MEMORIAL DAY -MONDAY MAY 27, 2019
(Revise of 2015 post)
It is a well-established fact that Americans like to argue. And we do. Mays or Mantle. A Caddy or a Lincoln. And, of course, abolition, abortion, and guns.
But a debate over Memorial Day –and more specifically where and how it began? America’s most solemn holiday should be free of rancor. But it never has been.
The heated arguments over removing the Confederate flag and monuments to heroes and soldiers of the Confederacy in New Orleans and St. Louis provide examples and reminders of the birth of Memorial Day.
Waterloo, New York claimed that the holiday originated there with a parade and decoration of the graves of fallen soldiers in 1866. But according to the Veterans Administration, at least 25 places stake a claim to the birth of Memorial Day. Among the pack are Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which says it was first in 1864.( “Many Claim to Be Memorial Day Birthplace” )
And Charleston, South Carolina, according to historian David Blight, points to a parade of emancipated children in May 1865 who decorated the graves of fallen Union soldiers whose remains were moved from a racetrack to a proper cemetery.
But the passions cut deeper than pride of place.
Born 151 years ago out of the Civil War’s catastrophic death toll as “Decoration Day,” Memorial Day is a day for honoring our nation’s war dead. A veteran of the Mexican War and the Civil War, John A. Logan, a Congressman and leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, set the first somber commemoration on May 30, 1868, in Arlington Cemetery, the sacred space wrested from property once belonging to Robert E. Lee’s family.( When Memorial Day was No Picnic by James M. McPherson.) The Grand Army of the Republic was a powerful fraternal organization formed of Civil War Union veterans.
From its inception, Decoration Day (later Memorial Day) was linked to “Yankee” losses in the cause of emancipation. Calling for the first formal Decoration Day, Union General John Logan wrote, “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains…”
In other words, Logan’s first Decoration Day was divisive— a partisan affair, organized by northerners.
In 1871, Frederick Douglass gave a Memorial Day speech in Arlington that focused on this division:
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.
But the question remains: what inspired Logan to call for this rite of decorating soldier’s graves with fresh flowers?
The simple answer is—his wife.
While visiting Petersburg, Virginia – which fell to General Grant 150 years ago in 1865 after a year-long, deadly siege – Mary Logan learned about the city’s women who had formed a Ladies’ Memorial Association. Their aim was to show admiration “…for those who died defending homes and loved ones.”
Choosing June 9th, the anniversary of “The Battle of the Old Men and the Young Boys” in 1864, a teacher had taken her students to the city’s cemetery to decorate the graves of the fallen. General Logan’s wife wrote to him about the practice. Soon after, he ordered a day of remembrance.
The teacher and her students, it is worth noting, had placed flowers and flags on both Union and Confederate graves.
As America wages its partisan wars at full pitch, this may be a lesson for us all.
More resources at the New York Times Topics archive of Memorial Day articles
The story of “The Battle of the Old Men and the Young Boys” is told in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR (Now in paperback)
[8/2016 post updated 5/15/2019]
“Charges that four oil vessels were attacked at the mouth of the Persian Gulf over the weekend have amplified fears across the region about the escalating tensions between Iran and the West.” New York Times, May 13, 2019
Ships attacked. U.S. military response ratcheted up. Been there, done that. It did not end well.
What was the Tonkin Resolution?
On August 7, 1964, Congress approved a resolution that soon became the legal foundation for Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. (New York Times story)
It came in August 1964 with a brief encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin, the waters off the coast of North Vietnam where the U.S. Navy posted warships loaded with electronic eavesdropping equipment enabling them to monitor North Vietnamese military operations and provide intelligence to CIA-trained South Vietnamese commandos. One of these ships, the U.S.S. Maddox was reportedly fired on by gunboats from North Vietnam.
The reported attack came in the midst of LBJ’s 1964 campaign against hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater. President Johnson felt the incident called for a tough response and had the Navy send the Maddox and a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, back into the Gulf of Tonkin. A radar man on the Turner Joy saw some blips, and that boat opened fire. On the Maddox, there were also reports of incoming torpedoes, and the Maddox began to fire. There was never any confirmation that either ship had actually been attacked. Later, the radar blips would be attributed to weather conditions and jittery nerves among the crew.
According to Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History,
“Even Johnson privately expressed doubts only a few days after the second attack supposedly took place, confiding to an aide, ‘Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.’”
Johnson ordered an air strike against North Vietnam and then called for passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This legislation gave the president the authority to “take all necessary measures” to repel attacks against U.S. forces and to “prevent further aggression.” The resolution not only gave Johnson the powers he needed to increase American commitment to Vietnam, but allowed him to blunt Goldwater’s accusations that Johnson was “timid before Communism.”
