21. September 2020 · Comments Off on 1942 – The Year That Everything Happened · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff, War

Weirdly enough – and this apparently happens to authors at random – I had a dream about the plot of a new book late this past summer and woke up just in time to remember it all. A novel set in WWII, which is at least half a century or more out of my fictional headspace; I like the 19th century. Got all the reference books, the books or art, a grasp of the vocab and the look of the whole 19th century universe and outlook. (The costumes, too; yes – I dress in late Victorian or Edwardian garb to do a book event. No, the corset isn’t that uncomfortable, and yes, how people react to me in this get-up, hat, reticule, gloves and all … it’s amazing. Last time out in all this, I had a guy tip his hat to me and say, ‘Howdy, ma-am’ and that is just freaking amazing!)

But – WWII. For me, it is just enough close in time that I knew a lot of people personally involved, from Great-Aunt Nan, who was one of the first-ever women recruited for the WAACs, to any number of high school teachers (some of whom were more forthcoming about their service than others) to the Gentleman With Whom I Kept Company for about a decade, to a neighbor of Mom and Dad’s who had been a prisoner of war in the Far East and fortunate enough to have survived the experience. In short, the books, the movies, even the TV shows that I watched as a kid and teenager, were all marinated in the memories of the Second World War. I was born a bare decade after it was all over; shows like “World at War” were in the ‘must watch’ category at our house, as well as any number of now slightly cringe-making series like … never mind. Just take it for granted that WWII was inescapable for a person of my age. I also scribbled some bad and derivative juvenile fiction with a WWII setting. (Which I found in a box in the garage during the most recent turn out … yep, it was bad. Supposedly, one must write a good few millions of words to get the bad out of your system. Just about all of that is in a box in the garage, against which are orders to the Daughter Unit to burn in future.) And I had a self-directed exploration into the 1930s-1940s in college, when I had access to a college library with microfiche scans of a certain newspaper; I read every issue from 1935-1945, which was like seeing a whole decade of history’s first draft narrowly through a key-hole.

Anyway – enough of the throat-clearing. As is my wont when working out the fine details in a plot, I set up an Excel spreadsheet broken out by month and year, marking events in various theaters, all the better to work the travails of my fictional characters against. It struck me all over again that 1942 was the year That Everything Happened. For Americans, it was the first full year of war on two fronts; for Britain and her colonies and the governments-in-exile of her allies, it was the start of a third year of a war formerly limited, more or less, to Europe and North Africa. And then all merry old hell broke out in the Far East. Possessions, colonies, independent small countries began falling like nine-pins to the Japanese war machine. British Malaya and Fortress Singapore, Dutch Indonesia, the Philippines, Guam and Wake Islands, a good chunk of New Guinea and other islands all across the South China Sea – all fell in the first few months of 1942. It would have been a depressing thing, reading any major Western newspaper during those weeks; weeks where Allied confidence in their own ability to fight a balls-to-the-wall war and win took a considerable beating. The Allies reeled … but in May, the fortunes of War began to smile on the Allies. A naval clash between Japanese, American and Australian naval forces in the Coral Sea checked Japanese attempts to take Rabaul in New Guinea. In the next month, another sea battle – again between dueling aircraft carriers in the defense of Midway Island – blunted further Japanese advances in the Central Pacific. In July and a world away – the Germans were blocked and turned back from Egypt at the first battle at El Alamein, and then again three months later, in the same place. In the month of August, the Americans began landing on Guadalcanal and the Australians began taking back New Guinea. The Axis tide was checked, and slowly began to retreat. In November, the Allies (American and British with Canadian, Australian and the Free Dutch naval backup) opened a second front with the Torch Landings in French-controlled Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco – this not quite a year after Pearl Harbor. In barely a year, the Allies went from disaster and defeat on practically every front, to regroup and to begin effectively striking back. It would take another two years and more to completely defeat the Axis Powers, but it is striking to look at the timeline for 1942 and to see how the war situation turned from humiliating defeat, through resolve, and then to begin the long march back.

Discuss as you wish.    

Sometimes, long after first reading a book or watching a movie and enjoying it very much, I have come back to re-reading or watching, and then wondering what I had ever seen in that in the first place. So it was with the original M*A*S*H book and especially with the movie. I originally read the book in college and thought, “Eww, funny but gross and obscene, with their awful practical jokes and nonexistent sexual morals.” Then I re-read after having been in the military myself for a couple of years, and thought, “Yep, my people!”

The movie went through pretty much the same evolution with me, all but one element – and that was when I began honestly wondering why the ostensible heroes had such a hate on for Major Burns and the nurse Major Houlihan. Why did those two deserve such awful, disrespectful treatment? In the movie they seemed competent and agreeable enough initially. In the book it was clear that Major Burns was an incompetent surgeon with delusions of adequacy, and that Major Houlihan was Regular Army; that being the sole reason for the animus. But upon second viewing of the movie, it seemed like Duke Forrest, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre were just bullying assholes selecting a random target for abuse for the amusement of the audience.

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22. February 2020 · Comments Off on Flashy Himself – A Literary Diversion · Categories: Fun and Games, Geekery, History, Literary Good Stuff

So it took a link on Powerline last week to bring to my attention that George McDonald Fraser’s first Flashman book came out fifty years ago.

My, I don’t know how the time flies – but it does. I must have read the first couple of Flashy’s adventures sometime in college, shortly thereafter, and being quite the history nerd even then, they were rowdy enough, and amusing enough that I read most of the rest of them when they came out, even if I had to order them from an English book catalog when I was stationed overseas. I do remember very well reading The General Danced at Dawn, in the back of one of my more boring lecture classes at CSUN and nearly self-strangulating in trying to not laugh uproariously out loud. The professor lecturer would not have been amused – he was a medieval history expert with a thoroughly tedious interest in the most comprehensively boring of early dark age church confabulations and absent any detectable sense of humor.

My main regret as far as the Flashman series goes is that GMF never wrote of Flashy’s adventures in our own Civil War, which sounded from references in other books, as if Flashman conducted himself in the manner which we came to expect of him – that is, purely and basely devoted to the preservation of his own skin, while dodging, lying, fornicating and back-stabbing on battlefields spread across three continents, as well as hob-nobbing socially or sexually with all sorts of likely participants. As one early reviewer put it, Flashy saw 19th century history briefly over his shoulder as he fled down the corridors of power at high speed. His adventures in our very own Civil War would have been … interesting, although when I touched on this matter before, a reader pointed out that a) Flashy was a British officer and hardly gave a toss as to what we recalcitrant ex-Colonials got up to, and that b) that all our native ACW experts, amateur and professional alike would have made passionate objection to any error or omission, fancied or with historical backing that GMF might have worked into the plot. So, the effort wouldn’t have been worth the candle to him … although I and most of his fans would have loved to read it anyway. Just to see the process by how Flashy got suckered into participation by Abraham Lincoln, fought on both sides, and wound up being pals with George Armstrong Custer and well-acquainted with General Grant, and how many other Civil War notables.

I myself would have loved to see Flashy entangled in some kind of partnership with Elizabeth Van Lew, the Richmond spy queen, or perhaps a much deeper entanglement with Allan Pinkerton, of the national detective agency … it all would have been great reading, no matter how contentious the fallout might have been with Civil War historians. His take on Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals would have been interesting, as well. Because GMF had the eye, an absolute gift for writing 19th century dialog, and loved history enough to go into the deep weeds about it all … and most of all, make it interesting to the reader. Pop media is not downhill from culture, it’s in a symbiotic relationship with it. One shapes the other, mutually.

The darkly appealing thing about Flashy is that as a character, he was blunt and unsparingly honest, especially about himself: coward, toady, professionally self-serving, enthusiastic fornicator, (rapist, also on one occasion), and all-around scummy character – and yet with pluck and luck, always coming up out of the sewer smelling like a rose. As well as being brutally honest about himself to himself, Flashy was also was also magnificently candid about a lot of other matters now held to be absolutely radioactive. And that’s a large part of his appeal. I rather suspect that GMF had a great deal of fun in writing Flashy as a character, kicking politically correctitude right in the shorts, over and over again.

And what a wonderful miniseries Flashman would be, supposing that GMF’s literary executors would allow the rights to be negotiated for it, and a producer had the budget and stones to do it right, covering Flashy’s eventful career. You’d likely need eight or nine seasons to do it all justice, filming in fabulous locations in Europe, the US, Russia, China, India, Indonesia and Africa, an international cast of actors buckling swashes right and left … it would leave Game of Thrones in the dust, for sure. Likely it would never happen, given today’s social climate – but it would be glorious. Oh, well – at least we have the books. Discuss as you wish.

21. January 2020 · Comments Off on The New Versailles · Categories: Ain't That America?, Fun and Games, History, Politics

My daughter actually suggested this line of thought; that the current ruling class (or those who think themselves to be so) in the United States are perilously akin to the French nobility – those who were termed the ancient regime, of pre-revolutionary France. The ruling class were gathered together deliberately at Versailles, where all was all as far as the nobles and ruling class were concerned for at least a hundred years.

There, amid the squalid splendors of Versailles, they were gathered together, under the eye of the King, to frivol their lives away, distracted by spectacles and the vicious grasp for and fall from power within a very small realm. Only instead of a vast palace, outbuildings, gardens and minor palaces, our ruling class disports in a slightly larger venue, that of Washington, DC and the surrounding suburbs.

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10. January 2020 · Comments Off on When Doom Comes a’ Calling · Categories: Ain't That America?, Fun With Islam, History, Iran, Iraq, Media Matters Not, Military

(I started this post last weekend – but real life and a new book project intervened. Consider this a footnote to Trent T.’s post, here.)

Well, it certainly came a’calling for Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani last week, Middle Eastern time. Nothing left but bits of scrap metal and meat, and a bruised hand with a large ring on it. Kind of fitting for the guy who perfected the fine art of IEDs, and brought so much business to the developers of artificial limbs for those survivors of that deadly art. As the satirist Tom Leher noted, so many decades ago, and in a slightly different context,

“Some have harsh words for this man of renown, But some think our attitude Should be one of gratitude, Like the widows and cripples in old London town Who owe their large pensions to Werner von Braun.”

So it seems that the late General Soleimani will not be missed … not missed much by an assortment of parties in Iran, the Middle East, Israel, and US State Department employees across the world, some of whom posted their congratulations in the first blog reports that I saw first thing. The Daughter Unit reports that most of the veteran social media participants were absolutely fizzing with glee, as were apparently Iranian anti-mullacracy exile communities across the world. Considering that the late General S. had a hand in nearly four decades of Islamic violence (violence which racked up casualties in the thousands, and which did include American troops), across the Middle East and was about to take a hand in fomenting some more in Iraq last week, he will definitely not be missed.

