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Thursday, November 23, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter Forty-Two

On Saturday, 9 May, 1863, 56 year old General Joseph Eggelston Johnson (above) received a telegram from the Confederate Secretary of War, 47 year old James Alexander Seddon. In classic Seddon double-talk, it read, “Proceed at once to Mississippi and take chief command of the forces there, giving to those in the field, as far as practicable, the encouragement and benefit of your personal direction. Arrange to take for temporary service with you, or to be followed without delay, three thousand good on their way to General Pemberton...and more may be expected.”
To Johnson's experienced eye the missive set him up to be blamed for the military disaster created by the arrogant meddlesome martinet, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ((above). And hidden in Seddon's verbosity were two ugly realities. There were no additional troops available, and Davis reserved the right to interfere with Johnson's command at anytime to make things worse. 
The unwelcome call to duty found Johnson still recovering from his 1862 wounds, almost bedridden in muddy little village of Tullahoma, Tennessee, watching the 45,000 hungry men of The Army of Tennessee slowly starving to death.  It was clear to Johnson, that his subordinate, 46 year old General Braxton Bragg, was going to be easy prey, as soon as the 50,000 man Federal Army of the Cumberland, under 42 year old Major General William Starke “Rosy” Rosecrans, decided to move against them.  But south of Bragg's precarious position was the vital railroad junction town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, through which food and arms from Alabama and Georgia were being  carried to the rebel Army of Northern Virginia.  Surprisingly little of that bounty reached Bragg's slowly dwindling army.
Like the arrogant and annoying carbuncle Jefferson Davis thought him to be, Johnson replied promptly. He wrote, “ I shall go immediately, although unfit for field-service. I had been prevented, by the orders of the Administration, from giving my personal attention to military affairs in Mississippi at any time since the 22d of January. On the contrary, those orders had required my presence in Tennessee during the whole of that period.” You could almost hear Davis spit in reply across the humming telegraph wires.
Pausing in his whining, on Sunday morning, 10 May, 1863, Joseph Johnson boarded an express train headed south for Chattanooga. Arriving on the Tennessee River, he was less than 400 miles from his destination, via first the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, to Corinth, Mississippi, where he would previously have changed to the Mobile and Ohio rail line directly to Jackson. At 30 miles an hour the journey should have taken less than a day. But Corinth had been in Federal hands for a year, and that route was no longer available to Confederates.
So, from Chattanooga, General Johnson had to continue 140 miles south on the Western and Atlantic Railroad to Atlanta, Georgia. There he had to switch to the Atlanta and West Point Railroad to connect in that city with the Western Railway of Alabama, in order to reach Montgomery - another 160 miles of travel. It is famously only 50 miles from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, home in 1863 to the Ordnance and Naval Foundry complex at the head of navigation on the Alabama River. And it was only 50 miles further to Meridian, Mississippi, along the planned route of the Alabama and Mississippi Railroad. But the war had broken out before that line had reach much beyond Selma, and the final 50 mile gap would never be completely closed – a bridge over the Tombigbee River would not be built until the 1870's.
So, after reaching Selma, General Johnson had to shift to a spur of the Nashville and Louisville railroad, which traveled 176 miles south and west to Mobile Alabama. There he was able to transfer to the Mobile and Ohio railroad for the 150 mile trip almost due north to Meridian, Mississippi. Once there, the weary and wounded General could board a Southern Railroad express for the final 100 miles to the capital city - Jackson, Mississippi. The 400 mile original trip had been almost doubled and the travel time tripled. Johnson did not arrive in Jackson until Wednesday, 13 May, 1863 – a day late and a dollar short.
As the sun rose on Tuesday, 12 May 1863, 19 year old regimental adjutant Henry Otis Dwight (above), was marching north out of Utica, Mississippi in the lead of 7,000 federal infantry. He recalled, “The weather was splendid, the roads were in fine condition and there was plenty to eat in the country.” He also noted, “...we were more conscientious about taking (about) what we wanted than where we were.”
