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My walk begins a few years ago, on a foggy night.

I’m going down Queen Street in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

An old colonial town on the Chester River,  where I’m attending Washington College.

 

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It’s pretty late, nearly midnight, on my nightly walk around town.

Down an all-too-familiar route — the town is small and only the historic district is worth seeing, so I know the path by heart.

I stop to admire #116 on the corner of Queen and High Streets.

My favorite dream home, in a town full of stunningly gorgeous historic homes.

Along the tiny harbor, a row of brick Georgians, some on the National Register, from the days when this was a British port of entry.

 

Widehall LOC

 

Right by the water sits “Widehall”(owned in the past by governors, senators, and judges).

A wonderful scent mixing with the salt water smells, from flowering shrubs in its walled garden.

Next door, is the old Custom House, home at times to British tax collectors and redcoats.

And then to a leader of the Sons of Liberty.  Who traded in slaves.

I wind through the old streets, move quietly down the back alley by the courthouse, and past the old historical society building.

I walk quickly, by Eastern Shore standards.

It is a foggy night, there is a moon up there somewhere in the clouds, and I reach my favorite street.

 

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My footsteps echo against the pavement, I hear each step very clearly.

The dim hum of traffic on Washington Avenue heading toward the bridge fades away.

I vaguely recall checking my phone to see the time, just as it reached midnight.

 

 

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I do not subscribe to a belief in ghosts or spirits, but at that particular witching hour, I am quite convinced that for the minute and a half it took me to reach the end of the street, I stepped back in time.

Walking swiftly through a swirling fog, in the warm, humid, late-spring air of Maryland, the noise of the cars was silenced, and I heard what sounded like horse hooves clopping behind me.

I turned and looked, but there was nothing, just fog and the same old houses I’d been admiring each night for years.

I continued walking, and mid-stride, I again heard the sound of horse hooves striking cobbles, and maybe a sound like a cane clacking against the brick pavers.

 

107 Water St

 

By the time I reached Queen Street where it becomes wider and busier, as it meets High Street, I returned to the present.

I was aware suddenly of the steady stream of sound of cars going over the bridge across the river.

But, I was sure that, only a moment ago, I had not heard any cars, nor did I recall that that the temperature had just been this humid and breezy.

I had walked into a patch of warmth, silent of the sounds of the modern era, and, upon reflection, were the street lights really that dim, or did they just not appear a moment ago?

I’ve read about “marine inversion layers” and other weather phenomena, that refract sound waves, and all that.

None of those meteorological books mention horse hooves.

 

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Midnight in Paris may be a more romantic vision, but a late-night stroll in Chestertown is apparently magical. There is something in that town’s old district that lulls you into feeling at home, wanting to linger longer. You find yourself drawn to it, walking it’s streets every night, researching the old homes that you secretly wish you could step into, if only for a minute.

Walking back from this neighborhood, I realized how I was a bit sad to be walking around in what was clearly modern times, passing the seedy Royal Farms and the beat-up gas station, where girls always worried about getting hassled.

This modern era wasn’t the town I loved.

As I reflect on it, that particular corner, Queen and High Street, really is “magical.”  Never did I feel stressed once I walked down past it, and life seemed slower. The pace of the town was muted on that street at night.  My favorite, familiar houses seemed so inviting.

On another night, after a day filled with lectures and talking, walking late with a friend who appreciated silence and the old houses as much as I did, I think I was again aware of a shift in time, although this second time the shift felt less dramatic.

The old Imperial Hotel, ritzy, too pricey for me to pay too many visits, also seemed to slow down time, and its bar exudes the 1920’s, the perfect place for a Sidecar or Gin Rickey.  Memorable for having my first and best Bloody Mary there.  It felt like the Twenties:  the music, spiffy clientele, seersucker suits, the whispered conversations. This may be partially due to the amount of vodka in the Bloody Mary (and I may have had more than one, because they were so good),  but I distinctly remember feeling this way even before I took my first sip. It is of no great surprise that this copacetic joint sits on the corner of Queen and High.

I digress; before soaking up atmosphere and alcohol at the Imperial Hotel, I was walking.

Farther along High Street, near Philosopher’s Terrace, it’s not fun at night.  Or ever.  It smells of diesel.  Local unwashed and resentful denizens hang out by the low-rent housing on the corner, shouting and gesticulating toward you, as you go by at night.  Then you pass the frat boys, lounging about their dilapidated off-campus houses for a stretch, until you reach the college. That night, the night I heard horses, late though it was, the magic was starting to wear off as the noise of cars, the shouts of local hooligans, and the music and drunken sounds of a frat party drowned out my midnight reverie.

Turning down another street to escape back into the silent night.   Walking up to my dorm, an old brick pile from the 1800’s, I once again felt the warm glow of walking through a quiet time, though I knew I was in my own era, as a Volvo slowly glided past, and the glow of an iPhone illuminated a silhouette smoking a cigarette. I looked down, and my magical encounter had ended, but it renewed my enthusiasm for that little town at the edge of the River Chester.

 

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my home for senior year.

 

 

Chestertown History, Colonial History, Uncategorized

A Walk Through Colonial America, Part II ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ A Foggy Night in Chestertown, Maryland 1706

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Colonial History, History, Uncategorized

A Walk through Colonial America. Part I. Jamestowne, Virginia 1607

 

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Have you ever had someone say to you, “Can we talk while we walk?”  That’s what I want to do here.

The walk begins in Jamestowne, Virginia.

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On the surface, not much survives from colonial days.  A ruined church tower and graves, huddled next to the James River, on a swampy, bug-infested little island.

Nonetheless, I’ll  begin by endorsing the bold claim that Jamestown is the best place, to begin a walk through American colonial days.

In 1607, with a little band of Englishmen, landing on a miserable, malarial spit of land in Virginia.

Not with the Spanish in Florida, the French in Canada, the Dutch in New York, or the Pilgrims in New England.

But this post isn’t to argue that point.  It is to talk about gaining insights into history, by visiting the sites.  It’s part of a larger, and mostly out-of-fashion, empathetic approach to learning about the past.

 

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It is a strange thing.  America’s saga – – one of immigration, revolution, movement, progress, and tremendous change, begins in a place where it appears nothing much has changed.

 

IMG_1531Mostly because this Good Place To Start…is a bad place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the summer, Jamestown Island is kind of a pest hole.  Full of mud, the water in the swamps full of natural toxins (plus new pollutants from upstream), riddled with ticks and chiggers and mosquitoes and any number of multi-legged freaks that bite, sting, suck your blood, and perhaps give you a nasty disease.  My time there required gallons of aloe, calamine, and bug repellent.  And antibiotics, when I tested positive for Lyme disease.  And as more pests and diseases head our way, they will probably find this island.  Many folks forget that malaria used to be endemic in places like this, and wasn’t really wiped out in the U.S., by hosing down the landscape with DDT, until after WWII.

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Flea. Hooke’s “Micrographia” 1665

 

I spent the summer of ’14 working as an intern and docent at Historic Jamestowne. While I loved my work, and working with some great people from Preservation Virginia, I surely did not care for the locale.  The temperature passed 100 Fahrenheit almost every day, and the humidity seemed to be trying to exceed 100, too.  If we could time-travel, I’d probably try to persuade the Virginia Company to continue northward to the Hudson River.   Or maybe even Hudson Bay.  Someplace cooler, anyway.

IMG_8360To someone used to a more northern climate, it seemed hot, sticky, and terrible, even without the 1607 perils of  dysentery, famine, and ambushes.

Ok, so maybe things weren’t quite as terrible as during the old days.

 

 

On the other hand, by arriving early, the original settlers didn’t have to put up with America First-ers.

Not the political group, but the haughty “My ancestors were the Hereditary Squires of Dripping Snodsbury, who stepped off the Mayflower, onto Plymouth Rock, laden with antique bed-warmers, brass thunder jugs, and rigid religious convictions …”  who do not want to hear any history that isn’t the apotheosis of English colonialist heroism, and the sacred birthplace of Patriot democracy and manifest destiny.