The remote pilot of the drone which dropped our final farewell gift upon him didn’t miss, either, although to read the Twitter caterwauling laments of Hollywood idiots like Rose McWhatserface is nearly enough to make one upchuck. The trauma of being sexually molested by a creep like Harvey Weinstein obviously blotted from what remains of her tiny mind the reality of things like … umm, Iran’s forty-year jihad against the US, beginning with overrunning our embassy in Teheran and keeping staff, employees and casual American visitors to said embassy captive for more than a year? In the old days, an attack on a foreign embassy counted as declaring war. It fries me no end that the Teheran embassy thing happened so long ago that I was in my first Air Force enlistment, and my daughter was born a couple of months later. That’s how long we’ve been waiting for anything like an appropriate response.

And Jimmy Carter was such a clueless, limp-dcked, Saudi-loving, anti-Semitic wimp that he couldn’t even countenance the appropriate response, which should rightfully have been along the lines of – “Release our people and vacate our embassy (and clean up the mess as you go) or various essential real estate of yours will become slightly radioactive glass. Counting down… three … two…” THAT response would have spared us all – especially in the Middle East – decades of trouble, but morons like failed novelist Ben Rhodes certainly wouldn’t grasp that point, being twenty something, or perhaps older now, and still dealing with equally educated idiots. And as for ostensibly American news media painting, certain celebs and politicians painting the late General in romantic shades of “able soldier, handsome charismatic leader, an inspiration to his troops, austere poet, snappy dresser and all-around-good-fellow…” People, do you have any comprehension of how that makes you appear to the rest of us? It’s as of you are lamenting and condemning the death of Reinhold Heydrich, who was also cultured, handsome, a charismatic leader, et cetera, et cetera – and every but as much a murderous a*hole as Qasem Soleimani. Is this truly what you wish to embrace, and to appear to the rest of us as a sympathizer of? Discuss as you wish, and add any insights.

The reenacted Civil War, at Liendo Plantation this last weekend. I went with a camera, in search of some good pictures, to use for the current Work in Progress – That Fateful Lightning.

05. November 2019 · Comments Off on Crusade · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff, Media Matters Not

A bit of a loaded word, isn’t it? But a label that American anti-slavery activists would have felt entirely comfortable with, in the first half of the 19th century. Such was the knowledge that taking up the cross of a cause could be hazardous, indeed – but the fight was for the right, and the eventual prize was worth it and more; the promise that every man (and by implication, every woman as well) had a right to be free. Not a slave, as comfortable as that situation might be to individuals – but to be free, answering only to ones’ conscience, as was expressed in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, never mind that one might have varying degrees of success in that pursuit – one had the right to decide how to go about it, in whatever method and manner than one chose. One had the right to not be property, as if an ox or a horse.
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12. October 2019 · Comments Off on Occupation: A French Village · Categories: European Disunion, History, That's Entertainment!, War

On the strong recommendation of David Foster, the Daughter-Unit and I began to watch: A French Village, that seven-season long miniseries which follows five years of German occupation and a bit of the aftermath as it affects the lives of a handful of characters in a small town in eastern France close to the Swiss border – from the day that the German invaders arrive, to the aftermath of the occupation, in a fractured peace, when all was said and done. (It’s available through Amazon Prime.) A good few of the occupants of that village did not really welcome liberation and had damn good reasons – guilty consciences, mostly, for having collaborated with the Germans with varying degrees of enthusiasm. (A benefit is that this series stars actors of whom we have never heard, in French with English subtitles. Given how the establishment American entertainment media has gone all noisily woke, anti-Trump and abusive towards us conservative residents of Flyoverlandia, this is a darned good thing. Seriously, for years and years I used to only personally boycott Jane Fonda and Cat Stevens, now my list of ‘oh, hell NEVER! actors and personalities is well into the scores.)
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Age and guile, so the saying goes, beats out youth and speed by a long chalk. (As does possession of generous insurance policies.) Age and experience also build up an overflowing reservoir of cynicism about a lot of things; protestations of enduring love, promises by politicians campaigning for election, and belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, among a long, long list of other things.

So it is with heartfelt convictions when it comes to media and academic protestations of “OMG, The Earth Is Gonna End and We Are All Gonna Die!” Sorry, if you’ve been around long enough (as I have been, long enough to collect Social Security while it still exists) you have been to this rodeo before. And to a good many performances, usually championed by the national media with their hair on fire; Existential doom – how many are there, shall I count the ways? The biggie when I was myself in grade school and for a goodly few decades thereafter was Immanent Nuclear War and Annihilation. Nuclear Winter afflicting any of us fortunate enough to survive that! Then there was the catastrophe of Global Cooling – the New Ice Age descending on us all! (insert extraneous exclamation points here.) We were all gonna freeze! More »

04. September 2019 · Comments Off on The Way Things Were and Are · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, History, Media Matters Not, Rant

Separately, the Daughter Unit and I watched a series on Netflix (don’t hate on us, there’s still some good stuff there, and I don’t want to bail out until we’ve milked it dry) about the last Czars of Russia – specifically the series which mixed fairly serious commentary about the Russian Revolution with interestingly high-end reenactments of events in the life of the last czar and his family. (Seriously, though – I doubt very much that Nicky and Alix made mad hot whoopee on a fur coat underneath his official czarsorial desk, while the household staff made a heroic effort to ignore the amatory noises coming from behind closed doors. Just my .02. She was a Victorian, for Ghod’s sake. Really; Queen V.’s granddaughter. Who privately thought that Dear Alix wasn’t in the least up to the challenge of being Czarina of all the Russians; Alix may have waxed poetically amatory about her affection and trust in Father Grigory Rasputin, but to do the nasty on the floor, in daylight? Even with your wedded husband? Just nope. Nope.)
I will accept that the orgiastic interludes involving Rasputin were likely and wholly believable. And that Nicky and Alix loved each other, that their four daughters and son with medical issues all loved each other with a passionate devotion that lasts through this world and the next. The last shattering sequences in the Ipatiav House rings true. That was the way it was, and that was how it ended. (I reviewed a book on this, here.)
I was meditating on all of this – with a consideration towards royalty; the old-fashioned kind, and the new-mint variety. More »

19. August 2019 · Comments Off on Retconned America – The 1619 Project · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Media Matters Not

It appears that this week, the New York Times, the so-called paper of record, upon whom the self-directed spotlight of smug superiority ever shines – has now taken that final, irrevocable step from the business of reporting news and current events, matters cultural and artistic to becoming a purveyor of progressive propaganda. Of course, as characters in British procedural mysteries often say, ‘they have form’ when it comes to progressive propaganda; all the way from Walter Duranty’s reporting on famine in the Soviet Union through the drumbeat of ‘worst war-crime evah!’ in coverage when it came to Abu Ghraib, and the current bête noir – or rather ‘bête orange’ man bad. It seems that it has now become necessary for the Times to make the issue of chattel slavery of black Africans the centerpiece, the foundation stone, the sum and total of American history. Everything – absolutely everything in American history and culture now must be filtered through the pitiless lens of slavery.
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08. August 2019 · Comments Off on Another Snippet of “That Fateful Lightning” · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

(Miss Minnie Vining, spinster of Boston, is visiting relatives in Richmond, Virginia – and acting as a chaperone for her very much younger cousin, who is being courted by none other than the very raffish Pres Devereaux. On an excursion out into the countryside to look at the summer wildflowers, they are involved in a dreadful carriage accident.)

She couldn’t breathe. All the air was sent from her lungs by the force of that fall over the side of Mr. Devereaux’s Tilbury gig. A constellation of exploding stars blotted out the sky overhead, and Minnie felt herself suspended between not being able to draw a breath and a white-hot agony exploding up to her shoulder and down to her hand, and from her head, which had struck the road with cruel force. Somewhere, a woman was crying out in alarm. She sounded very young, panicky – Minnie felt herself lifted, as limp and powerless as a rag doll in the grip of something. She couldn’t think, only felt – and what she felt was pain, pain and more pain.
“Miss Minnie! Wake up, open your eyes – speak to me!” a voice begged – a somehow familiar voice. A man. Authoritative … and for some curious reason, frantic in concern.
Minnie obeyed the command to open her eyes, although her sight was somewhat baffled by … oh, yes, the brim of her bonnet, now crushed and disarranged, and a flood of something sticky and warm on her face, wetting the collar of her dress. And this was the countenance of … oh, yes – she fished in her dis-jangled memory for a name. Mr. Devereaux, the handsome and raffish adventurer … presently courting the very young Charlotte Edmonds.
Yes. She was supposed to have been their watchful chaperone.
Minnie struggled to recall – yes, an aggravating and contrary man, a whirligig of opinions posed for nothing more than to harass and torment … but he … he was a man … and Minnie fished for knowledge and insight in her present torment.
A man who waged a war on a chessboard and was the most gallant when losing to a mere woman.
“She’s bleeding so awfully!” the younger voice exclaimed in horror – Charlotte; yes, that was Charlotte, daubing ineffectually at Minnie’s forehead with a dainty handkerchief smeared horribly red. Mr. Devereaux replied,
“Her head struck a large rock on the ground, I believe – and it is well known that such injuries always bleed out of all proportion … Miss Minnie, please speak to us!”
“Wha … h’ppened?” Minnie stumbled over the words. It hurt to speak.
“A runaway team, on the road!” Charlotte exclaimed. “The driver could not control them – he had fallen from the wagon, and the wagon struck Mr. Devereaux’s gig … they kept on going! And now the wheel is utterly smashed! What are we to do, Mr. Devereaux? What are we to do, since we are all this way from town? Surely, Cousin Minnie needs a doctor at once!” More »

22. June 2019 · Comments Off on What Went on in Shockoe Creek Bottom · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

Shockoe Creek was a creek emptying into the James River – a creek now mostly channelized and paved over. It lay between two substantial hills upon which the city of Richmond, Virginia, was built; in the earliest days of the city, it was the market district; convenient to the waterfront, the main roads, a transshipment node where goods from deep-water cargo ships were transferred to smaller boats, to wagons, and warehouses. Commerce was the lifeblood of that part of Richmond, within sight of the grand white neo-classical building which was the state capitol. Here was the shipping basin and canal which led to it, the market building housing venders of meat, produce and other comestibles. Nearby was the bridge which crossed the James, the Haxall mill which ground fine white flour for shipment throughout the Americas. Up-river a little way was the Tredegar Iron Works complex, the pride of the ante-bellum industrial South.

And another kind of commerce was centered in the Shockoe Bottom – the trade in slaves. In the decades before the Civil War, Richmond was the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: the offices of brokers, agents and traders in slaves, auction houses, and holding-pens – known as slave jails, all were situated in a quarter-mile square area. I have discovered all kinds of curious things about the slave trade as practiced in Richmond – curious to me, that is. I wasn’t raised in the South, the ancestors of my one American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist; frankly, all I knew about the matter was what there was in the generalist history books pertaining to the Civil War. Nothing much about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as it were.

