NOVEMBER 2017

NOVEMBER  2017
The Rise of the Billionaires Leaves the Middle Class Stranded

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Saturday, August 05, 2017

VIRUS

I want to talk about the human propensity for greed, by first discussing a small family of viruses which ignore humans completely -  the Potyviridae. These five related parasites, 100th the size of a bacteria, do not infect humans, but they do infect and quickly kill lilies – after all,  the word virus is Latin for poison. In response, lilies evolved the tulip,  resistant enough to the Potyviridae that they could reproduce for perhaps a dozen generations before succumbing to these miniature succubus. And that's when humans come into the picture, because long before humans knew there was such thing as a virus, they found a way to ruin their own lives, and the lives of thousands of their fellows, by using Potyviridae.
See, tulips evolved from lilies where Europe blends into Asia, in the Ferghana Basin, north of Afghanistan, east of the Caspian Sea and west of Lake Balkhash. The basin is surrounded by mountains, and in this isolated test tube 36 different varieties of wild tulips developed over a few thousand years. Some had multiple stalks and blooms, some only one. The blooms could be white, red, yellow or orange. But when infected with Potyviridae the blooms would be wildly stained as if a child had asymmetrically dripped paint over them. Then, the unexpected happened. In the 8th century, humans living in the Ferghana Basin converted to Islam, and tulip bulbs were transported westward to Islamic centers, as a beautiful curiosity, the more so because of the fanciful patterns they displayed when infected by Potyviridea, which traveled with its host bulb. And because the bulbs could be transported thousands of miles, because they were purely ornamental, and because they had to be replaced every decade or so,  to own and grow them became a display of extreme wealth, conspicuous consumption, restricted to the ruling caliphs in Baghdad and later Istanbul.
A century after Christopher Columbus – in 1593 - tulip bulbs were first planted in the Netherlands, by the botanist Carolus Clusius. His wealthy patrons were for the first time in history, not blue-blood royalty but the local burgomasters of the the town of Leiden. Recently freed from paying protection money to Spanish royalty, these Dutch Protestant capitalists were interested in just two things, making money, and showing everybody how much money they were making. The “Nouveau riche” adopted all the accouterments of their noble predecessors, including fine clothes, large homes, fancy carriages, personal portraits, and within ten years, ownership of the exotic tulip, so named because its bloom resembled a Turkish turban. And it was now that human greed enters our story, when tulips pass from being a de rigueur symbol of wealth, to a means of  measuring and achieving wealth.
The Lord, it seemed, had designed the tulip to make humans rich, and a few Calvinist ministers pointed this out. The plant blooms for only a week or two in the spring. And having proven its colors, after the leaves have died back, the bulb may be dug up and sold, before being returned to the soil for the winter. So the primary tulip market was set by the plant itself, every fall. The rest of the year traders would buy and sell future contracts on the bulbs in the ground, gambling on their future vitality, which, considering their pattern variations was being determined by a virus that was slowly killing the plant, was never a sure thing.  The futures market in tulips began to drive the price of tulips upward, until, within twenty years of Clusius' experiment - in 1610 - the burgomasters felt required to make it illegal to sell tulip futures “short”, meaning to gamble that the price for bulbs in the ground would drop before the next spring bloom.
A disaster in the tulip trade was predictable as far back as the summer of 1623, when a bulb of the rarest variety (only 10 existed), Semper Augusttus, was sold for a thousand guilders. The most skilled carpenters earned only 250 guilders a year, and Carolus Clusius, the man responsible for all of this, earned a mere 750 guilders a year. But when the bulb of the Semper Augusttus (above)  was pulled from the ground, it was found to have two “daughter” bulbs, meaning the value of each Semper Augusttus bulb had just been reduced by 15%. The owner of all 12 bulbs was the wealthy  Adriaan Pauw.  
The law against selling tulips short had been reaffirmed in 1621, and again in 1630, and yet again in 1636. Clearly many burgomasters saw the practice of betting on a catastrophe as dangerous. At the same time it seems safe to assume there were few bets being made that the price of tulip bulbs was going to go down, since no penalties were ever attached to a violation. The general feeling in Holland seems to have been (as it is in America today about the big banks and hedge funds ) that everybody could continue making money as long as everybody stayed greedy but smart. But that has never happened in all of human history. And it did not happen in 17th Century Holland - first because the traders were not trading in what they thought they were trading in, which was tulips, but in a virus which infected tulips. And second I have now arrived at the central theme of this essay -  greed makes you stupid.