The reality of a desperate, starving, backstabbing, murderous little Bedlam clashes a bit with their legends.

People of color, standing in the shadow of the ruined church, ask about another first:  the first shipload of African captives to arrive in Virginia.  (On an English ship, sailing as a Dutch privateer, which captured the Africans from a Portuguese slaver – a real EU common market of misery.)

Native Americans also visit, and desire to hear a narrative of a bucolic, endlessly harmonious, precolonial Eden, ruined by an invasion of disease-laden illegal aliens.

If you can balance and placate all these parties in the same talk, you should run for office.

At least, as far as I remember, even if somebody didn’t care for my lecture, I never heard an arrow or musket ball whistle past.

And seriously, I appreciated 99.9% of visitors — people who take the time to visit, to learn, and who care about history, care enough to form an opinion, and can share their family histories without snobbery!  I enjoyed giving tours to visitors from all over the world, and was fascinated by everyone’s stories, and their incredible array of viewpoints and conceptions of history.

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Who first said, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”? I’m thinking, Beelzebub?

I was thrilled to work among fascinating artifacts (more being uncovered every day!), wandering among the active dig site and learning more as I went.

The site is unusual in that the archaeologists are doing their level best to do a clean sweep.  Usually a small portion of a site is dug, and the rest reserved for future researchers, who may have more sophisticated technology.  But here, salt water encroachment is dissolving artifacts at a pretty good clip, so they’re trying to dig and conserve them, before they vanish.

 

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The Past.  In Past Tense.

I believe it is important to learn history “In person.  On site.”  Meaning, go to where it happened.

Why?  Just say “historic preservation” three times, and most people lapse into a coma, like an incantation of boredom.

 

Captain Smith's Map of Viriginia LOC

Captain Smith’s excellent map of Virginia. LOC

 

Why bother going to these sites? The colonists are long dead and gone, their little fort and pathetic shelters also returned to dust.  The first five hundred didn’t have much time to make a mark, really, since all but sixty would be dead within a year. Why go “some place where something happened.”  Past tense.  Then, but not Now.

Why not just find a comfortable armchair, and read about it.  Actually, I love that!  Historians, when they’re good, boil down so much research and thought, and pour it out for us, nice and smooth.  They make things accessible, organized, and so very clear.  We can just sit back and enjoy the narrative, as history marches along, obeying the Zeitgeist, every character in perfect step.

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17th c. church tower under repair, and statue of the intrepid Captain John Smith

 

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The historical story-telling started right at the start, with Captain John Smith, a pretty amazing guy. Man, what I would give to hoist a few flagons with this man

So many amazing people have devoted themselves to writing history – digging, sifting, reassembling, distilling.  Peering through complex lenses in the mind’s eye, re-imagining, so they can draw for us, all the interwoven paths and patterns invisible to ordinary folks just existing day-to-day.

I love diving into history books.  But, here’s a recent news flash — you cannot understand everything about life by reading. You also need to experience it. What does 110 degrees feel like in the Virginia summer?  Stand in the sun there for a summer, trying to focus while feeling various blood-sucking bugs crawl up your legs to reach embarrassing places, and you have a better grasp, better than any book can convey, of at least one aspect of the colonists’ lives. I came to the realization, that I don’t think clearly in weather like this, don’t feel well, and would undoubtedly pass out if I was chopping down trees, trying to put up a palisade.  And I wasn’t starving to death, half-poisoned by tainted well water, encased in wool, leather and steel, capped off with a Sancho Panza tin hat, and terrified of getting an arrow in my back.  The steamy weather also made me feel short-tempered – probably not a good idea to let me have a sword handy.  Not surprising they found the remains of what was probably the first accidental gunshot victim in America.

 

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I do not think for an instant, that we can really “walk the walk,” meaning, replicate the experience or mindset of those folks in 1607.  But I do believe, simply put, that experiencing these places can yield some insights not available from a book.  In a similar way, probably some people find it easy to mock reenactors.  To them, the hardcores in Tony Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” might appear faintly ridiculous.  I think, that they probably know a few things about the Civil War, that we do not.

Some good guys from Friends of the James River and Preservation Virginia. This sturgeon is being tagged & released – when the settlers arrived, the James River was teeming with fish

 

V0030081 X-ray, skull Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org X-ray of a skull, in profile. Photograph, ca. 1915 1915 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

Immovable Feast

We learn so much from doing.  Of course, you have to draw a line somewhere.  For me, at Jamestown, it was meals.  And the historical question “Do we really taste like chicken?

L0041127 Hand coloured illustration of facial surgery Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Hand coloured illustration of facial surgery and suturing technique. 1561 By: Ambroise ParéLa methode curative des playes, et fractures de la teste humaine. : Avec les pourtraits des instruments necessaires pour la curation d'icelles. / Ambroise Pari Published: 1561. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

1561 Ambroise Paré. Wellcome Library

What made cannibalism, totally taboo and almost unheard of in American history, come to life for me?  One day I found myself staring into the empty eye sockets of a skull, unearthed from a rubbish pit, and then unable to stop staring at the knife marks on it, where a starving colonial cut the flesh and ligaments off the face of the deceased girl.  No matter how cerebral the author, or how sinewy the prose, a book about the Starving Time will never have the visceral impact that skull did.

The fleshless skull brought history to life for me. I’d read, studied, and listened to lectures about the colony and its woes, but until I worked at the site, and among the artifacts and relics found there, I had not really felt their desperation.

Living on a student stipend, I opened my brown bag, and each day, felt sincerely grateful for my peanut butter sandwich.

L0018633 X-ray photograph of Lord Lister's hand Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org X-ray photograph of Lord Lister's hand with ring on fifth finger Photograph Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

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I’ve fiddled with this picture, trying to highlight the post holes. The one center right, is the really cool one. The littoral & literal edge of empire.

 

It Ain’t Much, It’s Just a Hole in the Ground

Here is another example from that summer of 2014.  While I was there, archaeologists uncovered something spectacular and exciting, in it’s own way.

It was a hole in the ground.

And the decayed remains of a wooden stump.

Actually, the spot where a hole used to be.

Exciting, right?  I can tell you’re impressed.

But when Bill Kelso, the famous archaeologist who’s been digging there many years, looked down at that particular posthole, he realized we were looking at the exact, literal edge of the British Empire.

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The colonists’ first concern at Jamestowne was being slaughtered by the Spanish, so a three-sided fort was quickly thrown up, with cannons pointed toward the river.  But when the native inhabitants became hostile, the British fell back on their experience in Ireland, combating ambush-style fighting in the Ulster Plantation, and created a five-sided fort.  The posthole they uncovered while I was there, was a remnant of this 1608 palisade.

Suddenly I felt that I was living history. In history classes and travel, it seemed I was always, always running into Englishmen Abroad.  Hong Kong.  Singapore.  Sepoy Rebellion.  East India Company.  Jamaica, mon.  Prudential’s Rock of Gibraltar.  Rhodes Scholars/Boer Wars/South Africa.  Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham.  A cup of tea from Kenya.  Kiwi from New Zealand.  Henry Hudson sailing through NY.  Dr. Watson’s limp from a Jezail bullet.  54° 40′ or Fight.  The Falklands War.  etc.   I can keep going all day, it’s no problem.

And of course, there was this local dispute between English folks, in 1775.   So the idea that The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire was embedded in my mind.

But what I was looking straight down at, just an image in the clay, was the farthest extent of that empire in 1608.  The whole glorious imperial affair, almost four thousand miles across the Atlantic from London, terminated in a choleric swamp in coastal Virginia, marked by a bit of stump in a soggy hole.  The rest of North America, and the world, was “beyond the pale.”

 

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Alfred Waud’s 1864 sketch of the church tower. LOC

 

Jamestown felt like my first face-to-face encounter with history. From then on, I began to experience history on a personal level, driving me to work harder, dig deeper, and ask more questions.  It’s a good place to think this way, since forty years ago, the experts advised Dr. Kelso, that Jamestowne had long ago washed into the river.  He questioned, dug, and found the site.

…On with the walk.  Moving up a century, and farther upstream…next stop, Chestertown, on the Chester River, in Maryland.

I promise, no more famine, no cannibalism, no blood-sucking pests…well, there will be British tax collectors.

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A “quantitative” historian in his next life.

 

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Chestertown History, History

The Sultana. The beautiful ship. Sailing on the…great blue wet thing.

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The sun rises over the Bay.  Vibrant hues of pink and red intensify, and I watch as the nation’s largest and most storied bay is illuminated, wave by wave, in resplendent colors.

You have to get a bit poetic, and delve into your vocabulary, for settings like this.

That morning, one of the major tributaries of this great bay was already buzzing with life in the pre-dawn hours.

I was awakened just before the sun began to clamber up into the sky, the dark stillness of night transforming into a subtle blue, though barely illuminated.

Like walking through a house in the dimness, save for the reflected light from a room far down the hallway.

Amidst all this beauty and poetry,  jolted awake on deck when a radio blares out the new draft picks for the Baltimore Orioles and an outboard motor starts roaring, both belonging to a fishing boat racing by.

11665373_1164026036956292_2603883201118270301_nI was, with nine classmates, sleeping in the middle of the Chester River on a tiny schooner, the Sultana.  We’re sailing down into the Chesapeake Bay.

While many people will always recall their first days at college, most do not begin their four-year journey on a recreated 18th-century British sailing ship. It was an odd start, but a good one, beginning the process of washing away high school routines and discovering a bigger world.

The original HMS Sultana was a miniature (fifty-nine foot) two-masted ship, Boston-built in 1767, patrolling up the Atlantic coast as far as Nova Scotia, as a British revenue cutter.  It had the distinction of being the smallest warship in His Majesty’s Fleet.  In the old days, almost all of the original crew deserted.

It’s pretty cramped below-desks, and maybe they got on each other’s nerves.  Or got tired of eating lobscouse and maggoty biscuits.

But we didn’t eat lobscouse, as far as I know.  I keep looking it up, but then forget what the heck it is.

And I did not desert.  I loved this little ship.

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A scurvy lot of scoundrels

Washington College, in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, arranged this freshman experience with the Sultana Foundation.  So there I was, a shy young landlubber from the hinterlands, raised far from salt water, on a wooden ship full of strangers, two thousand square feet of canvas, and a lot of complicated ropes (sheets?) for a week. With the exception of a backup diesel in the hold, it was authentic down to the working swivel-guns.  And it was awesome.

photo from the Washington College website. That’s the Kalmar Nykel on the far left, from Wilmington, a replica of the Dutch ship, that carried over Swedish settlers in the 1600’s. Portside, I meant to say.

The most remarkable memory for me was the first night, sleeping above decks, seeing more stars than I had ever seen, other than in the Adirondacks.  Despite being on the edge of the light pollution from the vast megalopolis across the bay (DC-Baltimore-Philly) we could look up into a fantastic number of stars and shooting stars.

10408511_1019514914740739_3930343943261198002_nSleeping on the decks felt great, and it seemed less humid on the river than ashore in Maryland.  Waking up early, we felt pretty cool even in August.

Half-way through our voyage, we stepped ashore just in time to feel waves.

Generally not an active seismic area, on August 23, 2011, an earthquake rocked Washington D.C., with tremors felt as far north as New England.  The shockwave cracked the Washington Monument, and the chimneys of my college president’s historic home. We were in a van, going on an excursion off the boat for one day, when it struck, and we just assumed the boom was the van backfiring.  Later we learned it was a quake.

The next day, we were back aboard the ship, after a long day of sightseeing, history and culture lessons about the Chesapeake region, and an impromptu lesson on seismology.  But a personal highlight of the little voyage was next, and also happened on land.

We had sailed a bit farther down the widening river, closer and closer to the Bay itself, and had arrived at the rural Maryland equivalent of “Millionaire’s Row.”  Maryland is the richest state in the USA per capita, jammed with millionaires and billionaires, so a long succession of waterfront mansions wasn’t anything noteworthy to the locals.  But when we docked at one, I was pretty excited.  When a kid from a poor, rural, nothing town gets to spend the night at a mansion, it’s kind of a kick.

Well, technically, not actually guests in the mansion.  We kind of went round the backdoor, and slept in the boathouse!  Still very fun – their “boat house” was massive, enough room for two yachts, with a bathroom and a lounge of sorts.  (What Mel Brooks movie had that sign, “Our Bathrooms Are Nicer Than Most People’s Homes“?)

We slept fairly comfortably there and when I awoke, a sartorially-elegant and very dignified man greeted us. I was happy to be able to thank the owner for his hospitality, and told him, I thought his place was lovely.

He laughed, and told me, he was just the butler.

This mansion, or I should say, villa (complete with an actual Roman bath/pool that we enjoyed, pilfered sometime in the last century from somewhere in the Ancient World), belonged to none other than the former owner of RCA, or some such mega-corporation.  (And in case I didn’t come across right, I’m grateful that he let a mob of college kids stay on his estate.) 

So that’s all I wanted to write about that trip – – no typhoons, U-boats, or mermaids to report.  Kind of tame, but not everyone is cut out for “The Perfect Storm.”  And if you think about it, that book wasn’t autobiographical.  Because the crew was all underwater.  If I have to choose, I’d  prefer my writing to be dry instead of posthumous.  But maybe you don’t agree!  

I love history, don’t know if I ever mentioned that.  Claiming that this brief college cruise gave me a deep insight into the Age of Sail would be pretentious and idiotic, but you have to seize upon whatever fragments or experiences you can.  Enjoying the stars, or crammed below-decks when it rained, we perhaps gained a tiny, foggy glimpse of something of the past, that we hadn’t seen before.  That’s all.

What also impresses me about this, is how quickly my own trip seems like Ancient History.  

It really seems like quite a long while ago, and already my memories are jumbled.  I know the chronometer was invented for sailors, roughly about the same time as the original Sultana was launched, but somehow, “being at sea” left me chronologically-confused as to where and when we sailed.  (And before you say anything — the water was brackish, and connected eventually to the Atlantic, so I’m calling it “at sea,” so sue me.)  But I think the memories, however disjointed, will stick with me, and whenever I read a mariner’s tale, or see sails out on the water, I start dreaming of a sea voyage. 

Walter Mitty at the helm

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hiking, travel, Uncategorized

Erosion and Exclusion – An American Experience of the Southwest

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I’m a New Yorker.  I grew up Upstate — the small-town part, farms, woods, far from NYC.

So it’s funny, while I was going to college in Asia, whenever someone brought up “America,” the first image in my mind wasn’t New York, but the deserts of the Southwest.

Getting ready to study abroad in Hong Kong, I had decided to see more of my own country first. And so I went “Out West.”

IMG_7549The American West has long captured the hearts and imaginations of many.  The romantic image of it, anyway.  The Rocky Mountains, vast cornfields, prairies, cowboys, fancy boots, ten-gallon hats, sixguns, cattle drives, herds of bison, the endless expanses of range and desert, where sky and ground meet for mile upon mile.

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N. C. Wyeth. Another Easterner who was fascinated by the West.

Traveling around the West was an extraordinary experience – in many ways, it was exactly like visiting a foreign nation.  You feel a connection to the people there — one minute, incredibly different from the ones I grew up with, and the next, exactly the same. The English have certain characteristics that allow you to differentiate instantly between an American and a Brit, or a Londoner from a Geordie for that matter.  But these Westerners, it was harder to put your finger on it – they were a different sort of American, and slippery to define.

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Almost like an alternative universe. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I comprehend more clearly, what an intractable mess a President has to preside over.     He’s ruling over an area that flies the same flag as the East, and yet doesn’t live by the same rules, the same attitudes, or the same culture.In the East, where we’re familiar with the networks of money and tradition that hold the key to power and happiness, we aren’t clear how things work in the West.

 

IMG_7550 (1)A lot of people think of the American West as being…what, exactly?

Rougher.  Decadent in some way.  Spanish.  Less talkative.  Less emotional.  Unlike us.

And some truth there.  They aren’t like us.  The people I met in the West seemed odd, in unpredictable ways.  Flagstaff has cowboys who vote left. People in Santa Fe have no sense of time.  Grizzled, bearded old guys in Colorado, looking tough as hell, were really friendly.

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I think that is part of the allure of the West, it is rapidly changing and yet it feels timeless. In the east there is a heart attack-inducing, blood pressure-raising frenetic energy, as millions of people clog roadways, crowd walkways, jam cities, swarm suburbs, flood villages. Everyone in the East is in a hurry, industrious and hard-working. And yet, most of this nation’s businesses are moving west. Their cities have sprawl, pollution, traffic as bad or worse than ours, and they mostly lack the public transportation we have in the East Coast.

But as a Rule, they also Take It Down a Notch – you don’t feel harried, you don’t feel stressed out. There’s a calmness that pervades everything.

I’m sure they live longer out there because of that, in fact I’m certain that’s the key. Perhaps it’s the Spanish heritage, because I got a similar feeling in Spain.  But how much does that explain?  British origins aren’t to blame for the East Coast’s behavior — look at the chilled-out behavior of Australians or Canadians.

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But I see the appeal of the West, and why so many people from overseas view it as the true America. The character and virtues we’re known for still ride the range there – a world less superficial, and without the East’s stagnation.  A spirit of freedom and independence pervades.

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N. C. Wyeth

This was the first time I really felt like the U.S. is a nation of nations. Sometimes Americans criticize China and Russia as being too multicultural – meaning they’re unhappy, dissonant empires – and would be better off broken into a bunch of smaller states.

But maybe this is true of the U.S., too?  I don’t think a Yankee from Massachusetts identifies with a person from Tupelo or Santa Fe.  Yes, there’s that American Identity throughout the USA, but spend one day, and you know that each region interprets “American” way differently. The politic strife of this century shows that each state is still almost a separate nation, legally, but it is the regional differences that play a bigger role in many regards.

A Marylander seems no different than a Virginian, other than than cuisine. But a person from California is just not the same as a person from Connecticut.   Our regions still dominate our mindsets. We’re a transient society, and yet that hasn’t seemed to have much of an effect on the bits of culture that are distinctly regional.

I found Westerners to be better in some ways. They don’t conform to the same systems as we do in the East, systems that are familiar but limiting. There is a sense of freedom that you cannot feel in the East, a sense of optimism, open and unbridled ambition, and a down-to-earth sensibility that makes you realize, for example, these cowboy Navajo strangers know what they are doing and how to do it.

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And then I found an even deeper divide, literally and figuratively.  The biggest culture shock came from visiting the “fourth world” in the Grand Canyon.

The Fourth World is not a clear concept to most Americans, because it’s something we try hard to ignore, talk around, excuse, or keep hushed up.  Like pretending not to notice an ulcer or cyst on a person’s body.  It is our undeclared gulag system.

Basically, it is a third world nation within the confines of a first world nation.

Some reservations are nice. Really nice, in fact.  The Indians who were fortunate enough to be exiled where natural gas or oil was discovered, or who built a successful casino, live pretty well. The houses belonging to the Navajo in Northern Arizona show they aren’t hurting for money.

But go into the heart of the Grand Canyon, to see the Havasupi tribe’s last outpost. Sorry I don’t have a more clever metaphor – you just keep going downhill, literally a mile down into the earth, and hit something close to rock bottom economically.   The tribe’s Supai village, a few hundred residents, is on the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  It’s pummeled by oppressive heat and sand storms. There’s no road that goes there, and therefore there aren’t any cars.

Well that’s not entirely true, I saw one pickup truck, but I honestly don’t know how it got down there. To get to the village, you walk eight miles down the canyon, or take a burro, or a helicopter.  I spent one night there with some classmates.  The Havasupi have been there over 800 years.

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The town was like something you’d see in a cowboy movie, a low-budget,  black-and-white spaghetti western. Shacks, with tin roofs. Dirt streets, tamped down by bare feet. Horses and dogs roaming around.  I’ve never seen dogs that looked so skinny, sick, and diseased.  There was a post office, a “hospital,” general store, a tiny church or two.  And a restaurant, because the village is a bit of a destination for European tourists.

The store was mostly empty, and what they did stock was all bad for you. Little wonder that 90% of Havasupi have diabetes. Shirtless kids roamed the streets, and old men and women, with faces wrinkled by time and sun, sat outside – just sitting, and staring.  They look at their young people, many of them losing their cultural identity. Many of the old ones had already lost their own identity for that matter, in their day, forced into government schools to be “Americanized”.

This squalor is in an absolutely beautiful spot.  It’s an odd contrast, this decrepit village next to the turquoise waters of the Supai falls. Cool natural rock pools, with water from the stream offering a respite from the sun.

Until we realized the water was fouled by horses and whatever else was living upstream.

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The entire time I was there, I felt uneasy. I didn’t know what it was at the time.

It was partially heat- and diet-related, I’m sure of that, but I also think it was, in retrospect, the realization that this sort of poverty should not exist, anywhere. And especially not in the United States. It felt like a movie set, except that the people were not actors. We were outsiders, often met with hostile glares. I understand this resentment of course – to them, all of us Anglos [white people] were the reason that for many years, this sweltering, fly- infested valley was all they had left of their ancestral lands.

A century ago, the National Park Service, and the Navajos, the Havasupai’s much-bigger rivals, finagled and seized the canyon, leaving only a few hundred acres and this tiny Supai village as a token of their “good will”. So it was a nation inside a nation inside a nation. And it wasn’t doing too well. It reminded me of a UNICEF advertisement, except it didn’t even have a famous actress involved, telling us to donate.  They finally prevailed in court, and regained their territory, but it doesn’t seem to have brought them much joy.

I left that part feeling very confused, a combination of exhaustion, anger, curiosity and maybe even fear.  I guess sometime, most people have, at least for a second or too, looked at a textbook picture of some medical condition, a disgusting abssess or horrible wound, before slamming the book shut, yuck.

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Let’s be honest, I also felt moments of excitement, because in a weird way it was exciting to see.  And also, I knew I was going to helicopter the hell out of there.  We flew out, and the little village faded into nothing as soon as we rose above the chasm’s edge.

The only places “officially” classified as 4th World in the US are the reservations for the native peoples.  Now that I’m living in Milwaukee, it’s too obvious that the inner cities of some cities qualify.  I’ve realized you don’t have to hide the 4th World in the bottom of the deepest canyon.  You don’t need “Indian Treaties,” fences, or walls.  It can be a few blocks away and remain invisible to most people.

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Baltimore, Civil War, History

So, a Maryland farmer, a Philadelphia lawyer, and the Taliban go to the Bar…

I lived in one former colonial enclave in China (Hong Kong), and visited another one (Macau).  Both cities were returned to native control, and so Britain and Portugal have better odds of having friendly relations with China.

This summer, watching Cuba reopen their embassy in Washington, something brought these former colonies to mind — some of the Cubans wanted us to know, that they’re still angry about our own little U.S. enclave — we continue to occupy 45 square miles of their country at Guantanamo Bay.

I’m not sure why we’re still there, or how useful the naval base is, now that our Navy doesn’t employ a whole lot of coal-fired dreadnoughts.   But I guess it’s just hard to give up such a fantastic rent-controlled lease.  Maybe a better deal than the Dutch got for Manhattan – – we’re paying less than 18 cents a year per acre, and it’s beachfront! And the Cubans refuse to cash the checks!

This is a history site, and not a rant about current events or gulags.

But reading about Guantanamo in 2015…

brought up a 2004 Supreme Court case for a prisoner there, Hamdi v Rumsfeld...

and reading about the Hamdi case, brought up the 1861 Merryman Case, which took place in Maryland, during the Civil War.

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IN 1861, we didn’t have Cuba to dump prisoners, so we used Baltimore’s own Fort McHenry.  And both Guantanamo and Fort McHenry were what Hamdi’s lawyer, Lt. Com. Charles Swift (USN),  called “the legal equivalent of outer space”.

I’ll reassure you — we’re gettin’ back to that old-time history just as quick as we can.

So, soon, really soon, I’ll dump Hamdi, Rumsfeld, Cuba, the Taliban, and Antonin Scalia, and all the lawyers in the sea, and we’ll talk about 1861 Maryland in the Civil War.

I have to be honest, I cannot get rid of the lawyers just yet, they have to stay in the story, but I promise to keep them under control.

The only legal term I’ll allow: “habeas corpus.”

We all know what that means.

Wait… no we really don’t, we just pretend.

OK, habeas corpus at its simplest:  you need to have proper legal authority to hold someone as a prisoner.

Yaser Esam Hamdi was born 1980 in Louisiana. He and his parents returned to Saudi Arabia when he was a kid, and eventually he went to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Whether or not he fought with them is apparently unclear. He was captured by anti-Taliban forces, handed over to the U.S. Army, and shipped to Guatanamo. He was classified as an “illegal enemy combatant.”

His family maintained that, as a U.S. citizen, he was entitled to his civil rights: an attorney, due process, and a trial. They filed a habeas corpus suit, which the government fought all the way to the Supreme Court. In brief, the Court decided that the President does not have the right to hold a U.S. citizen indefinitely without due process. U.S. citizens have a right to (eventually) have their day in court, even if captured as enemy combatants.

Even though Hamdi “won”, the Supreme Court justices were all over the map on what the President and Army should do, could do, and could not do.

And one justice, Scalia, dissented from the whole mishegoss, and said Hamdi should either be tried in a civilian court, or cut loose.   If this be treason, charge him and try him. And when he washed his hands of the decision, he went back to a case from 1861 Civil War Maryland, and a Chief Justice from Maryland, Roger Brooke Taney.

Taney and Scalia believed that only Congress, not the President, and not the U.S. Army, could suspend habeas corpus, and just dump people in a black hole indefinitely.

And yet, in 1861 or 2004, issues are never really 100% clear.

Hamdi was released, free of charges, but only on the condition that he be deported to Saudi Arabia, renounce his U.S. citizenship, and never return. So Hamdi is gone, and this article isn’t about him.

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Chief Justice Taney, appearing as Marley’s Ghost. LOC

In fact, this story takes place largely in 1861 Maryland. The three main characters involved are:

Roger Taney, Frederick, Maryland,
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

John Merryman, Hayfields Estate, Cockeysville, Maryland
Farmer & 1st Lt., Baltimore Horse Guards.

George Cadwalader, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Attorney and Major General, Union Army.

George Cadwalader Mexican-American War

George Cadwalader during the Mexican-American War. LOC

On April 12, 1861, Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. The real shooting war had started.

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Baltimore Riot. Currier and Ives. LOC

A week later, mobs attacked U.S. troops marching through Baltimore, on their way to defend Washington, and Lincoln declared martial law in Maryland.  If you’ve ever seen the old cannons on Baltimore’s Federal Hill, you may notice, they’re pointed toward the city — Union soldiers built and occupied a fort there after the riot, and stayed throughout the war, not to defend the port from raiders, but to keep the locals under control.

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Fort Federal Hill, Baltimore. LOC

Lincoln asked his Attorney General for an opinion on suspending habeas corpus during the emergency. Congress was in recess, and the President looked to the Constitution and read:

  The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when  In Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

There was clearly a rebellion under way, and Lincoln ordered the army to suspend habeas corpus when necessary.

The pro-south Governor of Maryland demanded that no more U.S. soldiers be sent through his state, and when this was refused, he ordered the state militia to destroy the railroad lines and bridges north of town, to prevent any more U.S. troops from entering (and pretty much cutting off Washington from the northern states). Merryman commanded one of the militia units destroying the railroad bridges.

Merryman letterhead LOC

Anyone with such contented-looking livestock cannot be all bad. LOC

Late one night, shortly after the bridges were burnt, Union soldiers arrived at Merryman’s farm.

  • Merryman indicated he was a state militia officer
  • & Just Following Orders.
  • The soldiers accused him of treason, seized him, and tossed him into Fort McHenry.

And there he stayed. His lawyer asked for a writ of habeas corpus, and Justice Taney granted it.

Merryman was now supposed to be brought to court, for a judge to consider the charges.  But General Cadwalader indicated that he could not hand over the prisoner.

  • Cadwalader indicated that he was a federal army officer
  • & Just Following Orders.
  • Taney then ordered General Cadwalader to be arrested for contempt.

So, a U.S. Marshal from Baltimore went to Fort McHenry, to serve an arrest warrant on a Major General in the U.S. Army.

  • The Fort told the Marshal that they weren’t supposed to open the door to strangers.
  • They mentioned that they had a lot of guns,
  • and that it would be a good idea if he went away now,
  • and he did.

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Taney advised the Marshal that he was duty-bound to raise a posse, and to use force if necessary, but when the Marshal pointed out that Fort McHenry really did have a whole lot of guns, even for Maryland, and that it was his professional opinion, that after the Baltimore Riot, the Yankee soldiers at the fort seemed a bit tense and trigger-happy, even for Baltimore, the Chief Justice relented.

Taney instead called on the President to “discharge his constitutional duties” and enforce the court’s decision. President Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, ignored him, and continued to seize people, perhaps 800 of them, throughout the Civil War.

Taney had home-cooked meals sent to Merryman in his cell.

Merryman soon had company. Baltimore’s mayor, city council, and its police commissioners were also tossed in Fort McHenry. Secessionists in the state legislature followed. Later on, Francis Scott Key’s grandson criticized these detentions in an editorial, and he was also sent to the fort.

  • The grandson felt it was ironic, being sent to the fort that his grandfather wrote about in The Star-Spangled Banner, exactly 47 years to the day after the 1814 bombardment.
  • In fact, he published a book about it.
  • So, Lincoln had the publishers arrested.

Chief Justice Taney probably sent meals to Key as well, since they were related by marriage – – Taney  was married to Francis Scott Key’s sister.[1]

Even before he tried to have General Cadwalader arrested, it was probably safe to assume, that Taney already didn’t like Union Major Generals too much — because one of them, Daniel Sickles, had shot and killed his wife’s nephew.  Sickles gunned down Francis Scott Key’s son a few years before the war, within sight of the White House.  Of course, Sickles was not yet a general in 1859 — he was a congressman from NY, and was therefore acquitted of murder on the basis of insanity.

Merryman was released from the Fort McHenry that summer, and was promptly charged by a grand jury with treason…and then went home on bail. Taney blocked any attempts to schedule a hearing, so Merryman never went to trial.  Charges were dropped…in 1867.  So we can see why Lincoln might not have turned to the courts for swift action.

As far as I can tell, no one tried to lock up General Cadwalader, either. Merryman sued him for unlawful imprisonment, but didn’t pursue the suit, and it was dismissed. [2]

Taney died October 12, 1864. The next day, a new state constitution ended slavery in Maryland.

Five years after the war ended, Merryman was elected State Treasurer.  And his cattle won a medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Now here’s the thing. I admire Abraham Lincoln.

And I do not admire Roger Brooke Taney.
“Chief Justice” seems an ironic title for someone from a slave-owning family, who declared, in the infamous Dredd Scott case, that slaves were essentially not people and could never be citizens, and were:

  beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with   the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…

So, Taney goes down in history with the worst decision ever issued by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But this is what Taney had to say about the Merryman case:

1. The President, under the Constitution and laws of the United States, cannot suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, nor authorize any military officer to do so.

2. A military officer has no right to arrest and detain a person, not subject to the rules and articles of war, for an offence against the laws of the United States [except according to and under the control of civil authority]…it is the duty of the officer to deliver
him over immediately to the civil authority, to be dealt with according to law.

In 1861, Maryland was an anti-Lincoln, anti-abolition, slave-owning state, full of secessionists, Copperheads, spies, and southern sympathizers. The people in power in Baltimore and Annapolis were trying to cut off communications and reinforcements to our nation’s capital during the crisis. I absolutely think Abraham Lincoln did the right thing, locking some of them up.  And I’m not pretending to be a constitutional scholar.

But when you see American citizens getting grabbed by guys in uniforms, who are “just following orders, ” and disappearing into Fort McHenry, or Guantanamo, without a trial, you worry, and you see a guy like Taney, who usually did the wrong things, maybe trying to do the right thing, and sticking up for the Constitution?

Or was he just being a racist creep as usual, helping to sabotage the war effort, and sneak his slavery-loving, saboteur pals out of justly-deserved imprisonment?

So what is History from 1861 telling us about Guantanamo in 2004? I do not know if there is anything meaningful in attempting to draw parallels. But perhaps worth thinking about the issue of locking up Americans without a trial, since it keeps cropping up.  And since “History never repeats itself,” that’s why you need historians – to take notes.

THE END

[1]  Even if you’re not crazy about “The Star-Spangled Banner”, Francis Scott Key was a fascinating character.  He was a slave-owner who as a U.S. attorney, prosecuted abolitionists, but who also represented black clients in court pro bono.

And years later, there was also a distant cousin and namesake, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, who became kind of well-known in his own right.

F. Scott Fitzgerald did not write only about the Jazz Age – – he was a Civil War buff, and during his Hollywood years, was called in to work on the dialog for “Gone with the Wind.”  He claimed his father had ridden with Mosby’s cavalry, and he was also related somehow to Mary Surratt, so it’s not surprising he wrote several Civil War pieces, including “The End of Hate“, about the night Lincoln was assassinated.  Another short story , “The Night at Chancellorsville“, was about a trainload of women from Philly, on their way to join General Hooker’s army, to serve as the general’s namesakes.

My personal favorite, was his mock newspaper article about Appomattox, which insisted that General Lee had not meant to surrender, and only handed his sword to Grant, as a courtesy when Grant’s pencil broke, and he needed to sharpen it.

[2]   General Cadwalader became a federal judge after the war, and according to a Philadelphia paper, was known for his “gentleness of manner” and being a “kind-hearted gentleman” on the bench. In 1866, he granted a writ of habeas corpus for John McCall, being held prisoner on a U.S. Navy ship. The ship’s captain appeared in court, and responded that McCall was enlisted as a U.S. Navy Seaman, and was being court-martialed for theft. Judge Cadwalader remanded the sailor into his captain’s custody.  OK that’s the way to do it – – everything ship-shape…and legal.

Merryman, according to his obituary in the Baltimore Sun, was also a “kind-hearted gentleman.”

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Chestertown History, Civil War, History, Journalism, politics

President Garfield in Chestertown. The Great Copperhead Riot of 1863.

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When I went to college in Chestertown, Maryland, it was a pretty sleepy little place on the Eastern Shore. But it turned out to be rich in history, so I read whatever I could find about its past. This story I ran across reading some old-time newspapers.

Back in 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at George Bush during a press conference.  I had to give the President points for coming back with a joke, “All I can report is, it is a size 10.”  OK it’s not that funny, but he seemed to handle himself pretty well at that moment.  He went on to say something about living in a free society — while Iraqi security guards kicked the crap out of the journalist.

A few years later, somebody in Philly threw a book at Obama, but apparently he was just a desperate author following a suggestion from a blog called “Low Cost PR You Can Do Yourself.”

Going farther back, when Richard Nixon was Eisenhower’s VP, he was hit by a rock, while trying to talk to a crowd of college students in Lima, Peru.  Nixon also wins some points, for standing his ground and yelling “What’s the matter?  Are you afraid to talk to me?”  His car was also egged, during a South American goodwill tour that didn’t go so well.  Nixon would have also have rocks and tomatoes thrown at his car during his inauguration.

And going even farther back…we arrive in Chestertown, Maryland, with another egging and a future President.

General Garfiled LOC

General Garfield Library of Congress

In 1863, James Garfield was Chief-of-Staff for the Army of the Cumberland, fighting in Tennessee.  Despite the army’s bloody defeat at Chickamauga, he actually enhanced his military reputation by helping to stabilize the Union rear guard, after the general in command had decided the battle was lost, and suddenly remembered he had a dentist’s appointment in Chattanooga.  By the end of that horrific day, the larger Confederate army had actually suffered greater casualties than the retreating Yankees.

That fall, Garfield was promoted to major general, but resigned his commission, as he’d been elected to Congress as a “Radical” Republican.  (In those days, “Radical” meant he was anti-slavery.)   Another Ohio politician-soldier, General Schenck, who had been assigned to keeping Maryland’s secessionists under control, was also elected to Congress.

Garfield and Schenck traveled through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, speaking at Republican rallies.  On October 28, 1863, along with Salmon Chase, Garfield attended a mass pro-Union meeting and procession in Baltimore, promoting emancipation in the city that had attacked Union troops only two years before.

But on 11/6/63, the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial printed this one-sentence news item:

“On Saturday night General Garfield was mobbed by a gang of Copperheads at Chestertown, Md.”

A few days later, another Pennsylvania paper reported

“Gen. Garfield, while speaking for the Union, in a strong slave-holding locality, in Maryland, was mobbed by a crowd of copperheads”.

This sounded exciting – – a pro-slavery mob in Chestertown, attacking a future President!

The only problem – – it just wasn’t true.

A few days later, a Cleveland paper printed a retraction:

Your correspondent telegraphed you…that General Garfield was mobbed…by a few Copperheads and slaveholding ruffians…it appears…that [this] was incorrect…”

 

The mob attack had been somewhat scaled back.

To one guy.

And a single egg.

So, mostly, a “cautionary tale” as they used to say.  The incident reveals a bit about taking news reports (then and now, in the Age of The Internet) with a grain of salt.  And a bit about Chestertown, and about Garfield — when he handled it with aplomb.  The reporter could not remember Garfield’s exact language, but reported the gist of it:

 

One scoundrel threw a bad egg at the General, whereupon…he coolly remarked that a few weeks since he was face to face with the companions of the miscreant on the field of battle.  “They carried more dangerous weapons,” said the General, “and as I did not run there, it is not probable that I shall run now;  and as I fought then, if necessary, I shall fight now!” 

 

The Cleveland Daily Leader reported it this way:

When somebody aimed a missile at General Garfield, during his speech in a pro-slavery Maryland neighborhood, the General quietly remarked that not long ago he had been meeting men on ‘Chickamauga creek, who defended the same cause with more dangerous weapons, and if it became his duty, he supposed he might renew the fight.’ 

They cheered the soldier politician to the echo, flogging some fellow soundly on suspicion,  though he earnestly protested that he didn’t throw the egg, and wound up by going off into a regular emancipation jubilee.  Residents, understanding the temper of the crowd, declared the rotten egg had made them dozens of votes in the immediate vicinity.

 Apparently, the crowd blamed the wrong person for the egg-throwing, but the beating he got from the Unionists “had an excellent moral effect upon the Copperheads present.”

egg beater 1885 patent

U.S. Patent Office

I believe attacks on politicians should be limited to debate, and maybe sarcasm, or even mockery — but not eggs, not spit, not rocks, not violence.

Garfield and daughter LOC

President Garfield with one of his children

Garfield deserved better.  He was smart, honest, and progressive.  He grew up poor, and worked his way through college, where he rose from janitor to president in just a few years (no wonder Horatio Alger wrote his campaign biography!) and also became both a minister and attorney.  As a volunteer soldier, who quickly became a respected general, he survived Shiloh and Chickamauga, and then campaigned for the civil rights of African-Americans.  He took office as President on his birthday, started reforms immediately…and 120 days later was shot in the back.

An insane person was able to walk into a store, buy a $10 handgun, and shoot President Garfield.  It took him another 80 days to die.

It’s too bad that people in our country don’t stick with words, and honest, courteous debate, face-to-face.  And if that’s just too old-fashioned, at least, stick to eggs.

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Chestertown History, Civil War

1861 Chestertown and the pirates

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Chestertown 1861   —   “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”

(Ok we’re sitting on a dock on the Chester River, not the Bay, but I love Otis Redding.)

The Eastern Shore of Maryland was not a battlefield of the Civil War.  But the war did touch life there once in a while.  This story reflects two old sayings, often reproduced in abbreviated form:

“War is Hell.  Even when you don’t have to wear a corset”

“They also serve, who only stand and wait, on a dock in Chestertown”

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I went to college in Chestertown, MD, and during a couple of rainy weekends, read everything I could find about the town in the old days, in the digital archives of old newspapers.  This is one of the stories I ran across.

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Sometimes a historian feels entitled to an educated guess.

In college, I was taught to call it a hypothesis.

So, on Tuesday, July 9, 1861, I am hypothesizing, there was a crowd of passengers on the dock in Chestertown, waiting for the Chester, the regular ferryboat from Baltimore, and getting more and more irritated.

Because the ferryboat was not coming to Chestertown that day.

It was, instead, chasing pirates.

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Steam Paddle Wheeler

Steam Paddle Wheeler. LOC

That day, the Chester was at its dock in Baltimore with a full head of steam, ready for its routine trip to Chestertown, when the Provost Marshal of Baltimore suddenly commandeered the craft, and directed it to Fort McHenry.

Nobody at the fort had seen any action since 1814, and anyway, everyone likes a boat ride, so it was not hard to persuade a company of gunners to climb aboard, and bring a couple of 24-pounder cannons with them.

The heavily-armed ferryboat then steamed off to Chesapeake Bay looking for a schooner full of pirates.

Leaving the Chestertown passengers cooling their heels on the dock, wondering where their ride had gotten to, and if the entire Civil War was going to be like this.

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The people they were chasing, who the soldiers considered pirates, were considered by others to be, in fact, privateers and patriots.

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They had already captured four ships, they were armed and dangerous… and their leader wore a dress.

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I found the story not in a history book (although I’m sure it’s there, somewhere, as another strange footnote to the Civil War) but reading old newspapers online, looking for news of Chestertown.

It began, as do so many stories of weirdness and woe, with two Marylanders.

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One of these gentleman adventurers was named Richard Thomas.

Raised on a plantation in St. Mary’s County that was once owned by Lord Baltimore, his father was the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, and his uncle had been governor.

A West Point dropout, Thomas claimed to have served as a mercenary in China and Italy, under the name Zarnova.

He returned to America, and rather than enlist in the Confederate army, which limited your fashion choices to gray or butternut, he decided instead to serve as a secret agent.

During this story, he would be known as Madame Zarona.  Or Madame LaForce, or Serano, etc. the newspaper accounts disagree;   some reporters just called him “The French Lady”.

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George Nichols Hollins

Commodore George Nichols Hollins, Confederate Navy. LOC

The second man was from Baltimore, and was a genuine seadog.

George Nichols Hollins began as a midshipman in the War of 1812, serving under Stephen Decatur, and rose through the ranks.  He seems to have been somewhat impulsive, as shown by “The Bombardment of Greytown”.

In 1854, he was captain of a sloop-of-war off the Miskito Coast (Nicaragua) when Americans in Greytown complained of mistreatment.

Hollins responded by bombarding and destroying the town.

This seemed just a bit of an overreaction to some people, and created a bit of a diplomatic fuss, since the town was under British protection, but just then the British were busy dying of cholera in the Crimean War, and it blew over.

The Evening Star, a Washington, D.C. paper, described Hollins as “pompous” and “notoriously weak in the upper story”, but this could just have been sour grapes, because by then, he’d resigned from the U.S. Navy to join the Confederates.

It was ironic that in his younger years, Hollins had fought the Barbary Pirates, and would now begin his new naval career by becoming one, at least from the Union point of view.

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The plot Thomas and Hollins came up with was simple.

The St. Nicholas, a steam-powered paddlewheeler, was making regular runs from Washington to Baltimore, carrying passengers & freight, and supplies for US Navy ships.

They would seize the ship, and use it to approach, board, and overpower the Pawnee, a Union warship patrolling the Potomac.

Pawnee sketch by A. R. Waud 1860

The USS Pawnee. Sketch by A. R. Waud, 1860. from the Library of Congress

The Pawnee was built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and is usually described as a ten-gun sloop-of-war,  although one source lists it as a much more disreputable-sounding “second class steam sloop (screw)”.

It had been bombarding Confederate shore batteries and blockading the river.  In May, the ship steamed up the Potomac to Alexandria, Virginia, and demanded its surrender.  (This was the same day that Col. Elmer Elsworth got shot there, taking down a secessionist flag –the first Union officer to die in the war).

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Thomas and Hollins approached Governor Letcher of Virginia with the plan of attack. The operation called for revolvers, carbines, cutlasses, and a full-skirted dress with crinolines and hoops.

I have been unable to discover a really satisfying description of the dress, so this will require another historical hypothesis.

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“Pagoda” sleeves over engageantes were popular that year, and mauve and purple were still au courant, but speaking as a professional historian, I believe a Confederate secret agent would choose a gown in “magenta”.  It was one of the brand-new chemical dyes, and named for the Battle of Magenta, during the Italian War of Independence.

Somehow this seemed important to me when I looked it up.  I don’t remember why.  But I thought maybe you’d want to know.

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Letcher

John Letcher, Governor of Virginia. Lawyer, Editor, Politician, Spymaster.

Governor Letcher liked the plan to seize the irritating Pawnee, was apparently OK with magenta, and advanced $1000 to hire a crew.

Thomas and Hollins were behind enemy lines, and needed to quickly assemble a band of desperate rogues and cutthroats.

But luckily, they were in Baltimore and knew some guys.

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Actually, it was undoubtedly an easy place to recruit – this was only two months after the Baltimore Riot (a mob attacked soldiers passing through on their way to Washington) demonstrated the temper of the city.  Southern sympathizers called the riot the “Pratt Street Massacre” and when the soldiers finally shot some of the mob, this was the source of the “patriotic gore…That flecked the streets of Baltimore” in Maryland’s state song.[1]

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Norwich Paddle steamer

Paddle steamer. LOC

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On June 28, 1861, sixteen of the Confederate conspirators boarded the St. Nicholas,  disguised, depending on the newspaper account, as “passengers”, “mechanics”, or “New York Zouaves”.

Except for Thomas, who was now disguised as Mme. Zarona, a French fashionista, and by some accounts, was flirting with the ship’s officers from behind a Spanish-style fan.

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At first, it was still not clear to me why he was wearing a dress.

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But he was portraying a fashionista, and the ruse was to justify hauling a load of steamer trunks onto the ship, supposedly loaded with the latest Paris fashions.

Apparently no one noticed that a box of French hats felt a lot like a crate full of revolvers.

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3b50487r LOC poster Zouave remember Ellsworth

A Zouave, exulting in his comfortable, loose-fitting, yet stylish trousers. LOC

At some point during the voyage, Thomas changed into a Zouave uniform — very possibly more spectacular than the dress.

Zouave uniforms (based on those of French colonial soldiers in North Africa) usually involved red pantaloons, an embroidered blue jacket – – and you got to wear a fez, too!

Thomas opened up the trunks, distributed pistols and cutlasses to his band, and locked the ferryboat’s crew in the hold.

The Confederates were now ready to board and capture the Yankee warship.

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But the target of this exercise, the warship Pawnee, was gone.

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NY Zouave

NY Zoave. LOC

Dahlgren

Admiral Dahlgren aboard the Pawnee, his flagship, leaning on one of his namesake cannons.  I think this photo was taken at the end of the war, after one of his sons had been killed during a cavalry raid on Richmond, possibly attempting to assassinate Jeff Davis. LOC

If they’d asked, the Confederate Secret Service Bureau could have revealed the Pawnee’s movements to the privateers.  Governor Letcher ran a string of spies, and the head of the Confederate Secret Service, in fact, was from Baltimore County. [2]

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Or, alternatively, the Confederate raiders and secret agents could have…just picked up a newspaper.

During the Civil War, the movements of warships were listed in the paper, just like any other shipping.

Apparently the secret agents did not read the Baltimore Daily Exchange that day, which reported a fight the day before at Mathias’ Point.

During the fighting while Union forces attempted to erect a shore battery, the captain of a gunboat had been killed.  The Pawnee was carrying his body back to the Navy Yard.

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Stern Wheelers

Stern Wheelers

So instead of stalking the Yankee warship, the dread rebel privateer St. Nicholas paddled off toward the Rappahannock.

On the way, they captured three civilian ships:  the Monticello (3500 bags of Brazilian coffee), the Mary Pierce (200 tons ice), and the Margaret (270 tons coal).

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The Confederate war machine now had the capability of making a lot of hot coffee, or alternatively, iced coffee.

The Governor of Virginia, delighted, and possibly highly caffeinated, promoted Hollins to commodore, and Thomas to colonel.  The ferryboat freebooters had a big parade in Richmond, and everybody got to wear Zouave uniforms.

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All this happened in June.

So all through this tale, you’ve been wondering, if you’ve paid attention, why were the Chestertown passengers waiting around on the dock in July?

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Baltimore spy

Harper’s Weekly “A Female Rebel in Baltimore…” LOC

Apparently, Thomas/Zarnova/Madame X decided to repeat the stunt.  According to one account, he was onboard the Columbia, sister ship to the St. Nicholas, but was recognized by the St. Nick’s captain, who had been released by the Confederates and was returning home as a passenger.

But according to the NY Daily Tribune, Colonel Thomas/Madame X was caught by a police officer, who’d boarded the Mary Washington, looking for one of the rioters who had attacked the Sixth Massachusetts soldiers marching through Baltimore in April.  The policeman recognized Thomas & some of his men, stopped the boat at Fort McHenry, and got a company of  soldiers to arrest the Confederates.

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It took an hour’s search to find Thomas.  He was hiding in a large bureau drawer in the ladies’ cabin.

He really did seem to have a thing for women’s clothing.

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Thomas and his men were treated as pirates, rather than POWs, and were sent to prison.

The southern press complained of the “villainous and inhuman” treatment of Confederate privateers.

(They’d been sent to Philadelphia.)

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A Memphis paper reported them as being held in damp, dark cells for felons, often in double irons;  they were entitled to rations costing sixteen cents per day, but a Union officer was quoted as saying they managed on a nickel.  Governor Letcher of Virginia reportedly threatened to subject Union soldiers to the same treatment, and at some point, the privateers were released.

Thomas headed for France and stayed there for the duration.

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After Thomas’ arrest, the Chester (the ferryboat-turned-pirate-hunter)  was pressed into service to look for a schooner that was reportedly hanging around with the rest of the raiders onboard.

But I don’t know if they ever found it.

Or when they finally picked up the Chestertown passengers.

Or if they had to give the cannons back.

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The Civil War fostered many huge leaps in military technology.  Aerial observation, electronic communications, ironclad warships with turrets,  breech-loading weapons, landmines, etc. But was also one of the last gasps for cavalry charges with sabers and plumed hats…and also for privateers.

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After the Crimean War, the Europeans had banned privateering, and country after country, even the Ottoman Empire, signed on.  Queen Elizabeth I had graciously smiled upon Drake and Raleigh, and all the gold they’d looted from the Spanish, but Victoria was not amused.  In the 19th century, somehow privateering (and having the Queen have to share the prize money), just didn’t seem very…Victorian.

But even if An Englishman Would Not Do That, the British shipyards were happy to build the CSS Alabama and other commerce raiders for the Confederates.

Lincoln and his successors were not amused by this, and after many years of Exchanging Stiff Notes, and finally, international arbitration, Gladstone actually coughed up fifteen million dollars so he didn’t have to listen to any more gripes.

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(There were commerce raiders in WWI, but they were ships of the Imperial German Navy, not privateers working on spec.)

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Back in the 1850’s, the U.S. was asked to sign the ban on privateering, but in those days, our fleet was still dwarfed by those of the European powers, and folks still remembered the successes of the Baltimore clippers during the War of 1812.  And all that lovely prize money.

Secretary of State William Marcy, a good New York lawyer after all, wanted the U.S. to keep its options open.  His response echoed Geo. Washington’s admonition to avoid Large Standing Armies, and powerful navies.  He told the international community, that this ban on privateers sounded very expensive, as we’d have to purchase a Great White Fleet somewhere, and we’d have to think about it.

And we still are.  Thinking it over.  The U.S. has never signed the ban, so technically, we’re still free to seek letters of marque and reprisal,  put on a dress, and go seize a ferryboat.

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THE END

[1]   Have you actually read the original lyrics of the Maryland State Song?  Kind of amazing.   The state of Georgia gets a fantastic tune by Hoagy Carmichael, and Maryland gets a 2nd-hand Xmas carol with propaganda — which rhymes “bravely meek” with “shriek”.

I really resent someone contaminating “O Tannenbaum” with this crap.  OK, “gore” and “Baltimore” do rhyme, sort of, and Baltimore/gore is still a very appropriate association, but seriously, what an artless anthem of  negativity to teach school kids.  Like the rowdies killed in the “Boston Massacre”, Baltimore’s “anointed throng” was basically a bunch of thugs attacking people with rocks.  Maybe I sound a bit opinionated.

[2]  At the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum, they have a Confederate “cipher cylinder” the agents used to send coded messages.

(I’ve been to the museum, but cannot reveal to you where it is.)

(OK, it’s in Annapolis Junction.)

(On Route 32, behind the Shell station)

(and it has a gift shop!)

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Most of the photos of old steamboats, Hollins, and Adm. Dahlgren, and the A. R. Waud sketch of the Pawnee, are from the Library of Congress.  I was unable to find the Chester, but these pictures give you an idea of the age of steam and paddle wheelers.

P. S.   Putting cannons onto a ferryboat was not quite as crazy as it sounds.  In 1861, the U.S. needed to blockade Southern ports and capture the Mississippi, but only had a handful of ships.  The Navy began frantically building warships.  They could build a complete ship in an amazingly short time.  The “Liberty ships” of WWII got it down to five days, but they had prefab sections.  During the Civil War, the Northern shipyards up and down the Eastern seaboard, including Maryland, built serviceable warships from scratch in three months.  These “90-day gunboats” were then sent on blockade duty.

But in the meantime, the Union bought and converted hundreds of civilian ships — clippers, schooners, barks, whalers, tugs, stern-wheelers, side-wheelers, screw steamers, paddle frigates, steam sloops, etc.

The list of ship types gives you some idea of the floating menagerie assembled by the U.S. — one of the most diverse navies ever assembled.

Former civilian vessels were used as mortar boats, tenders, dispatch boats, tugs, coalers, survey boats, pilot boats, transports, etc.

Some had iron plates or heavy timbers slapped on the sides, and became gunboats.  The Confederates even sent “Cottonclads” into combat, using huge bales of cotton in lieu of armor.

Ferryboats and tugs were powerful and sturdily built, and apparently were favorites for conversion to warships.

Newspaper articles available via LOC about the privateers:

3/21/61;  3/28/61 Evening Star (Wash DC);  4/20/61 Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, OH);  4/21/61 Nashville Union and American (Nashville, TN);  4/20/61 The Daily Green Mountain Freeman(Monpelier VT);  4/22/61 The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA);  7/2/1861 The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA);  7/2/1861 Evening Star (Wash DC);  7/2/61 The National Republican (Wash DC);  7/2/61 The Daily Wabash Express (Terre-Haute, IN);  7/2/61 The Daily Exchange (Balt., MD);  7/6/61 The Daily Exchange (Balt.MD);  7/9/61 New-York daily tribune;  7/10/61 The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, MD);  12/23/62 Staunton Spectator (Staunton, VA);  8/14/62 Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, TN)

The Washington Times, October 6, 2007 Saturday, TRAVEL; THE CIVIL WAR; D03, 2339 words, Rebel raider disguised in hoop skirt, By Richard P. Cox,

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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