I have had to become acquainted with all of this, as I am working on the next historical novel – and this involves a heroine, Minerva Templeton Vining, a spinster of independent means and thinking, who becomes an active campaigner for abolition in the 1850ies, and then a volunteer battlefield nurse during the war itself. The catalyst for all of this is a visit that she makes to Richmond to visit kinfolk – and while she had to that point been of abolitionist sympathies, she is radicalized by what she sees in the course of that visit. So I have to write about what she sees, and create the conversations that she would have had, dealing with what was termed the ‘peculiar institution.’ I don’t think that she would actually have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending the auctions. It seems that male slaves were often asked to strip entirely, so that their state of health and soundness could be judged – I have read one account of a woman slave being stripped for a prospective buyer in private, but not at the auction location. Both male and female slaves often had to show their bare back and shoulders, though, to determine if they had been whipped. The degree and age of scarring would indicate a discipline problem, and downgrade market value in the eyes of a potential purchaser.

I did go into this project knowing that for most Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth $1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars. A slave who was trained in a particular skill might command an even higher price.
A particular curiosity – which makes sense, once I thought about it – was that the dealers in slaves who kept a slave jail (basically a warehouse/boarding house/dormitory) took every effort to make their sellable human merchandise look good upon being put up for auction, although the actual conditions in the slave jail may not have been very good. Those slaves being held for sale were provided with decent food, medical care if required, and a period of recovery from any particularly grueling travel. On the day of auction, they were provided with means of bathing, were groomed and dressed in new clean clothes. There is a painting by an English abolitionist who made sketches of an auction on the spot and later produced a then-well-known painting: five female slaves, clad in grey dresses and white aprons, with red bows at the throat, with one man, in trousers, white shirt, tan trousers and a red waistcoat. One of the women has a small child in her lap; they sit patiently in a row. They are luxury goods – of course, the vendors want the merchandise to look good. I think that is the most unsettling aspect of it all; not outright cruelty (of which there was some, although not quite as much as the campaigners for abolition would have had it) but the fact that it was just business, the business of selling and buying human beings.

Slaves Waiting for Sale - 1861 - Eyre Crow

Slaves Waiting for Sale – 1861 – Eyre Crow

Finally – an interesting curiosity: one Robert Lumpkin, who kept a slave jail of such notoriety that the compound was called “Hell’s Half Acre” was formally married to a slave woman, who had five children by him – including daughters who were sent to a finishing school in the North. When he died, at the very end of the Civil War, his wife inherited the property … and sold it to a Baptist minister who founded a school for blacks – the Richmond Theological Seminary. The site is half-under a freeway, now; the half that isn’t is an empty lot with an outline of some of the buildings in the compound.

(Minerva “Minnie” Vining, a spinster of independent means, is visiting relatives in Richmond, Virginia, in the early 1850ies)

On her return to the Edmonds house, the maid who opened the door for her whispered,
“Ma’am is in de parlor with Ma’am Vining an’ de girls, Miss Minerva…”
Susan called from the parlor, obviously having heard the bell, and the door open and shut. “Minnie, is that you, dear? You must join us – Mrs. Van Lew just sent a boy with a note saying that she and Miss Elizabeth would be here momentarily …”
“Allow me to change my dress, Sue,” Minnie replied, and hastened up the stairs to the room that she and Annabelle shared, to discover that someone – either Annabelle or one of Susan’s housemaids had already laid out one of her afternoon dresses; a simple gown in the s pale violent of half-morning, with a lacy fichu – all with the creases from having been packed in a trunk neatly pressed out by the unseen hands of Cousin Susan’s Negro maids. Minnie hastily unbuttoned the skirt and bodice of her walking costume and exchanged her stockings and high-buttoned boots and for clean white stockings and plain dainty slippers. By the time she had effected this change, and hurried downstairs, the maid was already opening the front door to admit two ladies. Minnie fairly scampered into the parlor, and settled onto the divan next to Annabelle, who whispered,
“You’re late! We were beginning to despair! Did you lose track of the time?”
“The gardens of Church Hill are so splendid,” Minnie gasped. “I confess that I did – I am sorry, Susan – I was admiring certain of the trees; those with white flowers, of four or five petals.”
“Dogwood trees,” Charlotte piped up, and Susan chided her.
“Dear, speak when you are spoken to. Yes, the dogwood trees are particularly splendid this spring, although you have missed the jonquils at their best. But the magnolias are soon to bloom…Yes, Sadie?” That last was addressed to the maid, deferential in her dark dress, white apron and turban, lingering in the doorway.
“Mrs. Eliza Van Lew, Miss Elizabeth, Ma’am,” she murmured, and stepped aside from the doorway as Susan rose from her chair.
“Eliza, my dear!” she exclaimed to the older lady; a pleasant-faced matron with pink cheeks and very white hair, dressed as modestly as a Quaker in a grey walking dress bereft of any additional adornments. “And Lizzie – we are so pleased to see you today! Come in, come in! I must introduce you to my cousins, visiting from Boston: Mrs. Annabelle Vining, and Miss Minerva Vining – they have come to celebrate Lydia’s marriage with us and then to stay the summer over … the gentlemen will join us shortly.” Susan and the Van Lew ladies exchanged brief social embraces – the older lady with more open affection than the younger. “They traveled by train, all of the way,” Susan added, and the Van Lew ladies chorused their wonder and approval.
“From Boston!” Exclaimed Eliza Van Lew, as she turned her attention towards Minnie and Annabelle. “And on the train – what a marvel the railway has become. Now, I was brought up in Philadelphia, and my daughter attended school there, and now the matter of travel has become so much less onerous than it once was … how welcome you are to Richmond!”
“We have been received with every fond courtesy,” Annabelle replied, while – unobserved – Minnie regarded Miss Lizzie Van Lew, recognizing as if with a secret Masonic handshake, another stubborn spinster of her ilk. Yes, Miss Elizabeth was pleasing in her aspect and person, and fashionably-clad; a perfect blonde rose of the South, with the flaxen hair, unearthly blue eyes, and that fine complexion lauded by every sentimental novelist and fashion-paper … and yet, Miss Van Lew defied that convention, for her nose was a perfect beak and those eyes reflected a piercing and unsettling intelligence.
“Miss Vining,” she said, and her voice was pleasant and cultured. “May I sit with you and converse? I would adore to hear of how the abolitionist cause is progressing in the North. We hear so very little of the matter here in Richmond, you see – only fulminations against such wicked persuaders such as your Mr. Garrison, and the Reverend Slocomb – since he is of Boston, may I presume that you are acquainted with him?”
“But certainly,” Minnie answered, pleased and heartened at encountering a kindred spirit among Susan’s circle. “Mr. Garrison was a particular friend of my late brother, although they had fallen out over … some aspect of campaigning for the cause of abolition. I cannot recall the specific issue as Mr. Garrison is a passionate advocate and not easily brought to compromise. But he and my brother did eventually reconcile. Reverend Slocomb ministers to the congregation which I attend – and I have the privilege of a personal acquaintance with him, as well as a personally-inscribed volume of his sermons …”
“Indeed, I have a copy of that very same book!” Miss Lizzie beamed, radiantly, and Minnie laughed.
“I am reassured in making your acquaintance, Miss Van Lew – I had become convinced that such abolitionist sentiments are most rare in the South,”
“Alas, they are,” Lizzie Van Lew agreed, without rancor. “But I care little, nor does Mama, or my brother John. Among our circle of friends, it is considered – so far – merely an eccentricity peculiar to the Quakers of the northern States, and thus tolerated. My late father left us so considerable an estate as to shelter us well against that public opprobrium which might fall upon those of lesser means, otherwise …”
At that moment in their conversation, Richard and Cousin Peter joined what had become a most pleasant gathering: Susan fussed over settling her father into the most comfortable chair, and Richard took a seat on one of the spindly parlor chairs opposite the divan where Annabelle sat with Minnie and Miss Van Lew. No sooner was the introduction made, than Susan’s maid announced the arrival of another party.
“Captain and Mrs. Shaw, and Mr. Devereaux, Ma’am,” the girl said, and suddenly it seemed that Susan’s parlor was very full, although a large portion of that came from Mrs. Shaw’s fashionable crinoline as she leaned on her husbands’ arm, and the breadth of shoulder of the man who followed the pair into the parlor. Minnie couldn’t help that her eyes were drawn to him, as if by a magnet; tall and fair-haired, with rugged sun-bronzed features and eyes of a particular pale blue hue, a specimen of vigorous maturity, whom she judged to be about the age of her own. He possessed the same arresting quality as the Reverend Slocomb – that of an actor commanding the attention of an audience as he strode the boards.
“Why, Miss Elizabeth!” he exclaimed, in a gentle drawl which Minnie had begun to identify as that trait of those from the deeper south. “You mus’ do me the honor of acquainting me with your charming friends!”
Elizabeth appeared entirely unmoved by his courteous regard, even though it drew the interest of the other women in the room as a sunflower follows the sun. “These ladies are Mrs. Edmonds’ Boston relations,” she replied, in a voice devoid of the least scrap of flirtatious interest. “Miss Minerva and Mrs. Annabelle Vining. This gentleman is Preston Devereaux, lately returned from … where was it? I heard that it was traveling abroad; I cared little for where, although I prayed that it be far, far from Richmond…”
“My dear lady Tongue,” Preston Devereaux returned, seemingly much amused. “I thank you for your courtesy, Miss Elizabeth of Kate Hall. Ladies …” he kissed Annabelle’s raised hand, and then Minnies’, “Consider me to be at your most devoted service!”
Minnie and Annabelle briefly met each other’s eyes.
A rogue, indeed, was Annabelle’s unvoiced comment.
Yes, but an amusing one, Minnie signaled.
“I deduce from your manner of speech that you are from another place than this,” Minnie ventured, for yes, Preston Devereaux’s accent was the most deeply marked in Southern inflection that she had heard thus far.
“Charleston, Miss Vining,” he replied, with a smile which drew her – although not as deeply as it would have, if she had been as young as Charlotte Edmonds. “My family there is said to be descended from a latter sprout on the family tree of that Robert Deveraux, once the Earl of Essex and favorite of Good Queen Bess.”
“Charleston,” remarked Captain Shaw, from across the parlor where he had taken a seat next to Cousin Peter. Captain Shaw was dark of hair and yet had the same pale blue eyes as his cousin. His young wife was deep in converse with the Eliza Van Lew. “Where it is often said that the inhabitants most resemble the heathen Chinee – in that all eat rice and worship their ancestors.”
That bon mot earned a ripple of amused laughter from the ladies within hearing, and a chuckle from Preston Devereaux, who appeared to take no offense, as he regarded the three ladies – Miss Elizabeth, Annabelle and Minnie.
“I trust that you are finding your visit to Richmond enjoyable?” Preston Devereaux inquired, as if he really were interested, and Minnie replied,
“We have only been here for a day, Mr. Devereaux, but we have been warmly welcomed by our kin, and friends such as Miss Van Lew…”
“Richmond is so very different from Boston,” Annabelle echoed, and Miss Elizabeth set aside her teacup.
“We were having the most interesting talk,” she remarked, as every word were a little dagger. “Regarding mutual friends, and an interest in abolition.”
Minnie exchanged a glance with Annabelle; for all the care taken in leaving certain topics of conversation unexplored in the interests of civility among friends and kin, Miss Elizabeth was treading heavily among the conversational caltrops.
“Indeed,” Preston Devereaux raised an eyebrow. “A fascinating topic, Miss Elizabeth – alas, not one of interest to me: I may truly boast of having not a single drop of abolition blood in me.”
“A pity,” Miss Elizabeth observed, acidly “For I daresay that a single drop would make you into a man, rather than your present nonentity.”
Minnie drew in her breath with a horrified gasp, fully expecting Preston Devereaux to react as any ordinary man who had been insulted by a lady in the confines of another lady’s parlor, but instead, he merely chuckled appreciatively.
“Touché, Miss Elizabeth – my dearest shrew. I did invite that hit! Miss Vining pray do not look as if you meant to take offense on my part. Miss Van Lew and I have been in the habit of verbal jousts such as this for years. Such bouts sharpen our relative wits and amuse our friends no end.”
“Be warned concerning Mr. Devereaux’s conversation,” Miss Elizabeth returned, with an air of stark warning. “He assumes attitudes not from any deep conviction, but merely from a desire to provoke and tease. He is a veritable whirligig, turning as the conversational wind blows.”
“I have heard that Mr. Devereaux was abroad on foreign travels,” Annabelle interjected, in a manner intended to be placating, and that gentleman smiled as if he divined her motivation and was prepared to be indulgent of it. “I would like so very much to hear of his adventures – our cousin Susan says that you sought gold in California! So very exciting! What was it like? One hears the most fascinating tales of adventures and riches to be had in the mines. And now California is to be a state, so soon after having been merely a foreign possession! The gold mines are of an incredible richness, we hear tell.”
“I was in China, on an errand of some import for a relative of mine, and on my return, the ship on which I was traveling made port in California … and the news of the discovery of gold caused all of the sailors to desert,” Mr. Devereaux accepted a cup of tea and a plate of cake from Susan’s silent housemaids. Minnie made a private memorandum to herself; make sufficient conversation with Susan’s household slaves to learn their names. It seemed untoward to not know the names of servants, or not even to be able to tell them apart, so alike they all appeared, in their anonymous dark dresses and dark faces, below snowy-white turbans, as if interchangeable human automatons, given into service. Mr. Devereaux continued.
“We were there becalmed, in the port of Yerba Buena – although now it is called San Francisco. Situated on the most marvelous sheltered bay. The word came that gold had been discovered in the foothills of that mountain-range which shelters California to the east … even, that discovery was shouted in the streets, with proof brandished by one of the most respected men of town … I vow that even the few soldiers of the Presidio deserted their posts! All were maddened by the possibility of gold to be had, as easily as you ladies might pluck up and gather flowers from your gardens…”
“And did you find any gold yourself, in those bounteous California mines?” Miss Elizabeth sounded most skeptical, as Lizzie and Annabelle hung on every word. Minnie noted that Mrs. Eliza was deep in conversation with the young Mrs. Shaw – ah, from Philadelphia, she recollected. They must have interests, if not kin in common. Richard and Cousin Peter were likewise deep in converse together with Captain Shaw – matters of military import, both recent and of a historic nature, Minnie assumed. Charlotte and Lydia appeared likewise engaged in a converse most intense with a slender young gentleman who had also been announced. Minnie gathered that he was Lydia’s intended, from the fond manner in which Susan made him welcome to the parlor. She would have been more interested in the lad – but for being fascinated in the tale which Pres Devereaux had to tell.

13. June 2019 · Comments Off on A Snippet from That Fateful Lightning: Chapter 2 · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

(This is from the new work in progress: the Civil War novel, about the doings of Minnie Templeton Vining, tireless campaigner for the abolition of slavery before the war, and a nurse volunteer during it. In this chapter, Minnie has been left independently wealthy by the death of her father, and then of her oldest brother. She has decided to travel, and see something of the world.)

“Don’t fuss so, Richie,” Minnie chided Sophia’s seven-year old son, as she and Annabelle waited on the platform of the Lowell Street Station, that magnificent modern temple of commerce on Causeway and Lowell. The clamor of the busy station echoed around them; the shriek of steel wheels on rails, the gasp of steam escaping, newsboys shouting their wares. “We’ll only be gone for the summer. We’ll be back before you know it.”
She and Annabelle were to travel to Richmond by gradual stages and all the way by train, escorted by Cousin Peter and Annabelle’s son-in-law, Richard Brewer. Minnie had impatiently thrown back the black veil that draped her bonnet, and now a slight breeze from the harbor – wandering tentatively between the pillars which upheld the station roof, and the clattering engines with their burden of railcars – blew the ends of that veil to and fro. She and Annabelle wore the deep black of morning – although not the unrelieved shrouds suitable for widows, to Minnie’s great relief. She hated looking through a black fog of a veil.
“Don’t want Grammy to go ‘way!” Richie’s lower lip stuck out, mutinously, and he aimed a kick at the stack of trunks and carpetbags stacked next to Minnie and Annabelle and those friends and kin come to see them away. “Make her stay, Papa!” Sophia chided the boy, without any real conviction, but Richard shot out a swift arm and pulled the lad by his ear away from the luggage. Richie screwed up his face and yelped in pain.
“Stop that!” Richard commanded forcefully. “Behave like a young gentleman, Richie, or you’ll get a good thrashing over my knee!”
“Oh, you’re hurting him!” Sophia protested, while Minnie and Anabelle exchanged glances of mutual exasperation. Richie was a handsome lad, big for his age, well-mannered when he felt like it, but Minnie privately felt that Sophia mollycoddled and indulged him better than was good for his character; a young mother, and to date, Richie was the only chick in the Brewer family nest. Stubborn, willful and thoroughly spoiled, yet Richie was charming … when he wanted to be. Fortunately, Richard Brewer was not inclined toward indulgence.
“I’ll hurt more of him than his ear, if he doesn’t behave, my dear,” Richard sounded exasperated, even as Annabelle murmured, “All he hurt was his own toe, dear – I doubt that our luggage has any feelings at all.”
“It was an unmanly display of temper,” Richard retorted, in lawyerly dispassion. “And Richie is sufficiently old enough to learn not to give way to them. He is supposed to be the man of the house while I am away – not a spoilt infant.”
Minnie privately agreed with Richard – whom she had always found to be a sensible young man, sober beyond his years and yet graced with a puckish sense of humor which somewhat alleviated the solidity of his bearing and the burden of wealth and privilege. Her gaze fell with relief upon a pair off familiar figures, coming along the platform towards their party. To distract what she feared might become an unseemly public dispute, Minnie exclaimed,
“Look, it is the Reverend Doctor Slocomb, accompanying Cousin Peter! Dare I think that he has come to bid us farewell, or a safe journey? Or is he perhaps bound on a journey likewise? I would relish his company, if so – for his opinions and discourse are always so diverting!”
“I doubt that he can be parted so long from his adoring flock! Especially the ladies of the parish,” Annabelle observed, with a mischievous smile in Minnie’s direction. “Perhaps he is making an exception in your case, Minnie! You are, after all, an heiress to no small estate, and the good reverend is yet unwed…”
“Ridiculous!” Minnie snorted – for Annabelle would gently tease her about the handsome reverend – a half-decade Minnie’s junior, but his waving locks of dark hair already touched with gray, making him look as of he was her equal in years. And he was not unpleasing to look upon – nor was Minnie quite without susceptibility to male charms.
For the Reverend Slocomb was a man fully in command of those charms; a rugged physique, tall and broad of shoulder, a countenance in which the features of a classic Greek statue mingled appealingly with lively intelligence and charm. An passionate orator and of an abolitionist sympathies, his sermons in the pulpit of Beacon Street Congregationalist Church riveted the attention of all listeners, packed closely in the private pews and in the galleries – he had even had a collection of them published, and Minnie had purchased a copy from her allowance, although the late Judge waspishly described him as a producer of pretentious windbaggery sufficient to raise a Montgolfier balloon.
Now the Reverend Slocomb had spotted them – the party of three black-clad women, a man, and a small boy, with the towering mountain of trunks and carpetbags piled next to them on a pair of luggage barrows.
“My dearest Miss Vining!” he exclaimed, advancing and abeam with smiles, deftly evading a newsboy with his basket of fruit and sheaf of newspapers. The Reverend bowed over her hand, all honest and friendly affection. “Mrs. Vining, Mr. Brewer – good day to you all! My dear old friend Mr. Peter Vining tells me that you are departing with him on a journey of some time!”
“To visit kin,” Minnie couldn’t help but smile, and hoped that she was not pinkening – for Annabelle would tease her privately over that. “We will be in Richmond for almost two months – the length of summer. We felt the need of a change of scenery, and I am …”
“Tired of Boston?” Reverend Slocomb kept her gloved hand still imprisoned within his. Minnie felt the warmth of his regard, the appeal of his consideration and resisted the impulse to simper like a schoolgirl. Meanwhile, Cousin Peter Vining, advancing at a somewhat slower pace, leaning as he did on his trusty cane, flashed a boyish grin at the party.
“Belle, dear – Minnie! Richard, you young scamp! Here I am, better late than never. They were afraid I would be late for the train, pestiferous invention, yet better than marching all the way! Had you despaired of my arrival?”
Minnie flashed a brief smile at the Reverend Slocomb, sliding her hand out of his with a grace that obliviated any lack of manners. Cousin Peter Vining was over the allotted age of fourscore and ten and increasingly lame from toes lost to frostbite in the bitter cold of a winter encampment when he was a mere lad in the Revolution, although otherwise wiry and spry. Yet, in defiance of those years, and unlike the Reverend Slocomb, Cousin Peter still contrived to appear younger than his calendar age. It was in his eyes, Minnie had always thought – the lively interest and energy of her father’s younger cousin. Cousin Peter was raised in Milford in Delaware, and at the age of seventeen had followed Washington with stubborn devotion, marched south with the Delaware regiments and fought at Cowpens. The spirit of independence burned with a white-hot fervor in Cousin Peter – perhaps that kept him still young, after all those travails in his youth. It was his oldest daughter Susan, and her husband who had invited them all for a long visit – Minnie privately hoped that Cousin Peter was yet strong enough to endure the journey without damage to his health, for all that they had planned to do it in leisurely stages, and rest for a day or so between.
“An adventure!” Cousin Peter kissed Minnie’s hand, and then Annabelle’s. “I have never outgrown a taste for adventure! And Susan is my dearest child, and I long to see her again, one more time. She has six handsome children, and she sent me the loveliest letter some weeks ago – her eldest, Lydia, is collecting a button-string; a button from each of her relations! We can indulge Lydia with the very finest and most personal buttons, I daresay.”
“We can, indeed,” Minnie pushed back her bonnet sufficiently so that she could also kiss Cousin Peter on his age-withered cheek. “And we can present them personally, of course. I am anticipating this visit with such longing! It is not that I am tired of Boston,” Minnie added, with a sideways smile at the Reverend Slocomb. “But one longs, sometimes, for other vistas … other sights! I decline to rusticate away, to the point where I do not dare set foot outside my own doorstep, lest I encounter some unfamiliar sight and swoon out of fright at the strangeness of it all.”
“You were the perfect dutiful daughter, ministering to Ly, and then to Horace and George in these last years,” Cousin Peter murmured, his voice husky with suppressed emotion. “Eh – and you are well-deserving of a holiday, my dear Minnie.”
“A perfect saint,” the Reverend Slocomb added. “A model of daughterly and sisterly devotion – we shall miss your presence at our devotions, and in the good work performed by the good ladies of the congregation, Miss Vining. Hurry back to Boston, as soon as you may … your return will be an event much longed-for … I speak personally, of course. Although I am certain that the other ladies will welcome you home …”
“I am certain that they will,” Annabelle pursed her lips, just barely amending the cynical smirk in which they had originally arranged themselves. “We well know the degree of respect in which Miss Vining is held by the good ladies of the Beacon Street Church.”
Minnie just barely held herself back from sticking out her tongue at Annabelle – her oldest and dearest friend, who knew well where to jab the sharp needle of her teasing. An affectionate tease, for the most part – but Annabelle’s aim was as always, unerring.
“I have no apprehension when it comes to telling ladies like Lolly Bard when they are being silly geese,” Minnie retorted. “And that appears to be the source of the intelligence that I am respected among them,”
“Touche, Aunt Minnie,” Richard Brewer grinned. “A hit, a very palpable hit … I believe that is now our carriage, and now is the time to mount it – that is, if we wish to gain favorable seats for our party.”
“Lead the way,” They made their farewells to the Reverend Slocomb; Richard embraced his son – who seemed now merely sullen – and Sophia, bravely stifling tears. What he murmured to them was private, not for the ears of anyone else. In a spirit of rebellion, Minnie left the black veil hanging back over her shoulders, as Richard offered her his arm, and Cousin Peter did the same with Annabelle. Richard snapped his fingers at the porter with his barrow, already taking up the long handles, as another porter lingered, asking if he could be of service. Now was the moment of departure.