Where they were was deep in the bowels of the Confederacy, without a safe line of retreat or a reliable line of supply. And yet they were supremely confident in themselves and their commanders - from 38 year old Colonel Manning Ferguson Force of the 20th Ohio, all the way up to 37 year old commander of the 3rd division, 37 year old Illinois native John “Jack” Alexander Logan.
He was born and raised in the southern crust of Illinois which touched the slaves states of Missouri and Kentucky. The busy port at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Cairo, Illinois, along with the towns of Thebes, Goshen and Karnak, inspired the title usually given to the region - “Little Egypt”. In fact Cairo was further south than Richmond, Virginia. 
And although the 1847 state constitution made Illinois a “free state”, there were always slaves to be found in “Little Egypt”. And as a member of the state legislature in 1853, John Logan had authored the “Black Law”, which fined any free black man or woman $50 if they stayed in Illinois for longer than 10 days. It earned him the nickname, “Dirty Work Logan”. The fine was increased by $50 for each re-arrest. But even members of his own family, and his long time law partner condemned him for it, John Logan, as a Stephen Douglas Democrat spoke against secession. At the behest of Colonel Ulysses S. Grant, he told a crowd of potential recruits, "There can be no neutrals in this war, only patriots or traitors."
It was understandable then, if there were many who thought “Black” John Logan was a little crazy. He was “...not a large man, (but) his long black hair, piercing ebony eyes, and swarthy complexion gave (him) impressive presence.” He was also a political general, given a command because he could raise troops and inspire loyalty in a conflicted region. And he turned out to be a damn good field commander. Wounded three times at Fort Donaldson, and reported as dead on the casualty list, he kept his unit in the fight and held off the rebel attempt to break out. General Logan missed the battle of Shiloh while his wife nursed him back to health. But by the spring of 1863, he was back in the saddle, and in command of the 3rd Division as it marched across Mississippi.
What John Logan saw of slavery in the flesh, in all of its ugly sexist and brutality,  convinced this racist that Americans of black skin must be given their freedom, and the right to vote. No less a man than Frederick Douglas once said that if a man like “Black” Jack Logan could have a change of heart about race, then there was hope for everyone. And out in front of that Logan's hope, just after 10:00am this Tuesday morning, was Henry Dwight, and the men of the 20th Ohio.
Dwight wrote later, “The road lay through woods and fields, passing few houses, and what there were were as still as a farmhouse in haying time...Sometimes an old negro woman would appear, bowing and smirking, and then when the first embarrassment had worn off like she would say: “Lord a masay! Be there any more men where you uns come from? ‘Pears like as if I nebber saw so many men since I’se been born.” At this, some one would be sure to give the regular answer in such cases made and provided: “Yes, aunty, we come from the place where they make men.
“After a while... we heard two pops, which we were able to recognize as gunshots, far on in front. “Hello, somebody is shooting squirrels,” said one of the boys. “Pop, pop, pop,” came three more shots in quick succession, but a little nearer. “The squirrels are shooting back,” growled a burly Irishman, “and sure it’s meself that don’t approve of that kind of squirrel shooting, not a bit of it.”
It was the beginning of the battle or Raymond. And within a few hours, the military situation in Mississippi would be very different.
- 30 -

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


I don’t understand why anyone believes any of the popular myths about Thanksgiving. The truth is our Puritan forefathers were a humorless bunch who showed their devotion to God by going hungry, not by eating. They would have considered our average Thanksgiving dinner an insult to their God. Their God was not interested in contentment, just punishment. And the only feasts they had were in the late  summer, when food was plentiful.  By late November they were already deep into their grain stores, and watery stew.  They would only say thanks if they were staving to death!
