Monthly Archives: October 2013

Would You Like That Suit in Blue or Gray?

You cannot just look at an 1861 map and say all southerners fought for the Confederacy and all northerners fought for the Union. Allegiances were a mixed bag. Some southerners were passionately loyal to the Stars and Stripes. Some northerners had forged family ties with southerners. General George Thomas of Virginia, the Rock of Chickamauga, and Admiral David Farragut of Tennessee were among the better known southerners who retained their allegiance to the Union when their home states seceded. On the other side, Pennsylvania-born John Pemberton led the rebels’ defense of Vicksburg and Maryland-born New York City Deputy Street Commissioner Mansfield Lovell cast his lot with the Confederates.

Admiral David Farragut (Source: education-portal.com)

Admiral David Farragut (Source: education-portal.com)

There are many more examples, but perhaps the most ironic of them all were Farragut and Lovell, who found themselves facing off against one another in the New Orleans campaign. Not only was Farragut southern born, he had twice married southern women, his first wife having died in 1840. He also had a great affinity for Norfolk, Virginia, where he served shortly before the war. Having gone to sea at the age of nine (that’s right, the age of nine!), he was a fifty-one year naval veteran when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. Because of the state of his birth and his marriage to a Virginian, Farragut’s superiors so questioned his loyalty that he was relegated to a seat on the Naval Retirement Board.

In late 1861, however, Farragut’s foster brother, David Porter, convinced Navy Assistant Secretary Fox that Farragut was loyal to the Union cause and had the right stuff to lead a maritime assault on New Orleans, whose capture might help convince European leaders that the rebels lacked the military resources to hold on to a world-class port city.

Commissioner Mansfield Lovell (Source: Wikipedia.org)

Commissioner Mansfield Lovell (Source: Wikipedia.org)

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had selected Mansfield Lovell, a 39-year-old West Pointer to defend the city. When he arrived in New Orleans, Lovell found the city wholly unprepared and could only hope that the forts south of the city, Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, would discourage the Union navy. The Union navy began firing on Fort Jackson on Good Friday, April 18. Farragut intended to reduce both forts to rubble within two days. After six days of unproductive shelling, Farragut decided the forts posed no real threat to his armada’s objective so he left the battered forts behind him and led his fleet north to New Orleans.

For his part, Lovell requested but did not receive help from Richmond. He attempted a variety of defenses, including installing a chain boom across the Mississippi and equipping sidewheel steamboats with cannon. They were no match for the Union fleet. On April 29, the United States flag flew above City Hall and two days later General Benjamin Butler’s Union troops occupied the city.

Northerners honored Farragut, who went on to lead the federal navy to other victories and lived out a distinguished naval career. Southerners never forgave Lovell for the fall of New Orleans. Ultimately, Lovell returned to an engineering career in New York, where he served under the supervision of a former Union general. In view of the South’s failure to appreciate his efforts, perhaps Lovell should have chosen blue rather than gray.

Sources:

Bruce Catton, Terrible Swift Sword (1963).

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville (1958).

Leave a comment

Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, history

Pandemics

Source: New-York Historical Society

Source: New-York Historical Society

Most of us shrug off pandemics as the stuff of movies (Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman) or events that occurred long ago and are unlikely to occur in our lifetimes despite what seem like annual panic reports emanating from the media.  One of the most recent events, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, killed 20 million people in a worldwide population of 1.8 billion, including the character Lavinia in Downton Abbey and 575,000 Americans in a population of 106 million.Let’s look at one pandemic, the Second Cholera Epidemic of 1830-1851, focusing on the California Gold Rush years.

First, what is cholera? The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) defines the disease as “an acute, diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholera and is transmitted by contaminated food or water. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but sometimes it can be severe.” The incubation period is one to five days and the proper treatment is intravenous rehydration.

Source: Wikipedia

Drawing of death wiping out a large crowd with cholera Le Petit Journal. Source: Wikipedia

Before medical professionals understood the science – largely the need for clean water supplies – the infection was rarely “mild.” One could appear perfectly healthy at dawn and be dead by sundown. Cholera, yellow fever, and malaria were the principal reasons fortune hunters from the eastern United States chose to sail around Cape Horn (i.e., the entire continent of South America) or to travel across the continent (before the advent of railroads) rather than take a “short cut” 47 miles across the isthmus of Panama (before the completion of the Panama Company Railroad in 1855).Travelers made the trip in mosquito-infested territory partly by canoe and partly by mules. If all went well, which it seldom did, due to the overwhelming number of travelers, one could make the trip across the isthmus in four to eight days and then pray that a steamship bound for San Francisco was on time and not overbooked. Delays meant increasing chances of infection by mosquitoes or unsanitary food or water. As H.W. Brands (The Age of Gold) and David Lavender (The Great Persuader) graphically illustrate, many fortune hunters who chose the short cut ended their quest in a Panamanian grave. Perhaps being stuck on that tarmac for two hours was not so terrible after all.

But making it to California did not guarantee the good health of the Forty-Niners. Lavender describes an outbreak in Sacramento as follows:

“Cholera, a periodic scourge in the East and Midwest, reached California by ship during the fall of 1850. Sacramento’s first case was a man who dropped writhing on the new levee on October 20. Soon sixty cases were cropping up each day. In a single week 188 of the victims died. By November 9 the toll was said to have reached 600, including seventeen doctors – an estimate, since no one was keeping accurate records. In any event, it was bad enough that four fifths of the city’s terrified populace fled from the town.” (Note: Sacramento’s population in 1850 was approximately 6,800)

The Great Persuader, p. 38

How would we deal with such a pandemic today? We would like to think cholera has been eradicated, but the CDC reports that worldwide there are an estimated three to five million cases of cholera and roughly one hundred thousand deaths from the disease every year. We can only hope that advances in science and more plentiful resources will make cholera a disease of the past.

Sources

  • H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold. New York, New York. Anchor Books, 2002.
  • David Lavender, The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York. Doubleday & Co., 1970.
  • CDC, Cholera – Vibrio cholera infection. http://www.cdc.gov/cholera/illness.html

Leave a comment

Filed under 1900s, American history, CDC, disease, Flu, history

Last Call

Statue of Ulysses S. Grant inside the Capitol

Statue of Ulysses S. Grant inside the Capitol

I find it amusing that some writers direct so much attention to General (and later President) Ulysses S. Grant’s purported drinking problem. At times, I’ve fallen into the same trap, wondering whether some of the speculation is true.

Grant did provide his detractors some material for the charge when as a captain in the army, he was pressured into resigning from the army at Fort Humboldt in 1854 rather than facing a court martial for drunkenness while on duty – a charge that could have been leveled against most of his fellow officers. By that time, Grant had been away from his family so long and missed them so desperately, it took the slightest nudge to put the army behind him.

Any evidence of Grant’s drunkenness after that date is largely speculation. His detractors, both North and South, had plenty of incentive to invent such claims:  Union officers who wanted to advance their own careers by engaging in the age-old practice of disparaging a fellow officer; Southerners who wished to dismiss Grant’s victories on the battlefield as attributable solely to the Union army’s numerical advantage.

This much most historians agree on: Grant never had drinking issues when he was actively engaged in a military campaign or when his family stayed with him at his headquarters (as was the case during the siege of Petersburg). Grant was devoted to both his family and his country’s success in putting down the rebellion.

Another statue of Grant outside of the Capitol

Another statue of Grant outside of the Capitol

Grant succeeded where his predecessors failed. Prior to Grant’s Virginia campaign against Lee, he had notched significant Union victories at Forts Donelson and Henry, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. In Virginia, the Union army primarily fought an entrenched enemy, for which a 3:1 advantage was required for success – an advantage the Union army did not have until Petersburg.

If the Union army was to prevail against a determined well-led enemy, both armies had to suffer casualties at a gut-wrenching level. Both Grant and Lee were brilliant, but both suffered horrendous defeats due to hubris (Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg for Lee) or failure to adequately scout the enemy (Cold Harbor during the Virginia Campaign for Grant), but neither man allowed a single failure to deter him from his larger task.

In brief, the evidence is mixed and should not be cited to some way diminish Grant’s accomplishments. Grant deserves his place in history as the general who “conquered the peace.” At the close of the Civil War, he commanded the largest military force in the world. He won two terms in the White House and probably would have won a third if he had actively sought the Republican Party nomination. He was the most popular man of his time. There’s ample reason the man and his armies are memorialized by statuary on the Washington Mall.

Statue of union troops during the Civil War. Photo taken outside the U.S. Capitol.

Statue of union troops during the Civil War; photo taken outside the U.S. Capitol

For both sides of the argument, go to the following sources:

H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, Doubleday (2012).

Sylvanus Cadwallader, Three Years with Grant, edited by Benjamin P. Thomas, University of Nebraska Press (1955), reprinted by Bison Books (1996) (see pages 70-72 and 113-119 of Bison Books edition).

Leave a comment

Filed under 1800s, American history, Capitol Hill, Civil War, history

Time Zones

You are walking in downtown Philadelphia. You call your friend in Pittsburgh to trash talk about tonight’s 8:00 p.m. game between the Flyers and Penguins in Philly. When the game starts at 8:00 in Philadelphia, it’s 8:00 in Pittsburgh, too, right? Of course, it is. It’s even 8:00 in most of Indiana. The time is the same because the United States adopted four time zones across the lower 48 in the 1918 Standard Time Act.

Before that time, the cities’ clocks could have read differently – 8:00 in Philadelphia, 7:45 in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is roughly 188 miles west of Philadelphia and the “real time” based on the sun’s position in the sky differs one minute every 12.5 miles.

Can you imagine a world where every individual’s clock could vary by minutes rather than by the uniform times largely adopted by most countries? There was a time it was so.

You remember the sun dial. Fortunately, none of us have to go out into our garden (sunny days only) to get a general idea about time. As recently as 1850, it really did not matter that much. Few people traveled more than 12 miles each day. Each town could set its clock tower to “real time.”

Sandford Fleming (thecanadianencyclopedia.com)

Sandford Fleming (Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

The railroads changed all that. In 1880, one could travel over 200 miles in a single day. Train schedules were a real mess. A Canadian railroad engineer, Sandford Fleming, deserves most of the credit for cleaning up that mess by promoting today’s generally uniform time zones in North America. On November 18, 1883, the North American railroads adopted Fleming’s recommended standard times for the railways. In the following year, the International Meridian Conference – in which Fleming was instrumental – was held in Washington, DC. The conference proposed using the Greenwich Meridian for longitudinal references, and adopted a system whereby the 360-degree circumference of the planet was divided by 24, the number of hours in each day, resulting in 24 international time zones covering 15 degrees each.

Many town and city leaders chose not to follow the example set by the railroads. Old habits are hard to break. So it was 1918 before the federal government required them to fall into line.

For me, it’s tough enough adjusting between standard and daylight savings time. Forget adjusting the watch every time I travel more than 12.5 miles east or west!

Current time zones in the U.S. (Source: NationalAtlas.gov)

Current time zones in the U.S. (Source: NationalAtlas.gov)

For more time-related information, go to the following sources:

“The Invention of Clocks,” http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa072801a.htm

“Invention of Standard Time,” www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com

“U.S. Time Zones,” http://aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/us_tzones.php

“A Brief History of Time Zones,” http://www.timeanddate.com/time/time-zones-history.html

“Standard Time Began with the Railroads,” http://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/d.html

Leave a comment

Filed under 1800s, American history, history, railroad

Kutsavi

Before the California Gold Rush, a flourishing trade had been established for centuries among the native American tribes of the Sierra Nevada. The Monos of the eastern Sierra included among their trade goods salt, obsidian, pinon pine nuts, and kutsavi. I describe kutsavi in my historical novel, New Garden:

Prologue, p. vi.

The Yokuts of the western Sierra had given the Paiutes east of the mountains the name “Monachi,” meaning “the fly people.” The whites understood the name as “Mono,” and used that name for the people and the lake where they lived, an ancient terminal saltwater lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. The lake is populated by algae, brine shrimp, and alkali flies. A small migratory tribe with no more than two hundred members, the Mono women harvest the alkali fly pupae each summer. They dry the pupae in the sun and then rub off their shells, leaving a yellow kernel the size of a grain of rice. Each pupa, which the Monos call kutsavi, is rich in fat and protein, providing fifteen calories of nourishment. The kutsavi store easily, critical to surviving a long winter. For hundreds of years, the Monos had used the kutsavi as a major product for trade with the tribes of the western Sierra Nevada.

Mono Lake, where the Mono indians originated. This is a photo I took of it while on a vacation.

Another photo of the beautiful Mono Lake

Another photo of beautiful Mono Lake

It is important to understand that the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada did not loiter, waiting for European Americans to “rescue” them from “primitive” practices by removing them from the land two hundred generations had called home and herding them onto land the European Americans could not use. The native Americans had established food gathering and hunting practices that allowed them to thrive in the world’s most abundant garden, only requiring them to harvest nature’s bounty. They varied their diet by trading food and other products with other tribes.

You can learn more information about the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada from the following sources:

Indian Life of the Yosemite Region, Miwok Material Culture, by Samuel A. Barrett and Edward W. Gifford, Bulletin of Milwaukee Public Museum, Vol. 2, No. 4, March, 1933 (republished by Yosemite National Park, California, Yosemite Association)

Taxonomic Inventory, Insects as Food, by Gene DeFoliart

Kutzakika’a People, by Thomas C. Fletcher

Flies of Fancy: Alkali Flies, by David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized