Friday, April 25, 2014


I can't make my mind up about Schuyler Colfax (above). Was he a crooked, intriguing politician, as a wise man once said, or was he a working class hero who rose to the second highest office in the land by his own honest efforts? As the media types like to prattle, he had an appealing story. He entered this world in New York City, heir to a prominent family name, but his father had died of tuberculosis five months before he was born. That made the infant and his mother Evelyn, a burden on the family. In November of 1836 she married an ambitious widower, 24 year old George W. Mathews. The following summer Mathew's moved his new wife, his 11 year old stepson and his own daughter by train and canal boat to the the glacier-washed flat lands of northern Indiana, along the Michigan border. Mathews opened a general store in the village of New Carlisle, but his real interest was politics. Three years later, in 1841, he was elected on the Whig Party ticket as auditor of St. Joseph County. So he moved the family again, to the county seat, at the south bend of the St. Joseph River - South Bend, Indiana. Fifteen year old Schuyler was hired as his stepfather's deputy.
At 19 the fair haired, soft blue eyed Schuyler and a partner pooled their resources to buy a failing weekly newspaper, which they renamed the “St. Joseph Valley Register”. In their premier editorial they declared their paper “shall be inflexibly Whig...On the issue of slavery we shall take the middle ground...we shall be fixedly opposed to enlarging the borders of slavery even one inch...and shall hail with happiness the day the Southern States shall...adopt a feasible plan for emancipation...”
They had just 250 subscribers, and ended the first year $1,400 in debt. But by 1844 they had made the paper such a success that Schuyler Colfax could afford to marry, and ten years later the teetotaler was elected to Congress, as a member of nascent Republican Party. He was just 31 years old.
In Congress they called the short Hoosier “Smiley” Schuyler, because of his ready grin and amiable nature. But there was a brain behind the benign smile and crude enunciation, and his ambition burned bright. Four years later, with his help Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, and in 1860, the White House itself.  Schuyler expected to given a cabinet post, perhaps Postmaster General - he had chaired the postal committee in Congress. But he was told in a private conversation “Mr. Lincoln said...that with the troubles before us I could not be spared from Congress...” Instead Lincoln picked Caleb Smith, also from Indiana. After this rebuff, Schuyler drew closer to the Radical Republicans, demanding immediate emancipation of all slaves.
In 1862, in a stunning election upset, nervous Pennsylvania voters responded to the idea of four million slaves suddenly being freed by replacing radical Republican Speaker of the House Galusha Grow with the pro-union Democrat William Henry Miller. In Grow's absence, Schuyler campaigned to win the now vacant Speakership. And again Lincoln (above)  moved to block him, urging his political ally Montgomery Blair to campaign against Schuyler because he was “"a little intriguer...aspiring beyond his capacity, and not trustworthy” In one of Lincoln's few failures, the popular Schuyler easily won election as Speaker of the House, despite his Hoosier twang and lack of diction - he'd left public school when his family left New York.
His approach to being Speaker was described as “a slap-dash-knock-'em-down-auctioneer style.” He knew the rules of the House by heart, and used then to keep the government moving to support the war effort. He also helped to push through the transcontinental railroad funding bills, a matter close to Lincoln's heart, as before the war he'd been a lawyer defending the railroads. 
But Schuyler had also become a confidant of the humorless Radical Republican Secretary of the Treasury Salome P. Chase, who in the fall of 1862  tried to squeeze his rival, moderate William Seward, out of Lincoln's cabinet. Schuyler was not among the Congressional delegation which in December went to the White House to demand Lincoln fire Seward, and he was not there the next night when Lincoln confronted the conspirators, and forced Chase to retreat. After this lesson in power politics, Schuyler tried to move closer to Lincoln.
When Schuyler's wife died in 1863, Lincoln attended her funeral. And after the crucial 1864 election was won, Schuyler assisted the President by helping to removed the thorn of Chase from his cabinet. He worked to convince the pompous Secretary to exchange his cabinet post for the robes of Chief Justice. And on April 14, 1865, just before leaving for a tour of the California end of the transcontinental railroad, the Speaker met with the President. At that meeting Lincoln invited Shulyer to accompany him to the theatre that night, but Schuyler begged off. And so Schuyler missed being an eyewitness at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
After the war it was Schuyler Colfax who oversaw passage of the Thirteen Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. Later he led the forces that impeached Lincoln's reluctant successor, President Andrew Johnson. The impeachment trial failed in the Senate by one vote. But two years later, Schuyler used that half victory to maneuver against 11 other candidates to win the nomination for Vice President, on the 11th ballot alongside Presidential nominee Ulysses Simpson Grant. However that nasty victory left Schulyer with new enemies, and ensured that Grant would never trust him. Still Schuyler made history, because with his election that November he became the youngest Vice President in history, and also the first man to have presided over both the House of Representatives and the Senate. (In 1932 Texan John Nance Garner became the second.) 
Two weeks after the election, Schuyler married again, this time to 34 year old Ellen M. Wade, niece of Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade. For a few weeks he was on top of the world. Then in January of 1869 Francis Adams Jr. broke the details of the Credit Mobilier scam in magazine North American Review.
Before construction began in 1865, the men who sat on the board of the Union Pacific Railroad had created a  general contractor company called Credit Mobilier, and awarded them the contract to actually build the eastern end of the transcontinental line. They, of course, also sat on the board of Credit Mobilier. And they ensured that every bill Mobilier submitted, no matter how outrageous or inflated, was paid by the Union Pacific. Over the four years of construction, Credit Mobilier was siphoning off every dime (and more) that a patriotic public paid for UP stock. By spreading Mobilier stock around congress, any obstructions were overcome, so that, in May of 1869, when the last rails were joined at Promontory Summit, the Union Pacific was $18 million in debt ($245 billion today), while everyone holding stock in the little known Credit Mobilier made out like bandits – which they, of course, were.
When asked about stock dividends he had received from Mobilier, Schuyler (above, center, in his Odd Fellows robes)  insisted “I am an honest man...I never took anything that wasn't given to me.” It was probably the dumbest thing he ever said, so dumb, he may have never said it, but also so accurate, it stuck. Shortly there after Grant privately urged his Vice-President to resign. Grant insisted he wanted to appoint Schuyler as Secretary of State . “In all my heart I hope you will say yes,” wrote Grant. But Schuyler knew that as Veep he could only be removed by a messy impeachment trial, while cabinet members could be simply fired, and he refused the offer.
However he did announce, just two years into his term, in September of 1870, that after almost two decades in Washington, “My ambition is all gratified and satisfied.” Luckily, so was his fortune. He had decided to retire from politics, he said. Schuyler didn't mean it of course, he was only 47 years old. But the announcement forced his critics to move onto criticizing somebody else. Then, as he had done in the past, as the next election approached, Schuyler announced that reluctantly, at the urging of his friends, he had decided to stand for re-election for “the old ticket”. Then he dropped a bombshell. Since the Credit Mobilier scandal had tainted the party, he suggested that maybe Grant should be replaced at the top of the ticket
Grant's response was what you might expect. He decided to replace Schuyler Colfax with Senator Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts - known as the “Natick Cobbler”. It was an odd choice, since most people in Washington figured the shoemaker was responsible for the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, because he had leaked Union battle plans to his mistress and Confederate spy, Rose Greenhow. But Wilson was a loyal radical Republican, and the Credit Mobilier scandal had already split the party, with newspaperman Horace Greeley running on the “Liberal Republican” ticket.
Determined to avoid an open floor fight at the Philadelphia convention, the internecine warfare went on in the backrooms, as Schulyer and Wilson/Grant supporters tried to out-promise and out-threaten each other. It was decided on the first ballot, sort of.  Schulyer received 308 ½ votes, and Wilson got 399. Immediately the Indiana delegation ask to change their vote, and quickly Wilson became the unanimous choice. The clever man from South Bend had been out flanked. Grant and Wilson won, and Schulyer was out, but not forgotten.
In January of 1873 Schulyer was called before a House committee, where under oath he denied receiving a $1,200 check for Credit Mobilier dividends. But the Committee had a bank deposit slip for that amount in Schulyer's own hand. Democrats in the house voted to impeach the likable Colfax, but the Republicans saved his behind. But he was, finally, done in Washington. The next year, when the stock market imploded, brought down by the failure of the Union Pacific railroad, a bankrupted investor was heard to complain, “It was all Schulyer Colfax's fault, damn him.”
So, not yet fifty, the orphan returned to South Bend, determined to rebuild his reputation. Where future generations of disgraced politicians would go on cable TV, Schulyer Colfax went on the lecture circuit. Here his amiable and folksy veneer earned him generous speaking fees. And in the stories he told, old opponents became close intimates. He claimed that in 1864 Lincoln had confided his horror at the cost of war. “Why do we suffer reverses after reverses! Could we have avoided this terrible, bloody war!” his Lincoln said. It might have happened that way, but although the sentiment fits Lincoln's other quotes, the words seem far too melodramatic.
Schulyer made a good living, but the travel was exhausting. On Monday, January 12, 1885, he left his home in South Bend, Indiana, to give a speech in tiny Rock Rapids, Iowa. Schulyer took a train to Chicago, where he transferred to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. At about ten the next morning he arrived at their station on Riverfront Street in Mankato, Minnesota (above). In the bitter cold he had to rush, dragging  his luggage, three- fourths of a mile to the Union Pacific station on 4th Street.
The problem was, it was -30 Fahrenheit (-34 Celsius), and it took him almost thirty minutes to make the bitter journey. Five minutes after arriving at the station, he suffered “a fatal derangement of the heart's action”, and dropped dead. Nobody knew who he was until they checked the papers in his pockets. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. He was not yet 60 years old, and left his widow and only child an estate valued at $150,000 ($3.5 million today).
A newspaper man penned the ambitious Shulyer Colfax's best epitaph: “A beautiful smiler came in our midst, Too lively and fair to remain; They stretched him on racks till the soul of Colfax, Flapped up into Heaven again, May the fate of poor Schuyler warn men of a smiler, Who dividends gets on the brain!
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014


I shall begin illustrating my newly developed theory of the “Rule of the Retroactively-Inevitable” by stating an odd element of chemistry, which is that burning oil releases over twice as much energy as an equal weight of burning coal. Because of this, every admiral knew it was inevitable that eventually every battleship in the world must be powered by oil. But first you had to have oil to burn .And in the mid-19th century the only known large oil fields were in the United States, under Pennsylvania, and on the Pacific island of Borneo, in the far off Dutch East Indies. So, for half a century every war ship built for every navy in the world was powered by bulky, dirty inefficient coal. Then in 1901 a German professor named Kissling discovered a virtually unlimited “lake of petroleum” south of the Ottoman Turkish city of Kirkuk, and around Basra , at the head of the Gulf of Arabia. The professor had been searching in this god-forsaken dessert on orders from his boss, George von Siemens, managing director of Deutsche Bank.
Before he earned his “von”, George Siemens was just a promising Prussian civil servant. His skills in negotiating telegraph treaties had brought him the attention of Otto von Bismark (above), the man who in 1871 had  made Wilhelm Ludwig the first Kaiser of Germany. Otto helped set up the Deutsche Bank and made George it's first director, because to him it seemed inevitable that Germany would be surrounded by enemies; France to the east, Russia to the West, and everywhere the British Navy. But it also was inevitable that money could wiggle through this British blockade.
George von Siemens (above) knew very little about banking, but he was convinced it was inevitable that railroads were going to build a new world order. So,  much of the money that built the second and third American transcontinental railroads in the 1870's came from his Deutsche Bank, and George had a close up view of American capitalism in action. Americans, he wrote, “...are ruthless robbers...but they know how to think big.” So Director Siemens started looking for someplace to invest where the robbers thought smaller.
To Abdul Hamid II (above), 34th Sultan, it was inevitable that the natural resources in the Ottoman Empire ought to make it one of the strongest powers in Europe. But successful rebellions in Hungary, Bulgaria and Albania, and graft and waste in his government, had reduced Turkey to “The Sick man of Europe" - so deeply in debt that Abdul was forced by his creditors in London and Paris to turn over collection of the Empire's taxes (and its post office) to the “Ottoman Public Debt Administration”, run from Paris and London. So when Deutsche Bank offered Abdul a hundred million dollars to build a Railroad from Berlin to Bagdhad, Abdul eagerly accepted, even if George Siemens insisted it be built with “only German materials”, and gave Deutsche Bank mineral rights for 20 miles on either side of the railroad tracks. And that's why Professor Kissling was tapping rocks in the god-forsaken dessert outside of Kirkurk and in the marshes around Basra – to find some way of paying for the railroad. And it was Kissling's report, made public in 1905 to reassure British investors in Deutsche Bank, which started a barrel- chested big-thinker ego-maniac named Winston Churchill to thinking about the inevitable triumph of the British Empire.
Modern history remembers him as the British archetypal bulldog, but that came later. In turn-of-the-twentieth-century Britain he was a more of a Newt Gingrich – a bombastic clown extravagant in his language and his life style, which he financed by writing only slightly embellished books and newspaper accounts of his adventures. Then he went into politics, and in 1913 Winston (above) was named First Lord of the Admiralty, civilian head of the British navy. While everybody else was worried about the German Grand fleet sailing up the Thames, and German armies sweeping across France,Winston was convinced it was inevitable that the Berlin to Baghdad railroad would be the greatest threat to the British Empire.
His Admirals told Churchill the British Navy would need a speed of 25 knots to out maneuver a larger German fleet. Such a speed was possible only with oil powered warships. But in 1913, the British Empire controlled less than 2% of the world's oil reserves. Churchill wrote to his government masters, “We must become the owners or at any rate the controllers at the source of at least a proportion of the oil which we require.” The decision was made that the Foreign Office and the Bank of England were to acquire all the oil reserves that they could.
By now George von Seimens was no longer manager of Deutsche Bank, having passed away in October of 1901. And Abdul Hamid was no longer Sultan, having been deposed by the Young Turks under Enver Pasha in 1909. But so gentle was Abdul's captivity that he was allowed to keep all the land he had donated to himself, including that atop the oil fields around Kirkurk and Basra. And in 1913 there was incorporated a most unusual bank in Constantinople. It was called the National Bank of Turkey, but its money and board of directors were almost exclusively British, with the exception of a duel Ottoman Armenian-slash-British citizen, named Calouste Gulbenkian.
Half of the capital for the new bank was supplied by Deutsche Bank, now with out the guiding hand of George Seimens. The other half was put up by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which spurred by Professor Kissling's report, had stumbled upon oil reserves in present day Iran. But what the folks at Deutsche Bank did not know, was that the British government had secretly bought out the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, meaning the German bankers were now unwitting junior partners with the British Government.
The National Bank of Turkey help incorporate the Turkish Petroleum Company. Abdul Hamid put up his property rights, and Deutshe Bank put up their mineral rights, and the Bank of Turkey put up the money for the exploitation of the oil underneath Basra and Kirkurk. And the guy who drew up the paperwork was none other than Calouste Gulbenkian (above), who paid himself for his work by giving himself a 5% share in the new company. For a few brief moments it seemed inevitable that they all were going to get very, very rich. And then World War One broke out. The Berlin to Baghdad railroad had yet to reach Baghdad. Nobody had yet pumped a drop of oil out of the ground. And for the next four years artillery replaced lawyers as the big guns in oil negotiations, and the inevitable was put on hold
In 1915 the British army captured Basra, and in 1917 they captured Bagdhad, in 1918 they captured Kirkurk. And in 1919, at the peace conference in Paris, they sliced all of that off from Turkey, and labeled it a brand new country, which they named Iraq. Deutsche Bank was bankrupt. Abdul Hamid was dead. Turkish Petroleum Company became Iraq Petroleum Company, and was eventually divided up by various oil corporations, including Anglo-Persian. British corporations now controlled most of the world's oil supply outside of the United States. Until...who should suddenly show up but the Armenian/British lawyer, Calouste Gulbenkian. He now had a third citizenship, Portuguese – they had been neutral during the War - but he was still alive and he still had his 1914 contracts, and he insisted it was inevitable that he was going to be paid his 5%.
After ten years of haggling, in July of 1928, the world's oil companies finally caved in. They let Calouste Gulbenkian take a big red marker and draw a circle around all the oil fields he laid claim to. The “Red Line Agreemant” gave him, personally, 5% of the value of any oil pumped out from within that circle - forever. He was now “Mr. Five Percent”, one of the richest men in the world. When he died in 1955, his personal fortune was estimated at $840 million ($39 billion in today's money).
Over time Anglo-Persian Oil became Anglo-Iranian Oil, and then finally, British Petroleum, and then just “B.P.”, the largest oil company and the fourth largest and most profitable corporation in the world..
And as the Petroleum Century drew to a close, at about a quarter to ten on the morning of April 20, 2010, an oil rig leased by B.P., 48 miles off the coast of Louisiana, exploded. Eleven workers were killed. Before the well was capped almost 5 million barrels of toxic petroleum gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, killing everything which ingested it. B.P. has estimated its total cost for the clean up will be about $40 billion. And from the moment the admirals decided battleships would be powered by oil, this spill was inevitable.
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Sunday, April 20, 2014


I shall now relate the most most amazing military campaign in American history. This is the story of  U.S. Grant’s capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi. And I will begin with the observation of an amateur military genius who was involved in the planning of the operation. Abraham Lincoln tried to explain the importance of  Vicksburg to those celebrating the capture of Memphis, Tennessee on June 6, 1862. He told them, “…Vicksburg is the key. Here is the Red River, which will supply the Confederacy with cattle and corn to feed their armies. There are the Arkansas and White Rivers which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousand. From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy….Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pockets…."  I have never found a more cogent and accurate description of the military situation in the winter of 1862, than that.
New Orleans had been captured by the U.S. Navy on May 1, 1862. That closed the Mississippi river at its mouth. And with the battles of Island Number Ten and the river fleet capture of Memphis (above), on June 6, 1862, the Mississippi river was in Union hands from its headwaters down to the state of Mississippi border. South of there for another 150 mile miles down to Vicksburg,  and beyond another 80 miles down to Fort Hudson,  25 miles north of Baton Rouge,  remained in Confederate hands. Like a button and eye they bound the western Confederacy (Texas, Louisiana and western Missouri ) to the rest of the slave states. And of that 230 mile stretch Vicksburg was the key point, because only at point was there high ground on both the east and west banks that could support a railroad. Everywhere else,  to a width of up to forty miles, any approach to the river was part swamp, part river and only occasionally solid ground..
There was no bridge across the river at  Vicksburg (above), the Mississippi was already too wide. But at Vicksburg railroad cars were ferried across the old man river. Here the supply line for Texas beef and Louisiana winter vegetables might be slow, but it was still open. So, after the debacles at Memphis and New Orleans, the Confederacy vowed to turn Vicksburg into “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” On paper it looked simple. The city lay just south of a huge "S" bend in the river. This meant that any warships coming down river had to slow to make the hairpin turn.  Experience said federal gunboats and supply ships would be sitting ducks to any heavy artillery atop the Haines Bluff just north of Vicksburg.  And the Bluff itself was  protected by the 200 mile long and 50 mile wide swamp of the Yazoo River delta, which entered the Mississippi here. The water here was not deep enough for gunboats and the land not solid enough for supply trains. That forced any land assault on Vicksburg far inland, down the line of the Mississippi Central Railroad toward the state capital of Jackson.
Union Forces under General Steven Halleck (above) followed that line and managed to occupy Corinth, Mississippi, just south of the Tennessee border, on June 1st, 1862. But every time the tardy Hallack ventured south from that base, Rebel cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest slipped around “Old Brains”, captured his supplies and burned his bridges. Each time Halleck tried to move on Jackson he had been forced to slink back again to Tennessee. At the same time the Union Navy in New Orleans ran war ships up the Mississippi River past the guns at Fort Hudson and tried to shell Vicksburg into a quick submission. But the Confederates refused to fall for that trick, as they had at Memphis.  They held out. By the end of the summer of 1862 Halleck had been transferred to the east, and the task of capturing Vicksburg fell by default to his replacement, Lt. General U.S. Grant. 
General Grant (above) really faced three enemies at Vicksburg. His most dangerous opponent was the U.S. War Department in Washington, which meddled away the Union strengths. And then there was the Mississippi River, which even today - after almost two centuries of vast public works projects -  remains a twisting, tortuous and argumentative stream. It was far worse so in 1863.  Grant’s most easily defeated opponent was Lt. General John C. Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian who had chosen to fight for the South. Pemberton was a skilled officer who had been given limited means (40,000 men scattered between Vicksburg and Jackson, and Port Hudson, Mississippi) to defend an objective of unlimited importance. From the instant he took command Grant understood intuitively that all that mattered was to occupy Haines Bluff, giving him a secure supply line back north, and putting Vicksburg under Union cannon and permanently cutting the rebel rail line that touched the Mississippi. And it did not matter how he did it. So during the winter of 1862-63,  Grant started by digging.
The US Navy had already begun a canal (above) that might eventually cut off the river bend just above Vicksburg, by joining the Walnut and Roundaway Bayous,  before rejoining the river below Vicksburg, at the tiny hamlet of New Carthage. This would allow federal transports to deliver infantry and artillery to the east side of the river below Vicksburg.  Grant ordered 10,000 additional army men to work on the canal. But when a dam at the northern end of the dig collapsed, flooding out the Union camps, the canal had to be abandoned.
Next Grant tried slightly less digging. There was a circuitous maze of bayous that logically seemed to eventually connect an abandoned Mississippi bend 50 miles north of Vicksburg, now called  Lake Providence, to the Red River just before it joined the Big Muddy above the high ground at Fort Hudson, south of Vicksburg. But no matter how close they came, no mater how much mud  the Union troops moved, the bayous always seemed to end just before reaching the Red River. Another possible route up the Tallahatchie river was blocked by a rebel fort in the middle of yet another swamp. And an attempt to follow Steele Bayou to Black Bayou to Deer Creek to Rolling Fork Bayou to the Sunflower River to outflank Haines Bluff on the Yazoo River cutoff  north of Vicksburg,  also failed. And an another dig to bypass the river bend just north of Vicksburg, called the Duckport Canal, also failed. It seemed, reading the northern newspapers who documented every attempt in detail, that everything Grant touched was a failure.
Still, ,Pemberton, who was reading the northern papers, had to keep constantly shifting his 40,000 men  nervously back and forth, like a poker player constantly rearranging the cards in this hands. Grant took notice of that nervous twitch. So as spring began in the Mississippi valley of 1863, he ran what seemed one more bluff. On April 17, 1863, Grant sent Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson and 1,700 troopers of the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2nd Iowa cavalry regiments (above) on a raid deep into the interior of Mississippi, The stated mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Central Mississippi Railroad that ran from Jackson to Vicksburg, perhaps even cut it so badly it would take several weeks to repair. That was reason enough for the raid. The unstated mission was to force Pemberton to shift his troops yet again, to offer the rebel commanders another opportunity to grow confused and weary.  Grierson's raid was not intended to come close to Vicksburg.  But from the moment Grierson rode out of La Grange, Tennessee, Vicksburg had just five weeks left as a major Rebel supply base. That April raid was going to set the scene for Grant's May campaign.
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