Adriaan Pauw was smart. He kept the value of his Semper Augusttus high by the simple expedient of not selling his bulbs, which prevented anybody from noticing that they got weaker with each generation. But he did go to the expense of constructing a gazebo in his garden, covered in mirrors, to reflect his blooms during their brief existence. It also more than doubled the impression of his wealth. In 1624 Pauw's 12 prized  Augusttus were valued at 1,200 guilders each. The next year that went up to 2,000 guilders each, and in 1626 up to 3,000 guilders for a single bulb. Inflation spread like a virus to all varieties of tulips. During one two year period the price for a “General of Generals” bulb increased from 100 guilders to 750 guilders. On 5 February, 1637 at an auction held in the lake side fortress village of Alkmarr, 70 rare bulbs sold for 53,000 guilders, an all time high - several hundred million American dollars today. Who could resist such temptation? Not  Pauw.  He finally sold a single bulb of Augusttus for 5,500 guilders. But the bloom was about to fall off the rose.
Just two days earlier and 20 miles to the south in the village of Harrlem, a tulip investor club – called a college – decided to see how deep the demand for tulips really was. They held an auction of a huge quantity of common bulbs. Only one buyer showed up. Realizing he was the market, he demanded a 35 % discount. And he got it. And when word of this disaster reached Alkmarr prices of tulips collapsed like the price of baseball trading cards or houses in 2007.  Many varieties of tulips would quickly lose 95% of their value.
Families went bankrupt -  heads of households and sons committed suicide - how many has become a subject for much debate in economic circles. Many victims sought a new start in the New World. Said one Calvinist, it was “ God’s Just Plague-Punishment, for the attention of the well-to-do Netherlanders in this bold, rotten century.”  It was the usual, "Heads, God wins; tails human lose" philosophy. But why get God involved when there are so many lawyers around? There were endless lawsuits, because every buyer wanted out of their futures contracts and every seller wanted them enforced. So the politicians did nothing.   Most futures contracts were quietly closed out for 10-15% of their paper value.
A lot of people have tried to claim the Tulip Mania  was not a “market bubble”, like all the other market bubbles since. But the best description of what went wrong that I have found was written by A Maurits van der Veen, from the Virginia college of William and Mary. (BUBBLE)   He wrote in 2009, “...it became increasingly difficult to distinguish those with solid private knowledge from those who were simply following the crowd... these constituted a new kind of trade, no longer linked to individual bulbs.” In other words, greed driven investors were betting not on tulips, but on other tulip investors - call it the tulip derivatives market. That was where the market had first blown up. Sounds like a market bubble to me. And when Tulip mania died, so did some of the most valuable tulips, because their viruses were not passed on. There has not been a Semper Augusttus bloom since the middle of the 17th century.
There are many who still insist the Semper Augusttus was the most beautiful tulip that ever existed, as there are many who insist an unregulated “free market” is morally and functionally superior to regulated markets. But Semper Augusttus was not a true species, but the by-product of Potyviridae devouring the tulip from the inside, consuming its genetic code, and eventually killing the bulb and flower.  It lived no longer than the rich man who had the fortune to maintain its artificial existence.  Modern tulips are far stronger,  their colors symmetrical, and more resistant than the frail infected flowers that so entranced the “Nouveau riche” of 1637. And because of that, billions of people today enjoy tulips  Some day, perhaps, the nouveau riche of a new age will come to admit that like the Potyviridea infected tulip, an unregulated  “free market”, is merely a splash of color which distracts your attention from the parasite devouring capitalism from the inside - unrestricted uninhibited greed.
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Friday, August 04, 2017

A LIFE IN THE SERVICE

I would say the late 1870's were a very hard time for the women of Fort Abraham Lincoln. First there was the Saturday of  25 June, 1876, when over two hundred and twenty of their husbands and lovers were left dead and mutilated on the windswept hills overlooking the Little Big Horn River.  They called that Custer's Last Stand, and it killed several members of the Custer family. But the horror of that day was simple to deal with compared with the trauma that followed in 1878, when the fort's women gathered to bury one their own, a resident of "Suds' Row", where the wives of enlisted men lived.  On that horrible day those poor women saw something they had never expected to see where they found it.
Picture America as she was approaching her centennial year - a nation of about 45 million people. And even though they had no Internet,  no electricity,  no antibiotics and no gummy bears, these people were no  different from the 310 million who reside in America today. 
In 1875 the moralizing "Our Boys" opened on Broadway.  It followed the adventures of an Englishman and his butler and their pair of disappointing sons.  A century and a quarter later the sitcom "Two and a Half Men" mined this same comedic vein..  And like a latter day series "Lost",  Jules Vernes' 1875 novel, "The Survivors of the Chancellor" told an episodic science fiction adventure story of a British passenger ship, lost at sea.  And ala "Who Let the Dogs Out", the most popular song of the day consisted of the repeated lyrics, "Carve dat possum, carve dat possum, children."  It's title was "Carve dat possum"  
Oh, the future was coming. Just the year before, in far off Germany, Dr. Ernst von Brucke had suggested that all living organisms obeyed the laws of thermodynamics. He was wrong, course, since very few humans, other than politicians, behave like big clouds of hot gas. But Doctor von Brucke had a student who would make sense out of  Burke's thinking - that student was Sigmund Freud.
But Freud's discovery of the subconscious mind and repressed psychosomatic phobias and dreams about locks and keys and milk maids and bows and arrows was still a decade in the future in 1878 - which was a shame because a little Freud sure would have helped those poor ladies at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Or maybe not.
The fort was on the west bank of the Missouri River, across from Bismark, North Dakota. In that  town the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the telegraph lines ended,  making the army post the very edge of the frontier. The Army post was home to about 650 men and some 300 women attached to the U.S. Seventh Cavalry regiment. Robert Marlin tried to describe what kind of desperate people would sign up for a year's service in such a place. “Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks," he wrote. "Others came from England, France and Italy. While most of the American recruits did not read or write, the immigrants who did not speak English compounded this problem…."
A trooper started off at the pay of $13 per month. Should he be such a glutton for punishment as to re-enlist, this was raised to $15. The trooper was now a “50-cent-a-day professional” soldier.  And it was a very long day, starting "...at 5:30 a.m.,” wrote Marlin, “with the dreaded call of Reveille, and ended at 10:00 p.m. with the bugle sounding Taps.” 
The average recruit in the Seventh was in his mid-twenties, and stood about five feet eight inches tall. He suffered from bad teeth, a bad back, and about 10% had suffered from some form of healed head trauma even before they enlisted.  Twenty-two percent of the privates had been in the service for less than a year.  And few of them would re-enlist. Lord knows, the diet did not encourage them.
Each day every soldier received 12 ounces of pork or bacon, 22 ounces of flour or bread and less than an once of ground coffee. Every month they received a pound of beans or peas, a pound of rice or hominy, 3 pounds of potatoes, a cup of molasses, 1/2 cup of salt, 1 ounce of pepper and a little vinegar.   This was not a diet, it was a ration, and had as little more flavor variation than "Spam,". 
As the army needed soldiers, it also needed laundresses. They were as much in  the service of their country as the soldiers they served. And in a culture without a social safety net, the reasons a young man might join the cavalry were similar to the reasons a young woman might become a laundress; a roof over her head, and food in her belly. But even tho it needed them, the army did not encourage these women to stay a single day longer than necessary for the army.
Linda Grant De Pauw lays out the vulnerability of such women in “Battle Cries and Lullabys". She described, “…a laundress wrote to Major L.H. Marshall at Fort Boise, Idaho, describing how she had been arrested, charged as an attempted  murderess, and confined in a guardhouse for hitting her husband with a tin cup that he claimed was an ax…(she was) sentenced to be drummed off that post at fixed bayonets …she and her three children then had to live in a cold house, without the food ration they depended upon." 
