Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The surrender at Port Hudson, July 9, 1863

One hundred and fifty-one years ago today,  the rebel forces surrendered Port Hudson, Louisiana to the Union. Five days after the capitulation of Vicksburg, the capture of Port Hudson secured complete Union control of the Mississippi River.  My Great-great-great Grandfather Mathias J. Petry was present at the surrender. As a Lieutenant in the 173rd New York regiment, he saw the elephant, as Civil War soldiers referred to their first battle, at Port Hudson. According to his muster roll, he was assigned to brigade commander General Charles Jackson Paine's staff in May and June 1863. Following the surrender of Port Hudson, Mathias moved to the divisional staff. He returned to New York in August. Although his regiment remained in Louisiana, and later participated in the Red River campaign of Nathaniel Banks, it looks like Lieutenant Petry returned to New York, where he remained for most of the rest of the war on what his muster roll described as "detached service." He was honorably discharged in June 1865.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Two Reflections on the meaning of Independence Day

Two reflections on the meaning of Independence Day:

Our first reflection comes from the very author of our founding, or as William F. Buckley sometimes referred to it as, enabling document. To Thomas Jefferson the Declaration was an annual reminder of what made the United States unique in a world still dominated by monarchy, a theme that Abraham Lincoln most eloquently expounded on in the Gettysburg Address. "For ourselves," Jefferson wrote in 1826, "let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them." This commemoration of what the document says is so much more an important part of the day than fireworks and hot dog eating contests. Our third president wrote these lines in a letter regretfully declining an invitation to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As we all know, Jefferson died that day, as did John Adams.

The second reflection comes from the Civil War, the fight to preserve the principles enshrined in the Declaration. On July 4, 1863 a young Rhode Island soldier at Gettysburg named Elisha Hunt Rhodes proudly exclaimed in his diary, "Was ever the Nation's Birthday celebrated in such a way before." There was rejoicing in the nation's capital as news of the great victory enhanced the normal celebration of the holiday. Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse, got some bottles of cherry and blackberry syrup, which he described as "good and strong, but innocent," and served celebratory drinks to recovering solders. Outside the hospital the celebration continued. "Meanwhile the Washington bells are ringing their sundown peals for the Fourth of July," he wrote, "and the usual fusilades of boys' pistols, crackers, and guns." It seems that neither men knew the other half of the story, that in faraway Mississippi rebel general John Pemberton surrendered his force at Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant, making it perhaps the greatest of Independence days. It is a reminder that millions before us have fought and died to preserve, protect, and expand the rights that Jefferson wrote of. We should also always remember that there have been times when we seemed so close to losing them.


Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1517.

Robert Hunt Rhodes, ed., All for the Union: The Civil War Diary of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 109.

Walt Whitman, "Specimen Days" in Writings, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 729.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Gavrilo Princip

One hundred years ago today Gavrilo Princip murdered Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A little over a month later -- days drought with nationalistic bluster and fatally flawed diplomacy -- the most
catastrophic war in history began. Of course, in those early August days of 1914 the belligerents did not know how badly it would turn out for them. They expected a short, glorious war. Instead, they got a protracted, draining conflict that killed millions of their people, and opened the doors of social upheaval that we are still living with today! I always make clear to my students that World War I was the pivotal moment of the twentieth century.

There is a good article here from the Guardian discussing the assassin who more or less set off the chain of events that led to the Great War. Was he a villain for a murderous deed that plunged the world into war (although this was not his intent), or a hero for liberating subjected people from the yoke of a harsh foreign regime in Vienna that gave them no voice? I always thought the most ironic outcome of the war (and their are many) is that Princip got what he wanted, a Slavic state free and independent from Austrian control.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Who is your Charles A. Lindbergh?

Charles A. Lindbergh is buried behind a small church on the south shore of the Hawaiian island of Conde Nast voted world's best island for 19 of the last 20 years (it came in second place once), but it is still a remote location where residents don't have electric, telephone, or water service. It was the perfect place for the reclusive Lindbergh to spend his last years, and a quiet spot for a final resting place.
Maui. It is a stop on the "Road to Hana," a common tourist destination. The road is winding, narrow, and, in parts, unpaved. This part of Maui might still be on the island that

I find Lindbergh a puzzling historical figure. He was both famous and later infamous. Lindbergh skyrocketed to fame as "Lucky Lindy" for his daring, solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Thirteen years later, the symbol of American spunk, innovation, exceptionalism, daring, individualism, and countless more attributes, warned his country to stay out of the European war. As the biggest spokesperson for the American First Committee, Lindbergh became the nation's most prominent isolationist. Errant foreign policy views might be more easily forgiven if they had not been compounded with so many favorable comments about nazi Germany. Although he flew combat missions in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, his pre-war pro-nazi statements are what stand out. He picked a very poor issue on which to step out of the shadows and stake his enormous prestige.

To draw on popular representations, can the Lindbergh of Jimmy Stewart's The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) be the same person? The same question can be asked of other historical figures, particularly our presidents. How can Lyndon Johnson be responsible for ushering through long overdue civil rights legislation, and, at the same time, the catastrophic policies in the Vietnam War? How could Woodrow Wilson successfully compromise to gain passage of key pieces of legislation that served as the foundations of the liberal state fail to do so over the League of Nations? There are countless other examples, but I think you get the point. The answer is, of course, we, as humans, are full of contradictions. Exploring them is one of the things that make being a biographer and historian so fun and interesting. Was the good a person achieved more beneficial than the harm they are responsible for? I thought about this question a lot as our tour bus meandered along the Road to Hana, and I have to admit, that I think I will remember Charles A. Lindbergh more as "Lucky Lindy" than as the "ex-hero" or the "copperhead."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Recent Read: Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror

I finally got around to reading Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to
Overcome Tyranny and Terror (2006). Sharansky's argument is that freedom is good for everyone. The more freedom, the more security. Everyone will be happy and peaceful. Dictatorships are bad for their people, and threats to peace. It is an argument that President George W. Bush repeated during the invasion of Iraq.

Sharansky's struggle for freedom began as a dissident in the Soviet society of fear, where after years of agitation he was labeled a spy, and sent to the gulag. After Ronald Reagan personally mentioned Sharansky in a conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev, the dissident was fattened up, released, and allowed to immigrate to Israel. Sharansky entered politics in his adoptive land, and formed a party whose objective was to assimilate the massive influx of Soviet emigres into Israeli Society. The party was so successful, that it lost its purpose. A powerful figure in Israeli politics, Sharansky was active in the negotiations with Yasser Arafat throughout the 1990s. He believes that peace in the Middle East is elusive because of the dictators hold such tremendous power over their fearful and subjected people.  These regimes are propped up with a false ideology ruthlessly supported by state organized media, and maintained by a brutal oppression of civil rights and free thought. Sharansky sees the same pattern in Syria or the Palestinian Authority as he saw in the old Soviet Union.  These authoritarian regimes are abetted by the foreign policy realists in the West. As an example, he recounts a conversation he had with former president Jimmy Carter. In discussing his experience advocating peace in the Middle East, Carter stated he had a good partnership with Syrian dictator Hafez Assad because he felt that he could always trust the dictator to keep his word. To Sharansky, this line of thinking lacked moral clarity. Even if one could take a dictator's word to the bank, it still did not change the fact that they crushed human freedom and degraded the humanity of their peoples. The entire book is an argument for idealism in foreign policy and against realism or relativism.

Historians will find interesting insights on US-Soviet Detente (he opposed it), Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan (he speaks highly of the Gipper), his arrival in Israel (he was shocked by the division he found within a democratic society), and the Middle East peace negotiations in the 1990s (he wanted to couple concessions with guarantees of more open, transparent government). Future historians will undoubtedly look to this book to gain an insights into early year of the Global War on Terror.

Friday, June 6, 2014

70th Anniversary of D-Day

If you have a few minutes to spare on this 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, I recommend that you check out the Big Red One online museum HERE. They have a bio of the Medal of Honor recipient, Theodore Roosevelt Jr's cane, and some other items. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

AHA Conference Review: Sunday January 5, 2014, 11:00-1:00

The last panel of the conference for me was "New Perspectives on American 'Internationalism' and 'Isolationism' from World War II to the Cold War."

In "Will to Lead the World: Planning Peace before Entering the War, 1939-41," Stephen Wertheim argued that while war waged across Europe in 1939 and 1940, elites in the United States laid the foundations for a post-war superiority. The Fall of France in June 1940 showed how fragile the old order had been, and Nazi Germany's Blitzkrieg across the borders of what, Donal Rumsfeld would later famously call "Old Europe", demonstrated to these elites that the United States had to assert itself as the dominant global force. This new attitude to domination was captured by Henry Luce's famous editorial, "The American Century." Isolationism was discredited as dangerous, inimical to American interests, and selfish. Internationalism would be built on military might and international organizations that emanated from the crucial alliance between the United States and Great Britain.

In "Beyond Isolationists versus Internationalists: Rethinking Conservative Foreign Policy in the Early Cold War," Christopher McKnight Nichols made a case to take the post-war isolationists as serious thinkers about the role of America in the world. He further argued that the term isolationist should be discarded, and the debate recast as one between nationalists and transnationalists. He outlined six arguments used by the nationalists (formerly known as the isolationists) that centered on the bad experiences under Wilson, the expense of maintaing a global military presence, the threat it posed to American exceptionalism, and the threat of domestic tyranny. Nichols discussed Robert Taft's position on foreign policy in detail, making the case that Taft was a nationalist, not an isolationist, who favored some forms of international engagement (United Nations and courts) but not others (NATO). I came away with a much deeper understanding of the post-war anti-internationalist viewpoint.

In "The Great Debate of the Korean War, the Republican Party, and U.S. Cold War Internationalism: Origins, Significance, Legacies," Kevin Kim examined the post-war foreign policy proposals of former-president Herbert Hoover. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about Hoover's post-presidential views of international affairs, and it was a little surprising to hear about them. He opposed war in 1939, and favored negotiation with Germany. His attitude in the Pacific was very much the same, and, according to Kim, Hoover proposed "unconditional peace" with Japan after the fall of Germany. A strong Japan, he felt, could block Soviet expansion into Asia. The use of the atomic bomb revolted him. In Korea, Hoover preferred an air war with no US ground troops. As a Cold War strategy he preferred a "fortress America" approach to the Cold War, with an emphasis on air power. Kim argues while his version of fortress America looked a lot like the New Look policies adopted during the Eisenhower administration, Hoover wanted to also pull US troops out of Europe, greatly reduce foreign aid, and tie assistance to specific policies. It was an interesting discussion, but I think the title of the paper should have named Hoover.

Three distinguished historians called into question some of the assertions of the panel. Melvyn Leffler argued that Wertheim's vocabulary was a little too strong. By arguing that American elite sought global superiority, he overstated their position. It was a case of survival, Leffler argued, not establishing superiority. John Milton Cooper felt that isolationism was still a useful descriptor, and that Nichols had gone too far in trying to paint Taft as not being the isolationist he in fact was. There still are isolationists, Cooper argued, naming a few including Pat Buchanan. Justus Doenecke questioned if Hoover and Taft had really thought out their positions. Both had some nutty ideas. Did Hoover really think anyone in the United States would have supported a president in 1945 who called for "unconditional peace" with Japan?