07. June 2019 · Comments Off on The Next Book Project · Categories: Domestic, History, Literary Good Stuff

I scribbled the last words of Luna City #8 early Thursday afternoon. Left it all in suspense on the final page, as is usual with the Luna City series; resolve all the main story lines, wander down a few amusing byways as regards the (created) local history, explore the lives or experiences of characters, set up hints regarding the next installment, and then leave it all on a (temporary) cliff-hanger.
Yes, I’m evil that way. I want readers to buy the next installment, ‘kay? Just so they can find out what will happen next. Look, this has been the stratagem of story-tellers since the very art of story-telling began.

And then I set to work earnestly on the next … for which I had already scribbled two scene-and-character-setting chapters, and several pages of notes about mid-19th century female abolitionists, and ordinary women who took up the challenge of being battlefield nurses when the pustule of the peculiar institution burst in 1860-61 and plunged most of the somewhat united American states into a bitter and brutal war. They say that civil wars are the worst. It’s as if the hatred is all the more bitter when it’s not some alien and foreign invader burning crops, raping women, and stealing away the best, brightest and most noble of youthful manhood, along with the harvested crops: it’s all the more stinging when it’s kin and ex-friends doing all of the above. I guess that it is the aspect of personal betrayal that makes it all the worse.
It was all very complicated, you see. Human society, the interactions that we have with those of our kind most usually is more complicated that the political theorists and historians can comprehend. Just as a brief example – a recent bio of Audrey Hepburn revealed that her mother was quite the Hitler enthusiast … until the war began, Holland was occupied, and a near and dear relation was executed by the Nazis. So – serious reconsideration of sympathies, all the way around on the part of Mother-of-future-gamine-star.

Back to my original thought – the next book, set in the lead-up to, and during the Civil War, as seen through the eyes of a female abolitionist and later on, a volunteer nurse. Minnie Vining. She was briefly mentioned in Deep in the Heart, and at slightly more length in Sunset and Steel Rails, so that I must ret-conn her character and story-arc from those brief appearances and fill out such experiences which were hinted at in those books. Only daughter among four sons of a long-established and respectable Boston family, a family whose experiences in the American Revolution were also hinted at … and why am I writing all my family saga backwards? Starting from the 1830ies in Texas and filling it all in, backwards and forwards from that point? Eh … sounds like a personal problem.

So here it is – the next historical is a Civil War novel – a bit of a change in focus for me. Of the previous books, only one is set during that period, and that in the Texas Hill Country, where most key developments and events happened far offstage, and most main characters in it sincerely wished not to participate in the war effort in any way. The other books are set either before and on the frontier, or at some remove afterwards. This next one, with a working title of That Fateful Lightning goes straight into the weeds of the anti-slavery movement; how it came to be that the question of slavery roiled feelings throughout the decade before the war, and it how it came to be that partisans on both sides were more than willing to take up arms against kin, former friends, neighbors and total strangers.

I expect also to delve full into the eccentric operations of Civil War battlefield hospitals. I already have a tall stack of reminiscences by women who served in such hospitals, and in providing the necessary by organizing fund-raising bazars and extensive shipments of home comforts to men in the field. It may have been an almost natural thing for so many women to take up nursing at that time. In the days before antibiotics and notions of sterile bandages, women ordinarily spent a fair amount of time nursing the sick anyway; children, husbands, brothers and sisters. Taking up a temporary career as a war nurse was a natural extension. Organizing fresh bread, clean sheets, and tempting invalid meals on an industrial scale – must have been just another logical reach for someone already accustomed to doing so on a home-sized level. I have been mildly boggled to find out how the pre-war Army medical establishment, which was a tiny organization suitable to a tiny peacetime military, came to depend so heavily on the various local Sanitary Commission volunteers when it came to dealing with the huge numbers of casualties once the lead began to fly in earnest.
I honestly don’t know how long this will take me: maybe as early as the end of this year, perhaps into next year, say mid-2020. But in the meantime, enjoy the other historicals, the Lone Star Sons volumes, and of course – Luna City.

06. June 2019 · Comments Off on 6 June 1944 · Categories: Ain't That America?, History

D-Day Troops Landing(A reprise post from a decade ago – a reflection on D-Day.)

So this is one of those historic dates that seems to be slipping faster and faster out of sight, receding into a past at such a rate that we who were born afterwards, or long afterwards, can just barely see. But it was such an enormous, monumental enterprise – so longed looked for, so carefully planned and involved so many soldiers, sailors and airmen – of course the memory would linger long afterwards.

Think of looking down from the air, at that great metal armada, spilling out from every harbor, every estuary along England’s coast. Think of the sound of marching footsteps in a thousand encampments, and the silence left as the men marched away, counted out by squad, company and battalion, think of those great parks of tanks and vehicles, slowly emptying out, loaded into the holds of ships and onto the open decks of LSTs. Think of the roar of a thousand airplane engines, the sound of it rattling the china on the shelf, of white contrails scratching straight furrows across the moonless sky.

Think of the planners and architects of this enormous undertaking, the briefers and the specialists in all sorts of arcane specialties, most of whom would never set foot on Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha or Utah Beach. Many of those in the know would spend the last few days or hours before D-day in guarded lock-down, to preserve security. Think of them pacing up and down, looking out of windows or at blank walls, wondering if there might be one more thing they might have done, or considered, knowing that lives depended upon every tiny minutiae, hoping that they had accounted for everything possible.

Think of the people in country villages, and port towns, seeing the marching soldiers, the grey ships sliding away from quays and wharves, hearing the airplanes, with their wings boldly striped with black and white paint – and knowing that something was up – But only knowing for a certainty that those men, those ships and those planes were heading towards France, and also knowing just as surely that many of them would not return.

Think of the commanders, of Eisenhower and his subordinates, as the minutes ticked slowly down to H-Hour, considering all that was at stake, all the lives that they were putting into this grand effort, this gamble that Europe could be liberated through a force landing from the West. Think of all the diversions and practices, the secrecy and the responsibility, the burden of lives which they carried along with the rank on their shoulders. Eisenhower had in his pocket the draft of an announcement, just in case the invasion failed and he had to break off the grand enterprise; a soldier and commander hoping for the best, but already prepared for the worst.

Think on this day, and how the might of the Nazi Reich was cast down. June 6th was for Hitler the crack of doom, although he would not know for sure for many more months. After this day, his armies only advanced once – everywhere else and at every other time, they fell back upon a Reich in ruins. Think on this while there are still those alive who remember it at first hand.

