Saturday, January 13, 2018


I often hear ultra right and left wing politicians called  "fire brands". The original definition is a piece of kindling, a bit of burning wood used to start a larger fire. And those who start such fires for a living used to be called "Fire Eaters." It is a title you hear with increasing frequency, and yet it seems the advocates of fires have forgotten the agony they cause, eventually consuming the arsonists own home and life.  And thus, a fire eater is also a perfect description of a dangerous ideologue. And the most famous fire eater and ideologue of American politics, one of the first self described political fire starters, was William Lowneds Yancey.
Yancey’s (above) South Carolina family were strongly pro-Federalist, and at an Independence Day celebration in 1834 the young man told a crowd, “Listen, not then...to the voice which whispers…that Americans…can no longer exist…citizens of the same republic…”  He also championed the Federal Union as editor of the newspaper the “Greenville Mountaineer”  - at least until 1835, when he married an Alabama widow with an Alabama plantation and 35 slaves. The ownership of human beings converted Yancey to pro-slavery.  And then the economic panic of 1837 slashed cotton prices and wiped out  William Yancey’s new found fortune and social status. This traumatic event also converted Yancy into a radical.
Yancey went back to the profession that he knew best, and in 1838 he bought a failing newspaper. Needing to make money quickly, Yancey's very first editorial was sure to please the money people of Alabama - a passionate defense of slavery.  In a followup editorial he even favored reopening the slave trade with Africa, which had been closed down by British Naval patrols since 1819. Yancey publicly opposed the compromises of 1850, which sought to establish a balance between slave states and “free” states within the Union. By now anything short of total domination by slave states was a cowardly compromise,  in Yancey’s view.
Also in 1838 the true nature of the man was revealed, when an alleged political insult led to a street brawl between Yancey and his wife’s uncle. Yancey shot the man dead on the street. He later justified this hot blooded murder, writing he had been,  “Reared with the spirit of a man…and taught to preserve inviolate my honor…”,  which seems to me like lousy justification for murder. He was convicted of manslaughter but served only a few months before being pardoned by the Governor. His reputation as a murderous hot head did nothing to prevent him from being elected to first the Alabama legislature and then, in 1844,  to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1858 Yancey wrote what Horace Greeley called, ‘The Scarlett Letter’, in which he invented the term "fire eater" to describe himself.  He pledged that with like minded southerners, he would, “…fire the Southern heart – instruct the Southern mind - …and at the proper moment, by one organized, concerted action, we can precipitate the cotton states into revolution.” This was why Yancey was called the “Orator of Secession”. He worked hard to split his own (Democratic) party on the issue of slavery, believing the election of a Republican (anti-slavery) presidential candidate in 1860 would radicalize the south. He was, in the words of that genius Bruce Catton, “…one of the men tossed up by the tormented decade of the 1850’s (John Brown was another) who could help to bring catastrophe on but not do anything more than that.”
That the North had twice the population of the South, that the North had ten times the industrial and agricultural capacity, that slavery was already dying in the upper South, that the North would not fight to end slavery but would fight to preserve the union, that Lincoln did not believe the Federal government had the power or the right to outlaw slavery, all this meant nothing to Yancey. Yancey wanted secession not despite the destructive effects it would have on the South, but, it seemed, almost because of them. President-elect Abraham Lincoln described the problem of dealing with the fire eaters like Yancey. "Not only must we do them no harm, but somehow we must convince them that we mean to do them no harm".  Does this sound anything like the "Do Nothing" Tea Party Congress of 2012 to 2016?
Once war broke out Jefferson Davis sent William Yancey (above) to England to seek recognition.  A diplomatic mission seemed like an odd choice for this violent aggressive  man, so perhaps Davis really had little hope of Britain ever recognizing the Confederacy, and he just wanted to be rid of Yancey.  Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, eventually met with Yancey, but then asked if he had been serious about his call for a resumption of the slave trade. Yancey denied it, but as it was in print that merely made him an obvious liar. And just asking the question indicated there was no chance that England would recognize the South, at least as long as Yancey represented a significant political voice. Yancey returned home in frustration and defeat. He now served in the Confederate Senate, opposing Davis’ power to draft troops and blocking Davis’ attempt to form a Confederate Supreme Court in the spring of 1863.
It was during debate over the court when Yancey and Benjamin Hill of Georgia got into a brawl on the Confederate Senate floor. It was almost a repeat of the 1838 shooting.  When the hot headed Yancy reached for his gun,  Hill grabbed the only weapon he had at hand - an ink stand. He beaned Yancey on the head with it, cold cocking him. The Confederate Senate censured Yancey and took no action against Hill.
So it seemed that even his political allies and friends did not like William Yancey very much. And this was the man the South had staked its future upon. I believe it was William Yancey whom Jefferson Davis was thinking of when he said the epitaph of the Confederacy should be, “Died of a Theory.’
After censure, Yancey returned to Alabama,  where he died in July of 1863, just 2 weeks before his 49th birthday. He had lived just long enough to see the twin defeats of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, which together sealed the doom of the Confederacy.  But even then the fire eaters kept up their arson. More southerners died in the last year of the war, than in the previous 3 years. 
The product of William Yancy's life’s work was the death of 750,000 young men and perhaps a million civilians - the vast majority of them southerners -:  the  total abolition of slavery in America and the ultimate victory of Federalism over State’s Rights. It is an estate today's fire eaters of the Republican Party ought to take note of.  But I doubt they will.