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed the House unanimously after only forty minutes of debate. In the Senate, there were only two voices in opposition. What Congress did not know was that the resolution had been drafted several months before the Tonkin incident took place. In June 1964, on LBJ’s orders, according to journalist-historian Tim Weiner,
“Bill Bundy, the assistant secretary of state for the Far East, brother of the national security adviser, and a veteran CIA analyst, had drawn up a war resolution to be sent to Congress when the moment was ripe.” (Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, p. 280)
Congress, which has sole constitutional authority to declare war, had handed that power over to Johnson, who was not a bit reluctant to use it. One of the senators who voted against the Tonkin Resolution, Oregon’s Wayne Morse, later said,
“I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution.”
After the vote, Walt Rostow, an adviser to Lyndon Johnson, remarked,
“We don’t know what happened, but it had the desired result.”
In January 1971, Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as popular opinion grew against a continued U.S. military involvement in Vietnam
Since Vietnam, United States military actions have taken place as part of United Nations’ actions, in the context of joint congressional resolutions, or within the confines of the War Powers Resolution (also known as the War Powers Act) that was passed in 1973, over the objections (and veto) of President Richard Nixon.”
The War Powers Resolution came as a direct reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, as Congress sought to avoid another military conflict where it had little input.
“The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Limits of Presidential Power” National Constitution Center
In 2005, the National Security Agency (NSA) issued a report reviewing the Tonkin incident in which it said “no attack had happened.” (Weiner, p. 280)
The National Endowment for the Humanities website Edsitement offers teaching resources on Tonkin and the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Read more about Vietnam, LBJ and his administration in Don’t Know Much About® History, Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents. The Vietnam War and the Tonkin Resolution are also covered in a chapter on the Tet offensive of 1968 in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR.
On this date- February 19, 1942 – a different kind of infamy
Franklin D. Roosevelt famously told Americans when he was inaugurated in 1933:
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself
But on February 19, 1942 –a little more than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor— President Roosevelt allowed America’s fear to provoke him into an action regarded among his worst mistakes. He issued Executive Order 9066.
The result of this Executive Order was the policy of “relocating” some 120,000 Japanese Americans, and a smaller number of German and Italian Americans, into “internment camps.”
Among these resources is a site devoted to the War Relocation Camps –a Teaching With Historic Places Lesson Plan from the National Park Service called “When Fear Was Stronger than Justice.”
So What Day Is it After All?
Okay. We all do it. It’s printed on calendars and posted in bank windows. We mistakenly call the third Monday in February Presidents Day, in part because of all those commercials in which George Washington swings his legendary ax and “Rail-splitter” Abe Lincoln hoists his ax to chop down prices on everything from mattresses and linens to SUVs.
But, this February holiday is officially still George Washington’s Birthday –federally speaking that is.
The official designation of the federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February was, and still is, Washington’s Birthday.
But Washington’s Birthday has become widely known as Presidents Day (or President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day). The popular usage and confusion resulted from the merging of what had been two widely celebrated Presidential birthdays in February —Lincoln’s on February 12th, which was never a federal holiday– and Washington’s on February 22, which was.
Created under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which gave us three-day weekend Monday holidays, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is technically still Washington’s Birthday. But here’s the rub: the holiday can never land on Washington’s true birthday because the latest date it can fall is February 21, as it did in 2011.
There is a wealth of information about the First President at his home Mount Vernon.
Read More About the creation of the Presidency, Washington, his life and administration in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. Washington’s role in the American Revolution is highlighted Chapter One of THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR.
And George Washington’s role as a slaveowner is fully explored in IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
Of the many what-ifs of history, this is a big one.
In September 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt -then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy- was carried off the troopship Leviathan by stretcher. He had just inspected U.S. troops in Europe and, either before leaving France or on board the transport, he came down with the Spanish Flu –then sweeping the warring world.
The fifth cousin of the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR was taken to his mother’s Manhattan apartment. He had the flu and was deathly ill.
What if… Franklin D. Roosevelt had not survived this bout of the Spanish Flu?
Roosevelt did survive. Previously a New York State senator, he returned to politics and was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1920.
In August 1921, Roosevelt fell ill with what was thought to be polio, which left his legs crippled. (Recently, it has been suggested he might have had a different illness.) Remaining active in Democratic politics, FDR continued his recuperation, learning to walk with the use of braces and a cane. He made sure that he was not seen using a wheelchair in public.