But the scramble to hold onto the fragile level of security which a blue uniform provided only partly explains the woman known to history only as "Mrs. Nash". Shortly after the Seventh Cavalry regiment was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1866, Mrs. Nash took up residence along “Suds Row”-  as the laundresses’ quarters were commonly called. She always wore a veil or a shawl, and it was assumed this was because of scaring from smallpox or one of the many other skin diseases common at the time. Besides earning a small income as a washer woman, Mrs. Nash showed talent as a seamstress and tailored officer's uniforms for extra money. She was a noted baker and her pies were much sought after. After she built a reputation as a dependable mid-wife “few births occurred (on the post) without her expert help”. 
But there is no record Mrs. Nash ever served as a prostitute. This additional earning occupation was not uncommon for those laundresses who could neither bake nor sew, and who showed more talent for the other half of the midwife equation. And as a practical matter, prostitution by laundresses was not actively discouraged by the officers. This was the frontier and the only other option for amorous release by a trooper was with either his fellow troopers or the horses. Homophobic troopers tended to shoot first, and just say no afterward. And although the horses never complained, they were kind of important to survival on the plains and so that form of animal husbandry was also discouraged. So the practice of prostitution by the laundresses was tolerated as long as the woman did not become really good at it or "notorious".
Quickly Mrs. Nash was a valuable member of the unit, and had even amassed a tidy little nest egg. In 1868 she married a Quartermasters Clerk named Clifton. But a few days later he deserted with her money and was never seen again. Still it was expected that Mrs. Nash followed the regiment when it moved to Fort Abraham Lincoln, in Dakota Territory, in 1872.  That was also the year she married Sergeant James Nash, the “striker”, or personal servant, to Captain Tom Custer, younger brother of the regimental commander George Armstrong Custer. Although James and Mrs. Nash were seen to argue a great deal, still they seemed happy enough for a year or so.  During that year Libbie Custer, wife of the General, noted “…a company ball...(was) organized...Officers and ladies attended....Mrs. Nash wore a pink Tarleton (which she sewed herself) and false curls, and she had “constant (dancing) partners”.
Then, unexpectedly, Sergeant Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted her and the service. Libbie wrote that Tom Custer was very “put out” by this desertion. Presumably, so was Mrs. Nash.  But she did not remain so for long. In 1873, the lady, now called “Old Mrs. Nash”, married Corporal John Noonan. She kept a bright and tidy home for John, planting and maintaining flowers in front of their modest quarters. And she restored her nest egg. And for five years they were a contended and happy couple, the center of the social circle of Suds Row east of the Fort Lincoln parade grounds, and they were both a significant part of the post’s social life.
Then, in the fall of 1878, while Corporal Noonan was out on patrol, Mrs. Nash fell ill. As her condition  quickly worsened she called for a priest, and after seeing him she told the ladies caring for her that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the usual washing and re-dressing. The ladies reluctantly agreed. Who would dare to argue with a dying woman. But after “Mrs. Nash" died on November 4th,  the women decided they could not show her such disrespect.
Two of her closest friends began to strip her, in preparation to washing and re-dressing her body. And that was when they made a most unexpected discovery. Underneath the veil and the dress and the petticoats Mrs. Nash was a man. The Bismarck Tribune was blunter:  “Mrs. Nash Has Balls As Big As a Bull!”
Although the story was based on hearsay and unqualified medical opinion, the eastern papers picked it up, and soon every yahoo with access to a printing press felt obligated to pontificate. The less they knew of the facts the more opinions they had. Public morality, it seems to me, is an excuse for being ignorant, loudly. And in this case the volume was a thunderclap in a drought.
When poor Corporal Noonan returned from patrol all his protestations of ignorance fell upon deaf ears. Quickly his grief, and the ridicule, stated and unstated, became too much to bear. Two days after returning from patrol to find his" wife” dead, John Noonan deserted his post and on 30 November, 1878, shot himself to death with his carbine -  not an easy thing to do.
John Noonan now lies buried in the National Cemetery adjacent to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, his tombstone identical to all the others who died in the service of their country on the Western Frontier.  And rightly so.
But there is no headstone (and no public grave) for Mrs. Nash. There is no memorial of her years of service to the unit, for the babies she delivered, for the hardships she endured. And there is no recognition today that without a "liberal" media to encourage her, at least one human being found it preferable to live in constant fear of being revealed, in exchanged for the chance of living as God made her, internally as well as  externally, perfectly and imperfectly. She was living proof that with all our technology and insights and with it all smothered under blankets of public morality, we are today just as screwed up as our ancestors were, not more and not less. And always will be. God bless us, every one.
 
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Thursday, August 03, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter Thirty-Four

The bullet hit the old man in the right shoulder, but the impact was so slight it left him in the saddle, instinctively still controlling his horse. His staff agreed it was a spent round - meaning that like most wounded on battlefields, General Joe Johnston  (above) was not the intended target. The sheer volume of metal and wood and rocks traveling at supersonic and near supersonic speeds on a battlefield are intended not so much to kill as to strip away the veneer of a rational God and replace him with the harsh deity of chaos. This weary bullet was not strong enough to do that. That would come next.
In the fading light of a frustrating Saturday, 31 May, 1862, General Joseph Eggleston Johnston paused on a low hill just west of the Fair Oaks Station on the Richmond and York Railroad, to get a final look at the carnage before nightfall. With their backs against the rebel capital of Richmond, Johnston's 60,000 man army had turned on the ponderous 100,000 man Army of the Potomac. 
But in attempting to crush the Yankee flank along Nine Mile Road and drive the invaders into the rain swollen Chickahominy River, the rebels had bungled the assault. Johnston was seeking to assess what needed to be done tomorrow to finish the job. He never got the chance.
A staff colonel warned that blue clad skirmishers seemed to be edging closer. The prim Johnston dismissed the potential for death saying, “There's no use in dodging. When you hear them, they have passed.” As soon as those words left his lips the random lead plowed into the General's shoulder. When his staff rushed to support him they unintentionally held him up upright just as a shell exploded to his front, sending spinning shards slamming into his chest and thigh. The same shell killed Private George Pritchard of Captain Robert Stribling's battery - the probable intended target - just unlimbering a few yards south of the General's position.
Johnston was knocked from his horse, the fall breaking his arm, his right shoulder blade and two ribs. He was carried from the field blood soaked and unconscious. He awoke briefly to the bitter reality of Jefferson Davis' false compassion and the schadenfreude sympathy from the President's military adviser, General Robert Edward Lee. 
Then darkness again embraced him. By the time Johnston awoke from surgery in a Richmond Hospital, Davis had appointed Lee the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Johnston was an extra general.
Conscious of losing his spot in the minuet of musical chairs for command, the 56 year old Johnston (above) reported as fit and ready for duty just 4 months later.  He was far from fully recovered - he would never fully recover from these wounds -  but Davis found just the spot for his least favorite general. 
He exiled Johnston to the newly created Department of the West, headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On paper Johnston was to coordinate the operations of 46 year old Braxton Bragg's 35,000 man Army of Tennessee, at Murfreesboro (above), just south of Nashville, and 54 year old Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton's 40,000 man Army of Mississippi.
Once in Chattanooga, Johnston found the two commands were 600 miles apart, with no direct rail or even telegraph connection between them, which meant they could not support each other. But when Johnston suggested a restructuring, Secretary of War Brigadier General George Randolph, said no. 
Shortly there after, Johnston realized that he was really dealing with his old enemy Jeff Davis (above), and the President was undermining him. In the normal chain of command, Bragg and Pemberton reported to and received orders from Johnston and Johnston reported to and receive orders from the War Department in Richmond. But both Bragg and Pemberton were communicating directly with President Davis, who often issued them orders without informing Johnston. When Johnston complained he was supported by Randolph. And when Davis refused to stop interfering, Randolph resigned. But all that accomplished was that Davis got a new “malleable” Secretary of War – James Seddon, and the confusion got worse.
Next, Johnston suggested he be given authority over 58 year old General Theophilus Holmes's Trans-Mississippi Department, including Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. In response, Davis (above) mocked him - first Johnston complained his department was too big, and now he wanted to make it even bigger? The answer was no. Johnston then requested that Holmes transfer 20,000 men to Pemberton in Vicksburg. But Holmes was an old friend of the President's, and the answer again was no.
In late December of 1862, the 40,000 man Federal Army of the Cumberland under Major General William Rosecrans, marched 40 miles from Nashville to Murfessboro, and slammed into Bragg's Army of Tennessee. After four bloody days, which killed or wounded one third of the soldiers on both sides, Bragg felt forced to retreat 35 miles south to the railroad town of Tullahoma, Tennessee. 
Braxton Bragg's subordinates went into rebellion, calling the brooding Bragg (above) a fool and a coward and demanding his removal. In February Davis ordered Johnston to Tullahoma to remedy the situation.
It seemed clear Davis wanted Johnston to take over Bragg's army. But the infections in Johnston's wounds had flared up again, and he did not feel inclined to extend himself. He reported back that Bragg should be left in charge. Davis was infuriated, but without going to Tennessee himself, there was nothing he could do. So Johnston (above) returned to Chattanooga.
One of Johnston's few accomplishments was procuring the February transfer of the impulsive profligate “terror of ugly husbands", the handsome if diminutive southern coxsman, General Earl Van Dorn (above) from Pemberton's command to Bragg's. The reason for the change was not the potential for genius by the volatile and dapper Lothario, but because the equally volatile Nathan Bedford Forrest had announced he would “...be in my coffin before I will fight again under...” Bragg's cavalry commander, General Joe Wheeler. Wheeler was promoted out of the way, and Van Dorn assumed command at the Cheairs, mansion at Spring Hill, Tennessee, about 30 miles south southwest of Nashville. 
On Friday, 10 April, 1863, Van Dorn tested his new command, sending his 2 brigades of horsemen north to poke at the federal outpost protecting Nashville, the new Fort Granger, at Franklin, Tennessee. Van Dorn was not impressed with the results. He lost 137 men to the Yankee's 100, and withdrew to Spring Hall to lick his wounded ego and...
...seek comfort in the arms of the lovely and lonely Mrs. Jessie McKissack Peters, third wife of Dr. George Peters, a retired physician and a member of the state legislature.  Luckily she lived less than a mile away, just across the a valley
Later that month Johnston's infection flared up again and he was bedridden when he received a rare telegram from Pemberton on Saturday, 1 May. “A furious battle has been going on since daylight, just below Port Gibson,” Pemberton wrote. “General Bowen says he is outnumbered trebly....”. Johnston forwarded Pemberton's request for help to Richmond, telling Secretary Seddon that any new troops, “...cannot be sent from here without giving up Tennessee.” Seddon did not respond at least to Johnston, and for four days the telegraph lines from Vicksburg dissolved into incoherent static and confusing coded messages. Johnston's pride did not allow him to ask Jefferson Davis if he had heard anything. Finally, on Tuesday, 5 May, Johnston's sent a telegram to Vicksburg, asking for information, and telling Pemberton that his army was more valuable to the Confederacy than the city. But there was still no reply.
Then, on Thursday morning, 7 May 1863, Dr. Peters rode up to the Cheairs mansion (above).  The representative often visited Van Dorn's headquarters, to obtain a safe conduct pass when visiting his constituents near the Yankee lines.  He was immediately admitted into the General's presence, and a few minutes later reappeared, mounted his horse and cantered off.  
A few moments later General Van Dorn, married father of two “legitimate” children and several “illegitimate children”, life long unrepentant womanizer and reprobate and one of the most talented cavalry commanders remaining to serve the Confederate cause, was found slumped over his desk, with a small caliber bullet hole in the back of his skull. He died five hours later, without regaining consciousness.
Doctor Peters rediscovered his affection for the Federal Union when he received asylum behind Union lines in Nashville.  He was never charged with the murder of Van Dorn, and later freely moved to other property he owned in Arkansas, where he was eventually joined by his repentant Jessie. Eight months after the murder, Jessie had given birth to a girl.  And Doctor Peters raised her as his own.  The "affair" provides a glimpse beneath the Victorian mask of southern womanhood and noble Confederate Cavaliers. 
Beyond that,  Earl Van Dorn's isolated "honor murder" at the age of 42, was as much a waste of life as the other half million southerners who died fighting to keep humans in bondage. The best that might be said of the man was that at least Van Dorn died seeking pleasure in life, not merely the death, dismemberment and enslavement of others.  When one southern woman urged the notorious seducer to “let the women alone until the after the war is over”, Van Dorn defended himself, saying “I cannot do that, for it is all I am fighting for."
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