No, I don’t think will ever reach Peak Stupid; just as we will probably never reach Peak Oil, either – since there appears to be an inexhaustible supply of the former, and more of the latter than the gloom’n’doom crowd apparently thought. But Deity on a Trisket, the farrago of Stupid on display just this past week is just plain mind-blowing. And I read a lot of history, so it’s not a total surprise to me that individually and en masse, humans are capable of the spectacularly moronic; things like Tulip Mania in 17th century Holland, pursuance of the Flat Earth theory after trips into space, and the Billy Jack movie series, not to mention the whole disco era in general.
So the Jussie Smallett supposed hate-crime on the below-freezing streets of Chicago on the coldest day of the year thus far (hey, it’s only February, I am confident that the remaining ten months of 2019 will bring us ever more bountiful levels of stupidity) has fallen completely apart – much as the intelligent and logical portion of the blogosphere had predicted upon being made aware of the specifics. Yes, a planned – with an astounding level of stupidity even for an actor – hate crime, intended to leverage a pay raise, and garner oodles of that sweet, sweet milk of sympathy for a victim. And the National Establishment Mainstream fell for it, hook, line, sinker and whatever else in an appealing sob story, not to mention quantities of gullible media celebrities, and gullible political celebrities. Oopsie. The most decent of them appear to have the nous to be resoundingly pissed with Mr. Smolett over how their sympathies were exploited. The indecent are lying low and doubtless waiting for the next shiny, flashy supposed hate crime to bubble up to the top of that pond of scum which appears to be our national thought leaders. Live and learn, people – there exists a long, long, long history of faked hate crimes. The most recent of which happened not two weeks previously, with the Covington Catholic students. Memories are short in the National Establishment Media gene pool; measured in hours, I would guess. Possibly this is a variety of genetic defect. More »

11. November 2018 · Comments Off on At the Tomb of Couperin – Thoughts on a Centenary · Categories: History

There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau d Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was overage, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.
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So – Luna City Lucky Seven is finished, changes suggested by the Beta readers have been incorporated – and the latest installment of the Luna City Chronicles is ready to roll, pending arrival of the final cover. Which should happen over the weekend, or perhaps early next week. While I wait on that happy event, I’ve been scribbling away on the first couple of chapters of the Civil War novel, and mentally mapping out a few plot points. This novel, tentatively entitled That Fateful Lightening, follows Minnie Templeton Vining, a Boston lady of certain years. She is a die-hard Abolitionist in the years before the war, and a volunteer nurse during it, as outlined in Sunset and Steel Rails, in which she was a secondary or even tertiary character.

This new project requires me to really begin reading up on contemporary accounts and memoirs – of which there exists a large number. Many of the lady volunteers who took up this heartbreaking task of nursing soldiers under desperately primitive conditions wrote about it all afterwards; after all, the Civil war was the pivotal event of 19th century America. For better or worse, the issue of free-or-slave roiled politics and intellectual life for twenty years before, and the aftermath of the fighting left scars which, as of a century and a half later, are still vivid and raw. Thanks to having been a devoted reader of American Heritage as a tween and teen, thanks to Mom’s life-long subscription, I have always known this in outline, and in small tableaus – but not in such depth and detail that I could write convincingly and authoritatively about it from the point of view of a woman completely immersed, day to day, in both these issues.

So – another long, deep immersion in memoirs and letter collections – facilitated by the fact that most of the women who penned accounts of their heroic labors in field hospitals, in organizing fairs and markets to fund the purchase of medical supplies and comforts, and the rounds of public speaking and article-scribbling – are mostly obscure these days; their memoirs, letters and diaries are mostly in the public domain and free. Which is another nice benefit, since I am not anywhere near the income level of those authors who can command huge advances from a publisher, a guest shot on the Today Show, or The View, or a carefully-engineered position on the New York Times best-seller list.

Me at a recent Halloween market, as Queen Victoria

The other nice benefit reading this kind of material is that one is able to absorb the vocabulary, those thought-patterns and attitudes of the time. To me, there is no bigger crime in the historical-novel-scribbling set than that of ‘presentism’ – that is, basically dressing up modern characters in period clothing and having them walk through a 21st century plot. The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there. One might as well start with reading the authentic words of the residents. Histories are a useful adjunct to all this, but the problem with that is that the professionals all have their own biases and perceptions – and since so many of the female Civil War memoirists were concurrently, or later involved in various feminist crusades … I do not want to be put through the necessity of fighting my way through a bramble of biases. The original biases of the ladies involved is quite sufficient, thank you. The third nice benefit is that I can count on running across events, characters, small exchanges which will inspire plot twists and secondary characters for That Fateful Lightening. This turns up interesting things as a result. Well, interesting things to me, hunting scavenger-like for interesting bits of fact, turns of phrase, coincidences, and personalities – I swear, most of the plot turns in the Adelsverein Trilogy came about because I ran into something in the research reading and thought, “Ohhh! This has to be in The Book!”

The first such volume I have begun reading is a collection of letters, letters from and to a once-notable Quaker activist named Abigail Hopper Gibbons; who campaigned for various worthy charities benefiting women and orphaned children, the elderly, abolition of slavery, the Sanitary Comission (which provided medical care for soldiers during the war) the welfare of veterans and woman’s rights. She was happily married, it appears, and raised six children with her husband. Alas, one died as an infant, another at the age of five years old, and a third while in college after an accidental fall. She was a good friend of Lucretia Mott, who was also a very good friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton – all these people tended to know each other, I gather – or at the very least, knew of each other. These ladies and a dozen others of whom I have collected up their memoirs would appear to have been very far from being meek, submissive, conventional image of a Victorian lady, sitting passively in her parlor embroidering and murmuring, “Yes, dear,” while her husband pontificated.

In fact, these ladies, in their corsets and bonnets, and skirts to the toes of their high-buttoned boots, threw themselves into battle-field nursing, operating field kitchens, fund-raising to purchase supplies, and personally overseeing the delivery of those supplies to hospitals. They were real fire-crackers, these ladies – and it’s going to be an adventure, exploring their world and their words.

 

The indy-author scene is not the only thing which has radically changed over the last decade; just the one that I know the best, though having the great good fortune to start as an indy author just when it was economically and technologically possible. It used to be that there were two means of being a published author. There was the traditional and most-respected way, through submission to a publishing house – which, if you were fortunate enough to catch the eye and favor of an editor, meant a contract and an advance, maybe a spot on the much-vaunted New York Times best-seller list. This was a method which – according to the old-timers – worked fairly well, up until a certain point. Some writers who have been around in the game for a long time say that when publishing houses began viewing books as commodities like cereal brands and ‘pushing’ certain brands with favored places on the aisles and endcaps, and treating authors as interchangeable widgets – that’s when the traditional model began to falter. Other experts say that it began when tax law changed to make it expensive to retain inventory in a warehouse. It was no longer profitable to maintain a goodly stock of mid-list authors with regular, if modest sales. Mainstream publishing shifted to pretty much the mindset of Hollywood movie producers, putting all their bets on a straight diet of blockbusters and nothing but blockbusters.

The other means of getting a book out there was what used to be called the “vanity press”, wherein someone with more literary ambition and money than sense and patience paid for a print run of their book, and usually wound up with a garage full of copies. Strictly speaking, this was not such a bad way to get a book in circulation, especially if it was an obscure topic, such as local history or an impatient, new author. Quite a few of the 19th century greats actually kick-started their writing careers by paying for a print run of their own works. My own Tiny Publishing Bidness was launched nearly forty years ago, and some of the local histories which we published, of interest to researchers in the field since they were mostly based on original research go for quite astounding sums on the rare book market.

Three elements have it possible to route around mainstream establishment publishing over the past decade and for independent authors to make a modest living from writing, or at least have a regular income stream. The first was the shift to digital printing from traditional lithographic press; once those big industrial presses begin rolling, there’s a thousand, ten thousand copies of a book printed in a matter of hours, and at a minimal per-item cost, but at a substantial overall expense for whoever was paying for the print run. Digital printing offered an alternative; a slightly higher per-unit cost but producing only as few copies as were required at a time. Almost at once, industrial printers began offering the digital option. New boutique publishers made their services available, for relatively modest sums: format the text to print specs, generate a nice cover, print only as many copies as required, and make the book available to distributors … like Amazon. Amazon’s development of an e-book reader, the Kindle (followed by other reader systems like Barnes & Noble’s Nook) was the third development which upended the traditional publishing industry, eliminating printing, storage and distribution costs in one go. (Although not editing, formatting and marketing expenses.) It doesn’t help that mainstream publishing, or what I’ve been calling “the literary-industrial complex” has been concentrating itself into fewer and larger houses, just about all of them international when they aren’t based in New York and throwing their energies into mass-marketing a diminishing stable of established authors, and through retail channels such as Barnes & Noble.

Curiously, this all has had the effect of leaving the field wide-open for independents like me, to small regional and specialist publishers – like the authors I spend three days with last week at the Word Wrangler Book Festival in Giddings, Texas. The book festival was started thirteen years ago, to benefit the public library in that town. Book submissions are juried by the committee – and the requirement is that the books have a Texas setting or interest. That’s pretty much it – although if they might be of interest to junior readers, that’s a bonus, as the Festival is the focus of school field trips on one of those days. Picture books, self-help, travel, gothic, romance, mystery, thriller, historical fiction – our books ran the whole gamut of interests. Just about every book on display was a quality production, the equal or better of anything produced by the publishing establishment. Indy authors have now been at it long enough to have developed considerable professional skills, either on their own or through networking with freelance talent, and professional organizations like the Texas Association of Authors. This is a paradigm shift that the mainstream publishing establishment wish would go away, if they even admit the existence of it, beyond some snotty remarks about the bad self-published stuff. (Of which there is quite a lot, admittedly. There is also an equal quantity of awful books published through the mainstream, although the copy-editing tends to be a little better.)

The towers of the Literary Industrial Complex are still standing, however cracked the foundations might be. One of the other writers at Word Wrangler has a lovely series of educational picture books. A couple of years ago, she explored the possibilities of the Texas-local HEB grocery chain stocking them, and regretfully decided against it. Accustomed to the good old ways of doing business with established big publishing, retail corporations like HEB have requirements for quantities, returnability, and pricing that simply can’t be met by indy authors and tiny regional publishers. Alan Bourgeois, who founded the Association, has been working with HEB and other companies to adjust their requirements. He has met with some success in this, although a recent meeting with the CEO of Barnes & Noble proved disappointing. The last big box book store chain still standing is still wedded to their old model, of preferring a policy of top-down management, rather than allowing local store managers latitude when it comes to hosting book events with local indy writers and prominently stocking indy-published books. The late lamented Borders and Hastings were much more receptive and responsive, generally. As a footnote and perhaps a harbinger of things to come; a French author, whose latest book was rejected by publishers, apparently because of the subject matter – went to publish it through Amazon … and that book subsequently won a national literary prize. But the French bookstores won’t stock it, because – Amazon has cooties, or something. When establishment publishers and bookstores reject authors whose books are embraced by readers, this does not portend well for doing business in the same old way. In any case, I believe there is not a better time than now for readers and for independent authors.

I cannot say how much the ditching of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name for a yearly award for the best in published books for children and young adults distresses and disappoints me. I am one of those millions of readers who read and adored the Little House books early on, which various volumes my parents presented to me for Christmas and my birthday from the time that I could read – basically from the age of eight on. I would sit down and read the latest gift from cover to cover almost at once, so much did I love the books. After so many decades of honor, respect, and dedicated fanship, after having basically created (along with her daughter) a whole YA genre – historical adventure novels set on the 19th century frontier – LIW is now writer-non-grata, in the eyes of a segment of the American Library Association which deals primarily with library services to kids. Henceforward, sayeth the Association for Library Service to Children, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award will now be called The Children’s Literature Legacy Award, or something equally forgettable. The public reason given for this are two-fold, as nearly as I can deduce.

In certain brief passages of her nine-volume retelling of her childhood on the post-Civil War American frontier, LIW reflected the attitude of wary dislike with regard to the presence of American Indians common to those 19th century Americans, especially those who lived in close proximity to them. In the eyes of tireless social justice warriors, which appear in oversupply in today’s hypersensitive age, this is practically the same as preaching genocide on every page. And in one single chapter, her father and several men of the town put on black-face makeup and performed a minstrel show to entertain their friends. Such a form of entertainment was as popular then as it is considered disgracefully racist today.

So, rather than look honestly at the mores of the past – and perhaps entertain the thought that many of those notions which today we accept merely as conventional wisdom will, in a hundred years or so be held in as much, or greater disfavor than those attitudes held by LIW’s family and neighbors. I wonder though, if the motivations of the members of the Association aren’t just a little more complicated than polishing their social justice credentials. The Little House series presents – more than anything else – the quiet, intimate epic of a strong traditional family; a hard-working, resourceful, loving family, equal to every imaginable hardship going, from frontier isolation, to plagues of insects, bad weather, and grinding poverty. The Ingalls do not lament their lot, as LIW presented them; they make the most of it, and eventually achieve a quiet and modest degree of prosperity.

The Little House series, originally written and published a little short of a hundred years ago, remain overwhelmingly popular. Thousands visit the places which LIW immortalized in her books – the places where she and her sisters lived and grew up, the farm which she and her husband eventually established in Missouri. The TV series very loosely based on the series continued for years. I cannot help wondering if the kind of family and community life thus portrayed in the book series runs counter to everything in those young adult novels currently being pushed upon the younger generation by teachers and the child librarians; books which revel in gloom, despair, dysfunction and nihilism, a kind of literary filboid studge, in which in every grim trope embraced on the page discourages kids from reading. So – a burnishing of social justice credentials or sabotaging a classic series to advantage of contemporary but unreadable books intended for the juvenile consumer? Discuss.

14. June 2018 · Comments Off on The Current Range of Derangement · Categories: Fun and Games, GWOT, History, Media Matters Not, Memoir, N. Korea, Politics, War

I freely confess to having initially thought that when Donald Trump threw his hat into the political ring and began campaigning for election to the highest office in our fair land – it was a colossal joke and not one in particularly good taste. But I was never an adamant never-Trumper, and eventually came to think that hey – a wheeler-dealer Noo Yawk property developer (who after all HAD run a good-sized business enterprise for years) couldn’t possibly stuff up the job any more disastrously than He Who Dances With Teleprompters and his merry band of faculty lounge theorizers, career bureaucrats and second-gen beneficiaries of elite parental, fraternal or marital connections. In any case – I’d vote for practically anyone than Her Inevitableness the Dowager Empress of Chappaqua, even if I had to pin my nostrils shut with C-clamp. So – what the hell. Reader, I voted for him. I have to admit that when it sends rabid lefty celebs like Robert De Niro into a spittle-flecked rant on live television, I am tempted to rub my hands together and cackle with evil glee like Mr. Burns in the Simpsons, watching them come unglued with their hate for flyover country and those denizens of it which also voted for him. A man is known in a large part by the character and quantity of his enemies; Trumps’ are as numerous and as varied as any collection of grotesqueries in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

So I started this post as yet another meditation on how ever-flipping-out-of-their minds the current iteration of Trump-haters are … and then the meeting in Singapore happened, and actually promises … maybe, if all goes well, a resolution to a war which started just before I was born, in a country to which my father was stationed as an Army draftee when I was born, in which I served for a year (three and a half decades later) and in which my daughter might very well have drawn duty in her turn. The Korean War – bloody and vicious, as we are reminded through M*A*S*H reruns – ended in an armistice and a heavily-armed border which slices the Korean peninsula into halves. Not anywhere equal halves, other than geographical.

Back at the start of it all, the northern part of that peninsula was the industrially-developed part. The inhabited part, whereas the southern bits were the rural and primitive parts. The whole of the place, as I came to understand in the year that I lived there, emerged as a feisty and independent kingdom, with a very distinct culture, identity, and language; a language with its’ own phonetic alphabet – the notion of one of their genius kings. Not Chinese, definitely not Japanese, in spite of seventy years of heavy-handed Japanese occupation, which only ended after WWII. I liked Korea enormously, for all that my taste of it was relatively brief. Seoul was a hectic, spectacular, modern city. I think that I went across it in every direction, via the subway, bus, or by taxi, innumerable times on my way to do an English-language voice-job, and never felt the least bit threatened or in danger because of being a foreigner. I was not much taller than the average Korean woman, or all that much more fair-skinned, and with my hair bundled up under a beret, not all that much darker of hair color. Unless people looked directly at me … I didn’t stand out all that much and I worked at not attracting attention to myself anyway. (But with one of my comrades in doing voice-work, who was about six and a half-foot tall … yeah, then we got noticed on public transportation.)

The Korean nationals that I worked with, on my various voice and broadcasting jobs were a relatively cosmopolitan lot, and we talked now and again about the North, and the threat intermittently posed, most notably to Seoul, well within artillery range of North Korean big guns. Indeed, about every six months or so, the Norks indulged in what another blogger termed the Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken – a regularly-scheduled theatrical bit of sabre-rattling, to which the old Korea hands (and possibly most ordinary Koreans) eventually became pretty blasé. (More here from The Daily Brief) Is there now a possible end in sight to a situation which has existed slightly longer than I have been alive, through Donald Trump’s surprisingly cordial summit with Little Fat Kim? Speculation on the imminent collapse of the North floats around at about the same frequency as the Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken. But this time, I do wonder if the Reign of Kim really is on very shaky ground – and Little Fat Kim knows it and is nervous about survival – his personal survival and that of his circle. Bits and dribbles of dismaying information keep trickling out of the hermetically-sealed kingdom; that the soldiers forage for food in the cultivated fields, that the Nork soldier who defected across the DMZ was riddled with intestinal parasites, that the underground nuclear test site collapsed the whole side of the mountain where it was located, that whole districts are stripped bare of vegetation … and perhaps at long last, the Chinese are not quite so blindly supportive of their favorite client state. Is North Korea circling the drain of history, and the Kim regime is trying one last desperate throw of the dice while North Korea still has the appearance of a viable state? Discuss.

27. May 2018 · Comments Off on In the Presence of Mine Enemies – Reprise Post · Categories: History

This week, I happened on a movie – Woman in Gold from a couple of years back. The movie starred Helen Mirren, who vanished so utterly into the part of an elderly Viennese Jewish refugee, Maria Altmann, that there was no trace of Helen Mirren visible – the way that good acting should be, but rarely is. Briefly, the movie concerned Maria Altmann’s epic legal quest to have a famous and insanely valuable portrait of her Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer painted in by Gustav Klimt in the early years of the twentieth century – a painting which had been looted by the Nazis – returned to her. The painting gravitated into the possession of the Austrian government, from which it was eventually pried by dint of persistent and effective legal action. A decent movie overall, BTW. But what struck me in watching it was how much the mannerisms, the accent, the character of Maria Altmann reminded me of a certain family friend, a woman of the same vintage, and similar background; Viennese, of a prosperous family who also ran afoul of the Nazis, and finished up living in Southern California. I wonder if Lainie and Maria Altmann knew each other, back in the day? Lainie lived in the right part of town and had the kind of income and background to have patronized Maria Altmann’s upscale boutique. Never know now, I guess. But I sought out the text of an early post on Sgt. Stryker that I wrote about Lainie’s rescuing angel. More »

The absolute nadir of bad days at work was sketched briefly in a recent book about the Revolutionary War battle of Saratoga – a decisive turning point in that war. There is nothing much new in Dean Snow’s 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga, save that the author has gone through just about every set of archives, memoirs, and reminisces existing, along with an exhaustive survey of the site itself, and produced an hour by hour account. No mean feat, especially since keeping track of time was an inexact science. (And would be for at least another eighty years, when the developing railways, with requirements for exact timetables over long distances, and necessary scheduling of use on single track routes made it mandatory that scrupulous attention be paid to these matters.)

Briefly, that campaign was series of battles, skirmishes, and clashes on the banks of the Hudson River where it passes through upstate New York; the culmination of a grand plan to slice the rebellious colonies in – if not half – at least thirds. The supreme British commander, General William Howe (rumored to be a backstairs cousin to George III, his granny having had a productive affair with George I), was pleasantly ensconced in New York, where he was assisted in his revolution-suppression duties by General Henry Clinton. The British forces had chased the rebellious colonials out of New York some months previously. All the notable cities of the Colonies were ocean ports; Boston, New York, Charleston, Savannah. Only Philadelphia was an exception – and it sat on the inland reaches of the Delaware River. Still a port – but far inland from the Atlantic Ocean. In any case, the grand scheme was to split off New England from the other rebellious colonies by coming down from Canada with an overwhelming force of British regular troops and hired German mercenaries.

This grand plan was the brainchild of a handsome, raffish adventurer of some military talent and high connections in the British aristocracy, one John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. The son-in-law of an influential politician of the time, Burgoyne possessed the favor of influential friends, the reputation of an outspoken military innovator, a mildly distinguished record of active service in the Seven Years War, some talent as a playwright, and membership in the House of Commons. In 1776, upon the lower Colonies in North America becoming quite irredeemably rebellious, Burgoyne was given command of a force charged with recovering British control over Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley. Burgoyne’s grand theatrical plan was for three forces – one coming down the Mohawk River from the west, another coming upriver from New York – and a third, commanded by himself advancing south down the Hudson River, all converging near Albany at a date mutually convenient for all three – and that would put an end to this silly revolution nonsense. Against sober consideration of the odds, the territory to be covered and a sincere ignorance of the complications which this plan would fall heir to, Burgoyne was given authority to proceed. Which he did, with full enthusiasm, and an enormous baggage trail, a company which included the wife and daughters of the professional soldier commanding the German element, Colonel Friedrich Reidesel. (Who as a professional, thought rather ill of Burgoyne and Howe, and Mrs. Colonel Reidesel’s opinion was even blunter.) General Burgoyne was so confident of this plan that legend has it that he wagered ten pounds with Charles James Fox that he would return in a year, triumphant, with the rebellion utterly quashed.

The long and the short of it is that Burgoyne’s grand plan came to a grief which would have been – and was – predicted by soberer heads. Loaded down with heavy baggage both real and cultural, Burgoyne and his scheme crashed head-on into brutal reality. Their Indian allies bailed early on, the American Loyalists which he had counted on to report in substantive numbers did not oblige, the force sent along the Mohawk Rover was defeated in a fight at Fort Stanwix, and the large British force moving up from New York never materialized; General Howe went to take Philadelphia instead, leaving General Sir Henry Clinton in charge of New York. The sheer difficulty of moving his enormous baggage and supply train utterly crumbled his grand offensive plan once he met stiff resistance, a little way south from Saratoga.

A month-long series of bitter skirmishes, culminating in battles at Freeman’s Farm, Bemis Heights and the Balcarres Redoubt burned through supplies, horses, ammunition, men, and German/British morale. Gentleman Johnny’s best chance would have been to pack up what was left of his supplies, soldiers, artillery-train and beat a strategic retreat north. But he still held out a hope that General Clinton would send a relief force of 2,000 men to his aid, as General Clinton had promised. Messages between Clinton and Burgoyne were carried by an American Loyalist soldier, a man named Daniel Taylor, who carried them in a hollow silver ball, the size of a bullet as he stealthed his way in ordinary civilian clothing up and down the Hudson. On October 9, Taylor and another Loyalist were just returning from New York, with a message for Burgoyne. Upon approaching New Windsor, Taylor and his companion began seeing heavily armed men – but were they Rebels or Loyalists?

At this point in the fighting, not very many Rebels or Loyalists wore distinguishing uniforms. Taylor and his companion were challenged almost at once. Who were they, and what were they doing? Well, said Taylor, who are you and what are you doing? We’re guards for General Clinton, replied the men. Why – Taylor had just departed from Clinton’s camp, the day before! Hurrah, for Clinton making swift work of the distance. Much relieved, Taylor asked to be taken to the General, obviously assuming General Clinton might have additional messages for Burgoyne. The guardsmen obliged by escorting Taylor into the august presence of the general … and that was the point where the day became The Very Worst Day At Work Ever for Daniel Taylor.

Because this was not the British General Sir Henry Clinton … but the American rebel, George Clinton; a commander of militia, governor of New York (who would be re-elected to that office five times), brigadier general in the New York volunteer militia – and also a dear personal friend and supporter of George Washington. Taylor – whom one might assume was frozen in horrified realization for a brief moment and whose interior monologue might be imagined with some accuracy – grabbed the silver ball containing the message to Burgoyne from where he had it concealed on his person and swallowed it.

Too late. Orders were given, Taylor was separated from his companion (nothing is said of what happened to that man) a doctor was sent for, and an emetic administered – likely by force – and nature took its course. He vomited up the silver ball containing the message, and when it was opened, and the message read, there was no hope at all for him, save for dictating a confession to an obliging militia officer, and composing his soul; an enemy courier, carrying theater-commander-level messages, and out of uniform – such as they were at the time. He was hanged the following Sunday morning, from the branch of an apple tree near the church in Kingston, north of New Windsor, as the Rebels evacuated the area, in anticipation of the British advance. When Sir Henry Clinton’s troops did briefly reoccupy Kingston, they found Taylor’s body, and burnt the town in reprisal.

All to no purpose, as it turned out. Burgoyne surrendered within days – a precursor to the larger surrender at Yorktown, four years later, when the world turned upside down and Britain relinquished control of thirteen rebellious colonies in the New World.

11. May 2018 · Comments Off on The Most Incredible Wartime Air Journey · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Wild Blue Yonder

OK, so it was linked on Insty, but this was an incredible read: of the Pan-Am commercial flight which got caught on the wrong side of the world after Pearl Harbor, and had to go around the long way to get home again, with pluck, luck and sheer stubborn inventiveness.
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Enjoy!
I particularly liked the part where they visited a public library, searching for relevant information.

(The historic WWI Battle of Belleau Wood is a part of the background in A Half Dozen of Luna City … and for your edification – an essay on it, which will feature in the latest Luna City chronicle.)

1918 was not the year that the 19th century died; died in all of its boundless optimisms and earnest faith in advancement of the human condition. For Europe – cynical, cultured, hyper-superior old Europe – that could be said to happened two years earlier, along the Somme, at Verdun, in the tangled hell of barbed wire, poisoned gas and toxic, clay-like mud, the burnt ruins of the centuries-old Louvain university and it’s priceless library, destroyed by German ‘frightfulness’ tactics in the heat of their first offensive. Perhaps the 19th century died as early as 1915. It depended on which front, of course, and the combatants involved, still standing on their feet, but wavering like punch-drunken, exhausted pugilists. One may readily theorize that only blood-drenched enmity kept them propped up, swinging futilely at each other, while the lists of casualties from this or that offensive filled page after page of newsprint; all in miniscule typeface, each single name – so small in print, yet a horrific, tragic loss for a family and community hundreds of miles from the Front.
All this was different for Americans, of course; sitting on the sidelines, gravely concerned, yet publicly dedicated to neutrality, and firmly at first of the conviction that Europe’s affairs were not much of Americas’ business. But softly, slowly, slowly, softly – American sympathies swung towards the Allies, even though there were enough first- and second-generation Americans among German and Irish immigrants to have swung American public opinion among non-Anglo or Francophile elements towards maintaining a continued neutrality. After all, it was a war far, far, away, and nothing much to do with us … at first. But events conspired; the brutality of the Huns in Belgium (documented by American newspapers), unrestricted submarine warfare which extended to American shipping (and, inevitably, American casualties), and finally, the publication of the Zimmerman Telegram – and in the spring of 1917, President Wilson formally requested of Congress that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany be considered and voted upon. Said declaration was passed by an overwhelming margin, and by summer of that year, American troops were arriving in France – first in a trickle, then a flood.
The Belleau Wood was a forested tract thirty or so miles northeast of Paris; a hunting preserve in a stand of old-growth European forest, the refuge of wildlife, and for those whose favored recreation was hunting them. At the northern edge of the forest was two-story octagonal hunting lodge; built of stone, it was a place to shelter hunters for a night, during momentary bad weather, or a hearty meal, mid-hunt. Until the spring of 1918, it had been relatively untouched by a war which had turned acres and acres of French and Belgian farmland into muddy, barbed-wire entangled wastelands – many of which are still poisoned and unsafe, a hundred years after the end of that war. That forest tranquility ended when the expected German spring offensive slammed into the Allied lines – lines which now included the Americans – and punched through to the Marne River. The Germans had hoped to break through before the sufficient of the American Expeditionary Force arrived to make a difference in the wars’ outcome.
Late in May, German forces reached the Paris-Metz main road – and if they managed to break across the Marne and reach Paris, that one last throw of the dice would pay off for Germany; perhaps in victory, or perhaps in a negotiated and face-saving settlement with the equally exhausted and embittered French and British.

An experienced career soldier, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing commanded the US. Expeditionary Force. He had rejected British and French demands that the Americans be parceled out piecemeal among Allied units, and essentially fight under the command of French and British officers. This would not do – likely Black Jack was polite yet forceful about it. (His nic came from him having commanded a troop of black cavalry early in his career as a young officer.) The AEF’s 3rd Division went into the line to counter the German advance at Chateau Thierry – the 3rd Division, which included a brigade of Marines, had initially been held in reserve – was brought forward in a hurry. The Marines were pretty much seen as a second-class by the Army brass, according to some accounts: good enough to do rear-guard and support duty, and only thrown into what was expected to be a quiet sector because every able-bodied American serviceman was needed, in the face of the German spring offensive. Checked by stiff resistance at Chateau Thierry, the German advance poured into the woods, where the 3rd Division had just arrived. Retreating French troops, exhausted from the fight to keep from being overrun, urged the Americans to do likewise, whereupon one of their officers is supposed to have riposted, “Retreat, Hell – we just got here!”
Of course, the newly-arrived American troops were keen as mustard; champing at the bit, as it were – especially the Marines, few of whom were of the career old breed. Many were recent volunteers. Up until that moment, the Marines had been a rather small, and somewhat specialized service; more inclined to security on board naval ships and at US embassies abroad, perhaps a small punitive expedition where American interests were concerned in South America and the Caribbean; a military constabulary, rather than hard-charging infantry. Still, it was a service that took pride in having been founded by an act of the Continental Congress in 1775, recruiting at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, beating the official establishment of the US Army by more than a decade. (Yes, there was a Continental Army during the Revolution, but it was more like state militias seconded for service in the colonies’ united cause. The US Army wasn’t quote-unquote officially established until the 1780s. Upon this kind of minutia are friendly service rivalries built.)

Throughout the month of June 1918, the Marines fought with bitter tenacity through the deathly woods; sharpshooting at first, with deadly effect, and eventually to point-blank, then with bayonet, knives, and hand-to-hand. They kept the Germans from moving out of the wood, and then fought them back, yard by yard, trench by trench. The trees in the forest, the boulders at their feet were shattered by artillery and machine-gun fire. The stench from the bodies of the dead – too many to bury, under the existing conditions in the early summer heat – revolted the living to an unimaginable degree. And still – they went on, clawing back the wood to Allied control. More Marines were killed in that single month than had been killed in action since their founding in 1775. The Corps would not face another butcher’s bill to equal it until the taking of Tarawa, a quarter of a century later, and half the world away. It was a special kind of hell, this fight in a 200-acre French woodland, fought by relatively untried young troops, motivated by pride in service, by devotion to comrades, and by the leadership – which in many instances devolved onto NCOs, and even individual Marines, like Sergeant Dan Daly, a scrappy Irish-American career Marine (who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – twice, for actions in the Boxer Rebellion, and then again in Haiti). In legend he is said to have rallied the troops with a shout of “For Chrissake, men, come on; do you want to live forever?!” (Or similar phrasing. The war correspondent Floyd Gibbons later wrote that he had heard a similar expression shouted by a senior NCO, and the legend attached itself to Dan Daly.)
In the end, the Germans were driven from the woods, at a horrific cost; 10,000 casualties among the Marines, including nearly 2,000 dead. There is no definitive record of German dead, although there were around 1,600 Germans taken prisoner. But the Marines had clawed back the deathly woods, blunted the last-ditch German offensive … and in November of that year, Germany threw in the towel. By agreement, it all came to a temporary end on the eleventh hour, the eleventh day, the eleventh month. Such were the enmities and resulting bitterness that the armistice held only for the time that it took for a baby boy born in that year to grow up and serve in his turn. The shattered forest was christened anew after the battle; since then it is called the Wood of the Marine Brigade and an adjunct to a American war cemetery. The American 4th Brigade was recognized by the French government by the award of a military honor, the Croix de Guerre. To this day, active-duty Marines serving in the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments are authorized to wear the French fourragere – an elaborate garnishment of looped and braided cords – on their left shoulder as part of their dress uniform, in honor of that unit’s service in the Deathly Wood, a hundred years ago. And to this day, successfully completing Marine Corps basic training means completing the “Crucible” – a 54-hour marathon march on short rations and little sleep, featuring grueling marches, obstacle course and team-driven combat-problem-solving exercise – some of which was drawn on the experience of the fighting in the deathly woods, a hundred years ago.