The real mother of Thanksgiving was actually the widow who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and other innocent poems, Sarah Hale. She was the 19th century version of Martha Stewart. For forty years Sarah was the editor of the prestigious “Godey’s Lady’s Book” magazine. And each November Sarah would bombard her 150,000 subscribers with recipes for Roast Turkey, Turkey stuffing, Turkey gravy, and Turkey stew. Now a lot of selling and some kitchen chemistry was required because 19th century turkeys were scrawny and almost exclusively dark meat. Sarah championed the turkey because her middle class homemakers were on tight budgets, and per pound the randy, strutting bird-brain turkey cost less than half what a chicken might.
But the real revolution came when, in 1934, the United States Department of Agriculture discovered the key to making turkeys palatable; artificial insemination.  In 1932, before the breeding revolution, the average American ate just two pounds of turkey a year. Today, that amount is closer to twenty pounds. Turkey farmers across America, are very thankful for that big government intervention. So are most turkey eaters, although they don't seem to know it.
But the increased popularity of turkey has come at a price - no sex for the turkey.  Today’s buxom white breasted Tom Turkey is too obese to climb atop an equally buxom white breasted hen. Without human intervention, the Thanksgiving turkey would have have gone extinct - Ah, ceste se la guerre. But this brings us to my real topic, which is the year when Thanksgiving became a real de la guerre; 1939
It was the third year of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second term as president. And Republicans were determined (read terrified) that he might want a third term. However they were not in a good position to prevent it, holding only 177 seats in the House of Representatives (to 252 Democrats) and a paltry 23 seats in the Senate (to 69 Democrats). But then in August, Roosevelt handed Republicans an early Christmas present.
In July Franklin had received a visit from Fred Lazarus (above), head of the Federated Department Stores, at the time the single biggest retail chain by volume in America. He controlled Macy’s and Bloomingdales department stores in New York City, Filenes in Boston, and Strauss in Brooklyn. Fred pointed out to the President that in 1939, November would have five Thursdays; the second, the ninth, the sixteenth, the twenty-third and the thirtieth. And Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation calling for a day of Thanksgiving -  first issued after the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and re-issued by Presidents every year since - specifically designated Thanksgiving as the final Thursday in November. That final Thursday would be, in the case of 1939,  the 30th . The previous time Thanksgiving had fallen on the fifth Thursday in November had been 1933. 
That year the Christmas shopping season, which traditionally began the day after Thanksgiving, was just 20 shopping days long, and had proven disastrous for retailers. Of course, the Great Depression had also bottomed out that year, but retail business folks are like farmers, they always worry about the rain. Did it come too early, or too late? Is it too much, or too little? Anyway, Lazarus wanted Roosevelt to move the Turkey Day back one week, to give merchants another week to tempt their customers into spending on Christmas. The President had also heard from lobbyists at the National Retail Dry Goods Association, as well as executives from Gimbels and Lord & Taylor.
Being a long time politician, Roosevelt listened to the business community. And at a Press Conference held on Monday, 14 August,   he made a little speech.  “I have been hearing from a great many people", he began, "complaints that Thanksgiving came too close to Christmas”. Roosevelt reminded the press corps that Thanksgiving was still not an official holiday, and that each year the President picked the date for it.  And, since business "experts" believed that adding another week to the shopping season would increase sales by 10%,  Franklin announced that this year of 1939,  he was moving Thanksgiving to Thursday,  November 23rd., the fourth Thursday in November. Not the last Thursday.
The first alarm went off  the very next day, when Fred Lazarus ran into his younger brother. Simon Lazarus was ranting over the change because it had disrupted his Ohio State Universities’ Thanksgiving day football game. “What damn fool got the president to do this?” Simon barked at his brother, who, in fact, was the damn fool himself. But that was just the beginning.
The Republican attorney general for Oregon, turned to poetry. “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; All the rest have thirty-one; Until we hear from Washington.”  A shopkeeper in Kokomo, Indiana preferred to protest in prose. He put up a sign in his window which read, “Do your shopping early. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” 
Republican Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire urged the President to simply abolish winter by fiat. And Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peal got very outraged, charging it was  “…contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the president of this great nation to tinker with the sacred religious day with the specious excuse that it will help Christmas sales. The next thing we may expect Christmas to be shifted to May 1st to help the New York World’s Fair of 1940.”  Did anybody point out to Norman, that the bible never mentioned which Thursday Thanksgiving should fall on?  If they did, it seems nobody was paying attention.
Twenty-three governors went with the President’s switch, and twenty-two did not. Texas and Colorado couldn’t make up their minds and recognized both days as the holiday in question, although the Republican Governor of Colorado, Ralph Carr, announced he would eat no turkey on the 23rd. 
The 30th was labeled as the Republican Thanksgiving, while the 23rd became the Democratic Thanksgiving, or, as "Nucky" Johnson, the recently indicted Republican mayor of Atlantic City called Franklin Roosevelt’s holiday, “Franksgiving”.
There were a few real problems hidden under this haze of invented political outrage. Calendars could not be changed in time for the 1939 switch over. And schools were suddenly uncertain of vacation schedules. Some families found their bosses forced their holiday dinners to be split between the two dates. But it turned out that the real problem had been identified by Simon Lazarus, the angry brother - American football.
The headline in the New York Times said it all; “PRESIDENT SHOCKS FOOTBALL COACHES” The coach of Little Ouachita college in Arkansas warned, “We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'” Chairman of the Athletic Board at New York University wrote to Roosevelt, “…it has become necessary to frame football schedules three to five years in advance, and for both 1939 and 1940 we had arranged to play our annual football game with Fordham on Thanksgiving Day…” And then Roosevelt had changed the date!
A Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans wanted the President’s decision reversed. But it was too late for Roosevelt to change his mind in 1939. And FDR was too stubborn to admit defeat in November 1940, which also had five Thursdays, and was a Presidential election year. Despite the addition of even more politics into the mix, nine states switched from the Republican Thanksgiving (the fifth Thursday) to the Democratic one (the fourth Thursday) in 1940. 
That left just sixteen celebrating the “old” Thanksgiving. And that seems to have been enough of a victory for Roosevelt, that looking ahead to November 1941 (which surprisingly also had five Thursdays), he asked New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to study the sales figures. Was that extra week of shopping really helping the economy? In fact it had, but not very much; certainly not enough, considering all the angst and confusion the move had cost.
In early May of 1941, LaGuardia’s report informed the White House that “the early Thanksgiving date has not proved worthwhile".  So on  20 May 1941, Roosevelt set Thanksgiving 1941 back to the last Thursday in November. And in a rational world, that would have settled that. But, of course, politicians are not rational beings, anymore than the people who vote for them.
Being lawmakers the politicians in the House of Representatives decided to get involved by writing a law. House joint resolution 41 justified itself by pointing out that there was nothing to designate the day as a holiday except the annual President's Proclamation (which Roosevelt had mentioned at the start of this mess!). Henceforth, said the Representatives, the last Thursday in November would legally be Thanksgiving.  But when HR 41 got to the Senate, those gentlemen felt compelled to improve upon it.  

They did this by changing one little word. Thanksgiving would now be not the last Thursday in November as the House had intended, but the fourth Thursday in November, as Fred Lazarus had wanted.  As Connecticut Senator John A. Danaher pointed out, in four out of five years, the last Thursday in November was the fourth Thursday in November, anyway. The House went along and Roosevelt signed the new law into effect on 26 December, 1941. And amazingly, since that date, the Republicans had been determined not to notice that Roosevelt and the merchants had won.
No matter what conservative or liberal sympathizers may chortle about on their blog posts, the merchants' got their earlier date for Thanksgiving, and that extra week of Christmas shopping..  They got it by allowing the politicians to choke on their own press releases. Money always wins every political argument. And most moral arguments, too.  And the great political storm of 1939 - 1940 seems quaint and gentle, in a world where the Christmas shopping season begins shortly after Halloween!.
- 30- 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


I begin our story not where it began, nor, unfortunately, where it ended. Instead we begin just after eleven in the morning, Friday, 20 June, 1913, with 29 year old Heinz Schmidt bounding up a staircase, carrying a heavy briefcase in his left hand.  In his right hand he carried a gun.  The first person Heinz met at the top of the stairs was Maria Pohl.  She had never seen him before but he looked agitated, so she started to ask what was wrong.  Without a word, Heinz pushed a Browning semi-automatic pistol into Maria's face. Instinctively Maria ducked, and when the gun went off it sent a .9mm lead pellet at 1,150 feet per second a quarter of an inch past her right ear.  Maria continued her ducking movement, pushing open the door of classroom 8a. She locked the door behind her. Frustrated, Heinz pushed on the unlocked door of classroom 8b. He burst in upon 60, five to eight year old girls of Mrs. Pohl's class. He was the only adult in the room. He opened fire.
In 1884 French chemist Paul Vielle (above)  mixed nitrocellulose with a little ether and some paraffin and produced what he called pourdre blanche – white powder. It would not ignite unless compressed. But when ignited it was three times as powerful as black powder, gave off very little smoke, and left little residue behind to clog machinery.  Thousands of gunsmiths scrambled to take advantage of Vielle's smokeless powder, in particular a mechanical genius, the son of a gunsmith, living in Ogden, Utah: John Moses Browning.
In Mrs. Poole's classroom, on the mezzanine level of the St. Marien Shule (St. Mary's School) in the Bremen, Germany, the Catholic girls were screaming, diving under tables, and dieing.  One was heard to cry out, “Please, Uncle, don't shoot us.” But Heinz was not listening.  He fired until his gun was empty, then reloaded a new clip, and continued firing.   Two of the girls were shot dead on the spot, Anna Kubica and Elsa Maria Herrmann, both seven years old.  Fifteen other girls were wounded. When his gun jammed,  Heinz pulled from his bag yet another Browning model 1900 semi-automatic pistol. In the momentary lull, the girls rushed out of the classroom, trying to escape down the stairs.
When John Moses Browning's own son asked if the old man would have become a gunsmith if his father had been a cheese maker, John pondered the question for a moment before admitting he probably would not have. Then he burst out laughing and assured his son, “I would not have made cheese, either.” But John's Mormon father had been a gunsmith, and a good one. And John was a better one, so famous he would eventually be known as “The Father of Automatic Fire.” He would hold, in the end, 128 patents and design 80 separate firearms.  One website contends, “It can be said without exaggeration that Browning’s guns made Winchester. And Colt. And Remington, Savage, and the Belgium firm, Fabrique Nationale (FN). Not to mention his own namesake company, Browning”  John Browning developed the Browning Automatic Rifle (the BAR), used in two world wars, as well as both the thirty and “Ma-Deuce” fifty caliber machine guns still in use by the US military, almost century later, all of which he sold to the U.S. government for a fraction of their royalty value.   But in the beginning, his most profitable work was his invention of semi-automatic pistols.
Heinz ran after the girls, firing from his fresh pistol - he had eight more in the bag, and a thousand rounds of ammunition. Eight year old Maria Anna Rychlik died at the top of the stairs. In her panic, little seven year old, Sophie Gornisiewicz, tried to climb over the stairwell banister. She slipped and fell and when she landed, Sophie snapped her neck. Following the screaming children, fleeing for their lives, Heinz ran down the first flight of stairs to the landing.
John Browning never worked from blueprints. In his own words, “A good idea starts a celebration in the mind, and every nerve in the body seems to crowd up to see the fireworks.” John would sketch rough designs of the tools he would need to make his gun, to explain them for assistants and lathe operators. Between 1884 and 1887, he sold 20 new designs to Winchester firearms. Explained one of the men who worked with him, “He was a hands-on manager of the entire process of gun making, field-testing every experimental gun as a hunter and skilled marksman and supervising the manufacturing.  He was also a shrewd negotiator. He was the complete man: inventor, engineer and entrepreneur.”
On the landing, Heinz paused to lean out a window and fire at boys, who were running away from the school. He wounding five of them. A carpenter working on a nearby roof was hit in the arm. Several apartments in the line of fire were penetrated by shots from Heinz's Browning hand guns.  But as he paused to reload, the gunman was now interrupted when a school custodian named Butz landed on his back. The two struggled for a moment until Heinz shot the janitor in the face. Grabbing his brief case still heavy with guns and ammo, Heinz ran back up the stairs.
Browning's design philosophy on reliability was simple. “If anything can happen in a gun it probably will sooner or later.” In his new ingenious blow-back pistol, the breech which received the bullet's propelling explosion was locked in place by two screws. Instead, the “action” which converted the recoil was a reciprocating “slide”, attached front and rear to the gun's frame. When the gun was fired the barrel and slide recoiled together for two-tenths of an inch, and then the barrel disengaged from the slide. The barrel swung downward clearing the breech, so the spent shell casing could be ejected.
As Heinz reached the top of the stairs again, stepping over the bodies of the wounded girls, he was confronted by a male teacher, Hubert Mollmann. They struggled for a moment before Heinz shot him in the shoulder. Mollman fell, but the teacher still clawed at the shooter, tackling him and bringing him to the floor. Kicking free, Heinz sat up and shot Mollmann in the stomach. Heinz then stood over the moaning instructor, reloaded, picked up his brief case, and waked quickly down the stairs for a final time. Outside, a crowd of neighbors and parents had just reached the school.
The retreating slide compresses a recoil spring. Once fully compressed, this forces the slide back. As it does it strips a new round off the top of the magazine and rejoining the barrel, slides the new round against the breech. The gun is now ready to fire again. All that is required it to pull the trigger again. When the Belgium firm Fabrique Nationale tested a Browning prototype in 1896, it fired 500 consecutive rounds without a failure or a jam, far superior performance to any other gun then on the market. In July of 1897 FN signed a contract to manufacture the weapon, and over the next 11 years would sell almost one million of the small lightweight pistols to European military - and some 7,000 to civilians.
Cornered at last on the ground floor of the school, Heinz was swarmed by men, pummeling and beating him to the ground. The briefcase was wrenched from his grip, and the Browning pulled from his hand. The crowd dragged him outside and there the beating continued. It seems likely he would have been lynched, had not the police arrived to place him under arrest. As they dragged him off to jail, Schmidt called out, “This may be the beginning, but the end is yet to come.”
The United States Army liked the Browning 1900, and its improved model 1903. But they wanted more stopping power. So John Browning went back to his work bench and within a few months redesigned the weapon to fire a larger, forty-five caliber round. That weapon, the Browning model 1911 pistol, would be the standard American military pistol until it was replace by a 9mm weapon in 1985.  Interestingly, when John Browning died of heart failure at his work bench (above), on 26 November, 1926, the weapon he was designing would evolve into the gun that replaced the Browning 1911.   In his obituary, it was said of John Browning, “Even in the midst of acclaim, when the finest model shops in the world were at his disposal, he preferred his small shop in Ogden. Embarrassed by praise, indifferent to fame, he ended his career as humbly as it started.”
The attack on the St. Mary's School in Bremen lasted no more than fifteen minutes, from first shot to last. During that time, Heinz Schmidt had fired 35 rounds. Eighteen children had been wounded, and five adults. Three girls had died instantly of gunshot wounds. Little Sophie with the broken neck, died within a day.   Four days after the bloodbath, the four little girls were buried. Three thousand marched in their funeral procession (above) . Four weeks later, the fifth victim, five year old Elfried Hoger, succumbed to her wounds an died. All that has changed since 1913 is the technology used to design and make guns.  And yet we continue to pretend that nothing has changed.
“This may be the beginning, but the end is yet to come.”
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