“War Stories”-The Hidden History of America At War

This video is a brief introduction to my new book, THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (published May 5, 2015 by Hachette Books and Random House Audio)

“His searing analyses and ability to see the forest as well as the trees make for an absorbing and infuriating read as he highlights the strategic missteps, bad decisions, needless loss of life, horrific war crimes, and political hubris that often accompany war.”

–Publishers Weekly *Starred Review Link Full Review 

More Advance Praise for THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR

The Hidden History of America At War-May 5,2015 (Hachette Books/Random House Audio)

The Hidden History of America At War-May 5, 2015 (Hachette Books/Random House Audio)

 

 

“There’s only one person who can top Kenneth C. Davis—and that’s Kenneth C. Davis. With The Hidden History of America at War, he’s composed yet another brilliant, thought-provoking, and compelling book. . . Davis offers a hard-hitting and sometimes critical look at some of the most consequential wartime decisions made by presidents and policy makers, but his admiration and respect for the men and women who have served and sacrificed so much for this nation is unwavering.”

—Andrew Carroll, editor of the New York Times-bestsellers War Letters and Behind the Lines

“With his trademark storytelling flair, Kenneth C. Davis illuminates six critical, but often overlooked battles that helped define America’s character and its evolving response to conflict. This fascinating and strikingly insightful book is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand our nation’s bloody history of war.”

—Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan and When America First Met China

“A fascinating exploration of war and the myths of war. Kenneth C. Davis shows how interesting the truth can be.”

—Evan Thomas, New York Times-bestselling author of Sea of Thunder and John Paul Jones

Flag Day and Mr. Madison’s War

(A repost of a video made a few years ago but always timely. Filmed, directed and edited by Colin Davis)

In June 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain. It would be derided as “Mr. Madison’s War.”

It is also appropriate to note that today  – June 14– is Flag Day, the day that the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the nation’s flag in 1777.

These two landmarks come together because it was during the War of 1812 that America got the words that eventually became its national anthem –with music borrowed from an old English drinking song. Almost from the outset, the song has been butchered at baseball games and Super Bowls.

At war with England for the second time since 1776,  the United States was ill-prepared for fighting and the British were preoccupied with a war with France. So it was a fitful few years of war.

But the conflict  produced an iconic American moment in September 1814.  Francis Scott Key was an attorney attempting to negotiate the return of a civilian prisoner held by the British who had just burned Washington DC and had set their sights on Baltimore. As the British attacked the city, Key watched the naval bombardment from a ship in Baltimore’s harbor. In the morning, he could see that the Stars and Stripes still flew over Fort McHenry. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics that we all know –well, at least some of you probably know some of them.

But here’s what they didn’t tell you:

Yes, Washington, D.C. was burned by the British  in 1814, including the President’s Mansion which would be rebuilt and later come to be called the “White House.” But Washington was torched in retaliation for the burning of York –now Toronto—in Canada earlier in the war.

Yes, Key wrote words. But the music comes from an old English drinking song. Good thing it wasn’t 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. Here’s a link to the original lyrics of the drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven  (via Poem of the Week).

The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1916 when President Wilson declared it by Executive Order. But that didn’t really count. In 1931, it became the National Anthem by Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover.,

Now here are two other key –no pun intended– events related to Flag Day, June 14:

•In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that  schoolchildren could not be compelled to salute the flag if it conflicted with their religious beliefs

•In 1954 on Flag Day, President Eisenhower signed the law that added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

 Learn more about Fort McHenry, Key and the Flag that inspired the National Anthem from the National Park Service.

The images and music in this video are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History which has excellent resources on the flag that inspired Key.

This version of the anthem is on 19th century instruments:
http://americanhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/mp3/song.ssb.dsl.mp3

The history of the War of 1812, including a Timeline of major events, is explored in greater depth in the Anniversary edition of Don’t Know Much About History, now available in paperback.

Fort McHenry-Baltimore Harbor (Video frame by Colin Davis)

Fort McHenry-Baltimore Harbor (Video frame by Colin Davis)

 

Don’t Know Much About® Memorial Day

(This video was originally posted May 2012. It was produced, edited and directed by Colin Davis.)

Memorial Day brings thoughts of duty, honor, courage, sacrifice and loss. The holiday, the most somber date on the American national calendar, was born in the ashes of the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” when General John S. Logan –a-veteran of the Mexican and Civil Wars, a prominent Illinois politician and leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union fraternal organization –called for May 30, 1868 as the day on which the graves of fallen Union soldiers would be decorated with fresh flowers.

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds.”

Pointedly, Logan’s order was seen as a day to honor those who died in the cause if ending slavery and opposing the “rebellion.”

Every year at this time, I spend a lot of time talking about the roots and traditions of Memorial Day.

It’s not about the barbecue or the Mattress Sales. Obscured by the holiday atmosphere around Memorial Day is the fact that it is the most solemn day on the national calendar. This video tells a bit about the history behind the holiday.

One way to mark Memorial Day is by simply reading the Gettysburg Address. Here is a link to the Library of Congress and its page on the Address.  I also discussed Memorial Day in a previous post.

One of the most famous symbols of the loss on Memorial Day is the Poppy, inspired by this World War I poem by John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 Source: The poem is in the public domain courtesy of Poets.org

 

 

Soldiers of the 146th Infantry, 37th Division, crossing the Scheldt River at Nederzwalm under fire. Image courtesy of The National Archives.

Soldiers of the 146th Infantry, 37th Division, crossing the Scheldt River at Nederzwalm under fire. Image courtesy of The National Archives.

Have a memorable Memorial Day!

(Images in video:Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Flanders Cemetery image Courtesy of the American Battle Monuments Commission)

When Irish Eyes Were Not Smiling-The Bible Riots

(This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on March 17, 2012)

It is the day for the “wearing of the green,” parades and an unfortunate connection between being Irish and imbibing. For the day, everybody feels “a little Irish.”

But it was not always a happy go lucky virtue to be Irish in America. Once upon a time, the Irish –and specifically Irish Catholics– were vilified by the majority in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. The Irish were considered the dregs by “Nativist” Americans who leveled at Irish immigrants all of the insults and charges typically aimed at every hated immigrant group: they were lazy, uneducated, dirty, disease-ridden, a criminal class who stole jobs from Americans. And dangerous. The Irish were said to be plotting to overturn the U.S. government and install the Pope in a new Vatican.

One notorious chapter in the hidden history of Irish-Americans is left out of most textbook– the violently anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Bible Riots” of 1844.

In May 1844, Philadelphia –the City of Brotherly Love– was torn apart by a series of bloody riots. Known as the “Bible Riots,” they grew out of the vicious anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment that was so widespread in 19th century America. Families were burned out of their homes. Churches were destroyed. And more than two dozen people died in one of the worst urban riots in American History.

You can read more about America’s history of intolerance –religious and otherwise– in this Smithsonian essay, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance.”

 

The story of the “Bible Riots” is another untold tale that I explore in my book A NATION RISING.

 

A NATION RISING (Harper paperback/Random House Audio)


 

What day is it? Don’t Know Much About® George Washington

It’s that time of year. Time once again to explain that the upcoming national holiday is not “Presidents Day.”

Yes, I cannot tell a lie. The day we celebrate  on the third Monday in February is really called “George Washington’s Birthday.” Ask the National Archives.

Want to learn a little more?
Here is the website for the National Park Service’s Birthplace of Washington site.

And here is the National Park Service website for Fort Necessity, scene of Washington’s surrender and “confession.”

Don’t Know Much About® Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday

February 12 used to mean something special  — Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. It was never a national holiday but it was pretty important when I was a kid and we got the day off from school in my  hometown.

The Uniform Holidays Act in 1971 changed that by creating Washington’s Birthday as a federal holiday on the third Monday in February. It is NOT officially “Presidents Day.”

But it is still a good excuse to talk about Abraham Lincoln, especially since his real birthday is on the calendar.c

“Honest Abe.” “The Railsplitter.” “The Great Emancipator.” You know some of the basics and the legends. But check out this video to learn some of things you may not know, but should, about the 16th President.

Here’s a link to the Lincoln Birthplace National Park

This link is to the Emancipation Proclamation page at the National Archives.

And you can read much more about Lincoln in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the Civil War.

Don't Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion Paperback-April 15, 2014)

Abraham Lincoln (November 1863) Photo by Alexander Gardner

Abraham Lincoln (November 1863) Photo by Alexander Gardner

 

“In Depth” on Book TV with Kenneth C. Davis

On November 4, 2012, New York Times Bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis sat down for a comprehensive three-hour interview with C-Span’s Book TV.

The interview, which included questions from callers and via e-mail, covered Davis’ career as a writer spanning more than 20 years. In the interview, he discussed his approach to writing history in such books as Don’t Know Much About® History. He also described his background, growing up in Mt. Vernon, New York, how he became a writer, and his early work, including his first book, Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, which discussed the rise of the paperback publishing industry and the impact of books on American society.

Davis also described the success of his “Don’t Know Much About®” series, with its emphasis on making history both accessible and entertaining while connecting the past to the present.

Watch the video here.

Thanksgiving Pop Quiz- A Videoblog

(Original video created and directed by Colin Davis)

With Thanksgiving around the corner, cutouts of Pilgrims in black clothes and clunky shoes are sprouting all over the place. You may know that the Pilgrims sailed aboard the Mayflower and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. But did you know their first Thanksgiving celebration lasted three whole days? What else do you know about these early settlers of America? Don’t be a turkey. Try this True-False quiz.

True or False? (Answers below)
1. Pilgrims always wore stiff black clothes and shoes with silver buckles.
2. The Pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom.
3. Everyone on the Mayflower was a Pilgrim.
4. The Pilgrims were saved from starvation by a native American friend named Squanto.
5. The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America.

The site of Plimouth Plantation is definitely worth a visit.

 

Answers
1. False. Pilgrims wore blue, green, purple and brownish clothing for everyday. Those who had good black clothes saved them for the Sabbath. No Pilgrims had buckles– artists made that up later!
2. True. The Pilgrims were a group of radical Puritans who had broken away from the Church of England. After 11 years of “exile” in Holland, they decided to come to America.
3. False. Only about half of the 102 people on the Mayflower were what William Bradford later called “Pilgrims.” The others, called “Strangers” just wanted to come to the New World.
4. True. Squanto, or Tisquantum, helped teach the Pilgrims to hunt, farm and fish. He learned English after being taken as a slave aboard an English ship.
5. False. The Indians had been having similar harvest feasts for years. So did the English settlers in Virginia and Spanish settlers in the southwest before the Pilgrims even got to America. And the Mayflower Pilgrims weren’t even America’s “first Pilgrims.” That honor goes to French Huguenots who settled in Florida more than 50 years before the Mayflower sailed.

 

Read about America’s real “first Pilgrims”–French Huguenots who landed in Florida more than fifty years before the Mayflower sailed– in this New York Times  Op-Ed, “A French Connection” and in my book America’s Hidden History

America's Hidden History, includes tales of "Forgotten Founders"

America’s Hidden History, includes tales of “First Pilgrims” and “Forgotten Founders”

 

 

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

The World is a Pear: Columbus Day 2014

(Video edited and produced by Colin Davis; originally posted October 2011)

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

We all remember that. But after that basic date, things get a little fuzzy. Here’s what they didn’t tell you–
*Most educated people knew that the world was not flat.
*Columbus never set foot in what would become America.
*Christopher Columbus made four voyages to the so-called New World. And his discoveries opened an astonishing era of exploration and exploitation. But his arrival marked the beginning of the end for tens of millions of Native Americans spread across two continents.

In 1892,  the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus inspired the composition of the original Pledge of Allegiance and a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison describing Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” (Source: Library of Congress, “American Memory: Today in History: October 12”)

That was the patriotic American can-do spirit behind the Columbian Exposition—also known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

In 1934,  the “progress and enlightenment” celebrated in the Columbus narrative was powerful enough to merit a federal holiday on October 12 – a reflection of the growing political clout of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal organization that fought discrimination against recently arrived immigrants, many of them Italian and Irish.
Once a hero. Now a villain. Cities and states around the country are changing the name of the holiday to “Indigenous People’s Day” or Native American Day” to move this holiday away from a man whose treatment of the natives e found  included barbaric punishments and forced labor.
You can read more about Christopher Columbus, his voyages and their impact on American history in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About Geography.

The story of “Isabella’s Pigs,” and the role of Queen Isabella in the making of the New World, is depicted in America’s Hidden History

Don't Know Much About® Geography (Revised and Updated Edition-Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® Geography (Revised and Updated Edition-Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

 

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

americashiddenhistory

Don’t Know Much About® Field Trip: the National Anthem

 

(Video shot, edited and produced by Colin Davis)

Two hundred years ago, Francis Scott Key penned the words that later became the national anthem. This video is from my 2009 field trip to Fort McHenry.

Fort McHenry-Baltimore Harbor (Video frame by Colin Davis)

Fort McHenry-Baltimore Harbor (Video frame by Colin Davis)

It was September 13, 1814. America was at war with England for the second time since 1776. Francis Scott Key was an attorney attempting to negotiate the return of a civilian prisoner held by the British who had just burned Washington DC and had set their sights on Baltimore. As the British attacked the city, Key watched the naval bombardment from a ship in Baltimore’s harbor. In the morning, he could see that the Stars and Stripes still flew over Fort McHenry. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics that we all know –well some of you know some of them.

But here’s what they didn’t tell you:

•Yes, Washington, D.C. was burned in 1814, including the President’s Home which would later get a fresh coat of paint and be called the “White House.” But Washington was torched in retaliation for the burning of York –now Toronto—in Canada earlier in the war.

•Yes, Key wrote words. But the music comes from an old English drinking song. Good thing it wasn’t 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.Here’s a link to the original lyrics of that drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven via Poem of the Week.

•The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1916 when President Wilson declared it by Executive Order. But that didn’t really count. Finally, in 1931, it became the National Anthem by Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover, on March 3.

Now, here are a couple of footnotes to the Francis Scott Key story—his son, Philip Barton Key, was a District Attorney in Washington. DC. He was shot and killed by Congressman Daniel Sickles. Sickles was acquitted with the first use of the defense of temporary insanity in 1859. And went on to serve as a Civil War general –and not a very good one.

And speaking of the Civil War, Key’s grandson was later imprisoned in Fort McHenry along with Baltimore’s Mayor and other pro-Confederate sympathizers.

Here are some places to learn more about Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key and the Flag that inspired the National Anthem: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

The images and music in this video are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History

This version of the anthem in the video is performed on 19th century instruments also courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum.

Don't Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition (Harper Perennial and Random House Audio)