Despite this disability, Franklin D. Roosevelt went on to be elected Governor of New York in 1928. After the Great Depression began, he ran for a second term and addressed the economic crisis with relief packages which President Hoover resisted on the national level.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
In 1932, Roosevelt ran against the incumbent Hoover. With the nation in the depths of the Great Depression crisis, the worst economic downturn in American history. He had promised Americans a “New Deal” and started a series of federal relief programs to get the American economy moving again. Despite the continuing national depression, he was reelected in 1936 by a landslide and again in 1940, becoming the first U.S. President to win a third term in office.
By then his attention had turned to foreign affairs and the threat posed in Europe by Hitler and Mussolini and in Asia by Japan. He led the United States into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Born on January 30, 1882, Franklin D. Roosvelt died on April 12, 1945. Here is a chronology of FDR’s life as part of his New York Times obituary.
More resources on Roosevelt’s life can be found at his Presidential Library and Museum.
(originally posted on 1/24/2013; revised 1/24/2019)
Born today in New York City in 1862: Edith Newbold Jones, who achieved fame as Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 (for The Age of Innocence).
Romance, scandal and ruin among New York socialites—long before this was the stuff of People, and “Gossip Girl,” it was the subject matter for Edith Wharton’s most famous works. In such novels as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton painted detailed, acid portraits of high society life. In doing so, she created heartbreaking conflicts beneath the façade of wealth and manners. Again and again, characters like Newland Archer and Lily Bart were forced to choose between conforming to social expectations and pursuing true love and happiness.
Edith Wharton in France during World War I (Photo: Courtesy The Mount Edith Wharton’s Home)
The other lesser-known aspect of Wharton’s life is her experience in France during World War I, where she founded hospitals and refugee centers for women and children. She also wrote urging the United States to join the war.
American novelist Edith Wharton set up workshops for women all over Paris, making clothes for hospitals as well as lingerie for a fashionable clientele. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for refugees and tuberculosis sufferers and ran a rescue committee for the children of Flanders, whose towns were bombarded by the Germans. Her friend and fellow author Henry James called her the “great generalissima”.
Source: Radio France International: “Edith Wharton-The American novelist who joined France’s WWI effort”
Her most famous work set outside the realm of high-tone New York was Ethan Frome (1911), set in wintry, rural Massachusetts.
Know your Wharton? Try this quick quiz–
TRUE or FALSE (Quiz adapted from Don’t Know Much About Literature, written with Jenny Davis-Answers below)
1. Edith Wharton wrote about wealthy New Yorkers to escape the poverty of her own upbringing.
2. Though Edith Wharton was unhappily married, she could not get divorced because it was socially unacceptable.
3. In addition to her fiction, Wharton published several books on interior decorating and landscaping.
The Mount is Wharton’s restored home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
The Edith Wharton Collection of manuscripts, correspondence and photographs is housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Edith Wharton died in France in August 1937. Here is her New York Times: obituary.
1. FALSE. Wharton was born to wealthy New Yorkers, and summered in Newport, Rhode Island. She grew up traveling through Europe, and was educated by private tutors. After an official debut into society, she married a rich banker twelve years her senior.
2. FALSE. She divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.
3. TRUE. Her first book was The Decoration of Houses, establishing her fame as a writer. She also wrote about Italian landscaping and architecture in Italian Villas and Their Gardens, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.
Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.
-Thomas Paine Common Sense
One of the most significant pieces of writing in American history was published on January 10, 1776. It was Thomas Paine’s essay Common Sense and is widely credited with helping to rouse Americans to the patriot cause. Its sales were extraordinary at the time; given the American population today, current day sales would amount to some 60 million copies.
The pamphleteering Paine is best known for Common Sense and The Crisis, among other works that supported the cause of independence. But after the Revolution, Paine returned to his native England and later went to France, then in the throes of its Revolution. Paine was caught up in the complex politics of the bloody Revolution there, eventually winding up in a French prison cell, facing the prospect of the guillotine.
After eventually being freed, Paine wrote an open letter in 1796 angrily denouncing President George Washington for failing to do enough to secure his release.
“Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement. The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator…In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”
Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
This was a serious case of bridge-burning and Paine swiftly fell from grace in America. But apart from dissing the Father of the Country, Paine had also fallen from favor for his most famous work after Common Sense. In 1794, he had published The Age of Reason (Part I), a deist assault on organized religion and the errors of the Bible. In it, Paine had written:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
After returning to the United States, which owed so much to him, Paine was regarded as an atheist and was abandoned by most of his friends and former allies. He died in disgrace, an outcast from the United States he had helped create. The Quaker church he had rejected refused to bury him after he died in Greenwich Village (New York) in 1809. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. A handful of people attended his funeral.
An admirer brought this remains back to England for reburial there, but they were lost.
You can read more about Thomas Paine, his relationship with Washington and his ultimate fate in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
While waiting for the arrival of More Deadly Than War (May 15) do check out In The Shadow Of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
•Notable Children’s Books-2017 ALSC/ALA
•A FINALIST for 2017 Award for Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction by YALSA — the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association.
•A selection of the 2018 Tayshas Reading List/Texas Library Association
•Named one of the BEST CHILDREN’S AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS OF 2016 (Washington Post)
Did you know that many of America’s Founding Fathers—who fought for liberty and justice for all—were slave owners?
Through the powerful stories of five enslaved people who were “owned” by four of our greatest presidents, this book helps set the record straight about the role slavery played in the founding of America. These dramatic narratives explore our country’s great tragedy—that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.
These stories help us know the real people who were essential to the birth of this nation but traditionally have been left out of the history books. Their stories are true—and they should be heard.
Some of the hidden history from IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY
IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY Published by Henry Holt & Co. | On sale September 20, 2016 ISBN: 978-1-62779-311-7 | Hardcover | Ages 10 and up | 304 pages | $17.99
Available in Audio from Penguin Random House
“Who was the last president born in a slave holding household?”
It might seem like a piece of trivia. But the answer is not trivial. President Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28 ,1856, the last of eight presidents born in Virginia. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister who did not own slaves himself. But the house in which Wilson was born was the property of the church Wilson’s father led and slaves came with the house. His father was a leader in the creation of the Southern Presbyterian Church which split from the main body of the church over slavery in 1861. Born Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th was raised in Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. He later recalled seeing Robert E. Lee as small child.
Wilson was elected in 1912 after one of the most extraordinary campaigns in presidential history. He defeated both the incumbent Republican William Howard Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt.
-Wilson was the first and to date only president with a Ph.D. He had also served as the President of Princeton before becoming Governor of New Jersey.
-Wilson’s first wife Ellen Louise Wilson died in the White House of “Bright’s disease” (kidney failure) on August 6, 1914.
-Wilson married Edith Galt Wilson on December 18, 1915 in the home of the bride in Washington, D.C. Their engagement and wedding caused some scandal at the time coming only a little more than a year after the death of Wilson’s first wife.
-Edith Galt Wilson accompanied her husband to and from the Capitol at his second inaugural in 1917, establishing a new tradition. It was also the first Inaugural Parade in which women participated.
-Wilson delivered the annual message to Congress (“State of the Union”) to a joint session of Congress in person in 1913, the first time a president had done so since Thomas Jefferson began sending a written message in 1803. He also also established a tradition of regular press conferences.
_While negotiating the Versailles Treaty in France following the end of World War I, Wilson fell ill with the flu. The illness, which may have been “Spanish Influenza,” left him weak and seemed to change Wilson, leading to speculation that the illness affected his decision-making at this crucial moment in history. Read more in More Deadly Than War
-Wilson collapsed on September 25, 1919 and suffered a stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. His wife, Edith, kept him sequestered in the White House for five weeks, in one of the most serious cases of presidential disability in history. During this time, Edith Wilson served as his “steward,” as she described it, selecting which business he could tend to and making at least one important policy decision.
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is in Staunton, Virginia adjacent to the Woodrow Wilson birthplace.
Now available, this book recounts the story of the most deadly epidemic in modern times, the Spanish Flu pandemic, which struck the world 100 years ago during the last months of World War I. While U.S. doughboys joined the largest offensive in American military history (Meuse-Argonne) that began in late September 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic returned to America with devastating virulence and violence. It is an unforgettable story that has been forgotten.
The book and audio versions are available for preorder and links to online sellers can be found here.
Davis (In the Shadow of Liberty) immediately sets the urgent tone of his forthright chronicle, citing staggering statistics: the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in spring 1918 claimed the lives of more than 675,000 Americans in a single year and left a worldwide death toll estimated at 100 million. The author structures his exhaustive account of the origins, transmission, and consequences of the pandemic within the framework of WWI, underscoring the lethal concurrence of these “twin catastrophes.”
Invisible. Incurable. Unstoppable.
From bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis comes a fascinating account of the Spanish influenza pandemic that swept the world from 1918 to 1919.
With 2018 marking the centennial of the worst disease outbreak in modern history, the story of the Spanish flu is more relevant today than ever. This dramatic narrative, told through the stories and voices of the people caught in the deadly maelstrom, explores how this vast, global epidemic was intertwined with the horrors of World War I – and how it could happen again. Complete with photographs, period documents, modern research, and firsthand reports by medical professionals and survivors, this book provides captivating insight into a catastrophe that transformed America in the early twentieth century.
Listen to a sample of the Audio version coming from Penguin Random House Audio.
I hope you will also read my previous book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY.