ice exclusively from Alaska until the Central Pacific Railroad crossed the Sierra Nevada and added the mountain lakes as another resource.

Tudor established ice houses, which served as supply houses (analogize to gasoline tank farms that fuel gasoline delivery trucks). By the late 1800’s, many ice houses were warehouse-size.

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.org)

Ice harvesters break off chunks of ice in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress) (Source: History.org)

The “ice man” drove his wagon to an ice house and loaded the ice for distribution in 25-100 pound blocks to his customers. The ice man chipped the ice to fit his customers’ ice boxes. Ice was used for many purposes other than cooling beverages and as an essential ingredient in ice cream. It also was used to preserve certain foods and medicines.

Ice was exported abroad, sometimes used as ballast in the ships making the deliveries. Saw dust was often used to insulate the ice, both on ships and in the ice houses.

Twentieth century refrigeration brought an end to the large-scale ice business. But each time we go to our “ice box” for a few cubes of ice or a cold beverage, we should realize that our ancestors did not just wait around for the invention of the refrigerator. They knew where to find the ice, and Frederic Tudor devised the means to meet the demand.

And, yes, I found water bottles that fit the bill (novara 24-ounce insulated bottles). I pack them with ice and put them in an insulated Igloo Maxcold pack, which I stuff in my backpack before heading out on an all-day hike. Even after refilling them once in a river or a creek, I always have some ice remaining at the end of the day. No, it’s not 98.6, thank goodness. And, like our ancestors, I’m not waiting around for someone to invent a power backpack to keep the water cold.

The video below is silent but shows how the ice harvesting process worked

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