Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Family Tragedies of Lincoln and Davis

Willie Lincoln (1850-1862) Source: wttv.com

Willie Lincoln (1850-1862) Source: wttv.com

The Lincolns lost their eleven-year-old son, Willie, in February 1862, to typhoid fever. Another son, Eddie, had died of an illness two months shy of his fourth birthday in 1850. The President, in the middle of managing the Union war effort, had little time to grieve. Mrs. Lincoln took Willie’s death particularly hard, later seeking to make contact with him in séances. She often cited Willie’s death as a reason her husband should keep their oldest son, Robert, out of the army. However, despite the Lincolns’ efforts, Robert ultimately served on Grant’s staff in the waning months of the war.

Tad Lincoln also died young at the age of 18 (Source: White House Historical Society)

Tad Lincoln also died young at the age of 18 (Source: White House Historical Society)

One hundred air miles to the south, the Confederacy’s executive couple suffered a tragedy of their own in April 1864, when their five-year-old son, Joe, fell to his death from a second-floor balcony. Like his northern counterpart, President Davis had to continue managing the Southern war effort while grieving a son’s tragic death. Mrs. Davis had to deal with her grief while in the seventh month of pregnancy.

Both deaths were tragic. Willie’s, however, was not out of the ordinary in the 1860s.

Take a look at the obituaries in your local newspaper. This morning, my local paper lists 26 deaths (actually 27, but one obituary does not list the decedent’s age). Twenty-one of those are people who reached at least seventy years of age. In contrast, children five years old or younger accounted for fully half of all deaths in mid-nineteenth-century urban America. The leading causes of death for children were diarrheal (cholera, dysentery, typhoid) and respiratory (tuberculosis, influenza, bronchitis, and pneumonia). 1

Contaminated drinking water was the leading culprit. Death rates for children did not decline appreciably until cities improved water supplies and sewer systems. By 1925, childhood deaths accounted for 25% of all deaths in Chicago.

Improvements in medical science have reduced the numbers even further. In 2007, the CDC reported that children under the age of five accounted for 6.6% of all deaths, with children ages one to four accounting for only 0.12% of all deaths. 2

More recent statistics show accidents as responsible for 34% of deaths for American children under the age of five, whereas pneumonia and influenza contribute to only 2% of such deaths, essentially a reversal of their roles in the 1860s. 3

While soldiers identified their enemies by the color of their uniforms 150 years ago, the country’s children were threatened daily by an invisible enemy lurking in their water supply. Among our blessings this Thanksgiving, we can thank the engineers and scientists who have improved the prospects of our children and grandchildren by providing all of us with cleaner water and significant improvements in medical science.

Sources:

1 Ferrie and Troesken, Death and the City: Chicago’s Mortality Transition, 1850-1925, Working Paper 11427, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA (June 2005)

2 CDC, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality, www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/mortality

3 Singh, GK. Childhood Mortality in the United States, 1935-2007: Large Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities Have Persisted Over Time, A 75th Anniversary Publication. Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Rockville, MD. Department of Health and Human Services (2010)

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Filed under 1800s, American history, disease, history, Lincoln

JFK’s Assassination: A Personal Look Back

This week the media will look back fifty years to remind its audience of the assassination of President John Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Kennedy was 46 years old. My parents were in their mid-forties at the time, only a few years younger than the President.

Life Magazine cover (Source: JFKlibrary.org)

Life magazine cover (Source: JFKlibrary.org)

I was eleven years old, a seventh grader in a Newport News, Virginia public elementary school. I learned the news at the end of the school day. Two miles away, my future wife attended a Catholic school, where her school principal wept openly over the public address system as she told students and teachers about the President’s shooting in Dallas.

In hindsight, one can review the accomplishments and failures of the Kennedy administration with 20/20 clarity. What that type of analysis fails to convey, however, is the mood of the country during the Kennedy years.

My father was an automobile mechanic struggling to build a business several years after suffering broken legs, broken ribs, a pierced lung, and back injuries in a coal mining accident. Our neighbors were army and navy engineers and military officers, many of them in their thirties and early forties. All of them were optimistic about the country’s future, even as the country struggled with civil rights and a Cold War that sometimes became uncomfortably warm.

JFK Jr.'s (also know as John John) famous salute as his father's casket passed by (UPI.com)

JFK Jr.’s (also know as John-John) famous salute as his father’s casket passed by (UPI.com)

The Kennedys generated a sense of optimism. This was a relatively youthful administration when compared to those preceding it (Eisenhower, Truman, FDR). Americans could flip through Life and Look magazines and witness the Kennedy children at play in the White House. They could turn to one of the three networks on black-and-white televisions sets and watch astronauts soar into space in the early stages of America’s race to put a man on the moon.

Sometimes the country just needs a cheerleader, someone who inspires us to accomplish more than we think is possible, someone who inspires us to look beyond ourselves for the greater good of our community (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”). For Democrats, it may be Kennedy. For Republicans, it may be Reagan. In both cases, the men made Americans feel better about themselves, more hopeful for their country. Perhaps we look at some leaders with rose-colored glasses, but occasionally we need their inspiration to give us the determination to face the challenges of another day.

Caroline and John-John playing in the Oval Office (Source: The Tuscon Citizen)

In brighter times, Caroline and John-John play in the Oval Office (Source: The Tuscon Citizen)

John-John hiding under his father's desk in the Oval Office (Source: USA Today)

John-John hiding under his father’s desk in the Oval Office (Source: USA Today)

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Filed under 1900s, American history, history, John F. Kennedy

Lonely Hearts in California

The Gold Rush (Source: Business Insider)

The Gold Rush (Source: Business Insider)

You know the old adage, “necessity is the mother of invention?” Necessity is also the mother of change in attitudes. When young men headed to the California gold fields, with few exceptions, they left the women behind. Most expected to get rich quick and return home with their plunder.

In the late 1840s, men in California outnumbered women by better than nineteen to one. Even at that, many of the women who made the hazardous journey to California sought their fortunes, not by mining California’s rivers for gold, but by selling their companionship to the highest bidder.

Back east, most states followed English common law and bestowed very few rights to women – forget the right to vote – most women enjoyed few property rights, their lot in life dictated by the whims of their husbands.

At the 1849 Monterey, California constitutional convention, California’s early leaders sought to improve their own marital chances by enacting liberal divorce and property laws. They adopted divorce laws that lowered the bar for an unhappy spouse to win court dissolution of an unhappy marriage.

The delegates also adopted the Spanish community property law model rather than the English common law model. This protected women’s property rights in two respects: (1) a woman controlled the property she acquired before marriage or by gift or inheritance during marriage; and (2) a husband and wife were treated as partners, each of whom would share equally in wealth accumulated during their marriage. Thus, a husband could not use his wife’s separate property as his own in some risky venture nor could a creditor go after the wife’s separate property to collect her husband’s debt. If a marriage ended in divorce, half of the property accumulated during the marriage was hers. [Caroline B. Newcombe, The Origin and Civil Law Foundation of the Community Property System, Why California Adopted It and Why Community Property Principles Benefit Women, 11 U. Md. L.J.  Race, Religion, Gender, and Class, Volume 11, Issue 1 (2011); http://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/rrgc/vol11/Iss1/2%5D

The delegates clearly wished to motivate women to join them in California. The risk of losing a bride to divorce or losing property acquired during marriage paled in comparison to the enhanced opportunity of bringing members of the opposite sex to California’s shores. As one bachelor delegate said, “It is the very best provision to get us wives….” [Jo Ann Levy, They Saw the Elephant, p. 190 (Archon Books 1990)]

Henry Halleck, future Union general and thorn in General Grant’s side after the Battle of Shiloh, echoed the sentiment:

I am not wedded either to the common law or the civil law, nor, as yet to a woman; but having some hopes that some time or other I may be wedded, and wishing to avoid the fate of [an unmarried friend], I shall advocate this section in the constitution, and I would call upon all the bachelors in the convention to vote for it.

H. W. Brands, Age of Gold, pp. 283-284 (Anchor Books 2002).

The bachelors got their wish. By 1860, the ratio of men to women in the state dropped from 19:1 to 2:1.

Gold Rush Flyer (Source: Uncyclomedia Commons)

Gold Rush Flyer (Source: Uncyclomedia Commons)

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Pass the Jug or Feed the Children

This May 1863 illustration, titled “Southern women feeling the effects of the rebellion, and creating bread riots,” shows the uprising in Richmond. In addition to food, the rioters took candles, shoes, bolts of cloth, hats and jewelry.

This May 1863 illustration, titled “Southern women feeling the effects of the rebellion, and creating bread riots,” shows the uprising in Richmond. In addition to food, the rioters took candles, shoes, bolts of cloth, hats and jewelry.

During the Civil War, middle class and poor Southerners suffered shortages of many food commodities – meat, coffee, salt, corn, and wheat among others. Corn and wheat were particularly dear, but shortages did not deter corn whiskey manufacturers, who found an eager market for their product.

Let me be clear. Citizens north and south drank, but Northerners produced grains in sufficient quantity to satisfy both their hunger and their thirst. The Union blockade, occasional droughts, and soldiers’ absence from their fields contributed mightily to Southerners’ limited capacity to feed their population.

As early as September 1862, Floyd County, Virginia citizens petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to outlaw the production of alcohol to enable soldiers’ families to obtain bread, noting that “the needy and unprotected families of the poorer classes were the primary sufferers of a recent drought.” [Robinson, “Prohibition in the Confederacy,” American Historical Review (October 1931)]

A group of Catawba County, NC women condemned the liquor manufacturers in an 1862 public notice:

It is but the common and spontaneous voice of the land, that if our country is lost, whiskey will be the cause of it. *** A bountiful Providence has given enough for man and beast; but distillers have already converted so much corn into poison, that prices look like famine ahead . . . .  And now distiller, we ask you, in heaven’s name, is it manly, is it brave, is it not dastardly and unalterably mean to force such prices for bread on us and our children?

Several weeks later, the women followed up their words with action. Armed with axes, they marched into a depot and, over the protests of the distillers, broke open barrels of whiskey totaling almost one thousand gallons. [Yearns and Barrett, North Carolina Civil War Documentary, pp. 177-178, UNC Press (1980)]

While most Southerners suffered, the social elite lived well. “In June 1863, only two months after the Richmond bread riot, Phoebe Pember attended a party with the Cary sisters and a bevy of local belles where she ate strawberries and ice cream and promenaded with handsome ‘cavaliers.’” [Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism, Univ. of Ill. Press, p. 198 (1989)]

For those not so fortunate to indulge in luxuries, the choice was to pass the jug or feed the children.

Other Resources: Article on the Richmond food riot from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Link: www.timesdispatch.com/special-section/the-civil-war/civil-war-th-richmond-bread-riots-were-biggest-civil-uprising/article_faa79410-99a9-11e2-a04a-001a4bcf6878.html

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

Book Signings for My Book ‘New Garden’

As you may or may not have noticed on the ‘About Me’ section of my blog, I recently wrote a book called New Garden. This coming Thursday, November 7 at 7 p.m. I will have a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Greensboro, NC (Friendly Center, 3102 Northline Ave, Greensboro, NC 27408). If you or someone you know live in the area, it would be great to have you there! I will also be doing a book reading/signing at the Jamestown Public Library (200 W Main St, Jamestown, NC 27282) on Friday, November 8 at 11:30 a.m. Hope to see you there.

edwardgrayvisit-1

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