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Friday, January 12, 2018


I miss the old smoke filled rooms – sometimes. In the old days there were no passionate amateurs willing to bring on a political doomsday, just for the publicity. The process was dispassionate, calculated and handled by people who saw politics as a job, aided, of course, by political writers who supplied the passion in print. From such combinations, legends were born -  such as this one I shall now relate.
On April Fools Day, 1920, bland faced Ohio political manager Harry Daugherty (above) was hastily packing his bags in his room at the old Waldorf Astoria hotel on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Into the room sauntered two reporters, seeking a quote. They taunted Daugherty on his boastful support for the turgid and mediocre Ohio Senator, Warren G. Harding. Nobody else thought Harding stood a chance of becoming President. Just who were these senators that Daugherty claimed would support Harding at the Republican Convention, come June? When Daugherty refused to take the bait, the reporters suggested he must be expecting the convention to deadlock, and the choice of candidates would become so “reduced to pulp by the inevitable vigil and travail” that a shadowy group of political managers would have to step in to save the party. Daugherty again said nothing. So the reporter went further, suggesting  that Daugherty must be expecting the managers to collapse about 2:00 A.M. in a smoke filled room. Weary of the dialog, and with a train to catch, as Daugherty grabbed his bags and walked out of the room, he finally responded. He said,  “Make it 2:11".
One of the reporters turned that one sided conversation into this quote, which he stuck into Daugherty’s mouth; “I don't expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second or third ballot, but I think we can well afford to take chances that about eleven minutes after 2 o'clock on Friday morning at the convention, when fifteen or twenty men, somewhat weary, are sitting around a table, some one of them will say, "Who will we nominate?" At that decisive time the friends of Senator Harding can suggest him, and can afford to abide by the result.”
And amazingly, that is almost exactly how it really happened. Except that the back room was a suite in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel (above)  at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Balboa -  room numbers 408 through 410, with Room 404 set aside as the reception room, where they kept the booze.
The suite had been rented by Will Hays (above), the big-eared big-talking “mighty little ear of corn” from Indiana. He was the Republican National Chairman, and had hopes of being President himself in 1920, or maybe 24, or maybe 28. . And maybe the greatest compliment you can pay the professional politicians of that era is that at least they never dreamed of letting Will Hays become President.
The Republican Convention that June was officially taking place 9 blocks south of the Blackstone hotel, in the old Chicago Coliseum (above) on South Wabash Avenue. This cavern had been home to every Republican Convention since 1904. It is worth noting that the building had originally been constructed to house a prison, Richmond’s civil war  "Libby Prison", bought lock, stock, and barrel by a Chicago candy millionaire and shipped north to form the centerpiece of a Civil War Museum. The museum went bust in 1899, and the Coliseum's owners “re-imagined” the space as a public meeting center.
It was into this den of iniquity that some 2,000 delegates and their alternates marched on Tuesday 8 June, 1920, sixty years after Republicans had first met in Chicago to nominate Senator William Seward for President, but chose instead Abraham Lincoln. That was an ominous bit of history to consider if you were General Leonard Wood or Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, as they were considered the front runners for the 1920 Republican nomination.
The dour faced Lowden (above) wanted to be president so badly that as Governor, when both houses of the Illinois state legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, he had vetoed the bill -  proving again that politicians are even willing to kill people to win a few votes.
In contrast, Leonard Wood (above) claimed to have little political hunger. He was a  Medal of Honor winner who had graduated medical school and then risen to Army Chief of Staff. He said he wanted to be President out of a sense of duty.  The same lack of ambition could also be claimed by Will Hays, who had not entered any of the twenty Republican primaries held that year. But Hays still had hopes that Wood and Lowden would deadlock, and the convention would turn to the little Hoosier to beak the tie. There were in fact a number of candidates with the very same plan.
The convention finally got down to the balloting on Friday evening, 11 June, and immediately things started looking up for Hays. On the first ballot Wood led with 285 votes, Lowden showed 211, Senator Hiram Johnson, of California, a Teddy Roosevelt progressive, was third with 133 votes. Far behind was Governor William Spool of Pennsylvania with 84 votes, followed by New York’s Nicholas Butler with 69 votes and Ohio’s favorite son, Senator Warren G. Harding, who received just 65 votes on the convention floor, in part because he had lost in the Indiana primary, held right next door to Ohio. Six other candidates jointly held the remaining 132 delegates.
On the second ballot Wood gained just ten votes, while Governor Lowden’s total grew by 40. But still nobody was close to the 439 votes needed to nominate. General Wood reached his peak on the fourth ballot with 314 votes, and then his support started to slip. Governor Lowden beat him with 311 votes on the fifth ballot. Still, no one seemed to be gathering enough support to win it all. And the longer this went on, the less confidence actual voters would have in any eventual choice. So the professionals stepped in and the convention adjourned for the night. The negotiations shifted to the infamous fourth floor rooms at the Blackstone hotel.
Actually political junkies were meeting all over Chicago that night, but Hays’ rooms at the Blackstone got all the publicity because that was where Associated Press reporter Kirke Simpson was working. He was there to cover Harry Daugherty, because, as you have seen, Harry was always good for a quote, even if you had to spoon feed it to him.
Also present was George Harvey, who ran Harper publishing, and Republican Senators Wadsworth, Calder, Watson, McCormick and Lodge, Governor Smoot, political fixer Joe Grundy, and Lawyer Charles Hillers, counsel to the R.N.C., as well as his client, R.N.C. Chief, Will Hays. Their problem was that none of them could agree upon who the party should rally around, either.
It was, by general agreement, the original “Smoke Filled Room” of political legend, and the 130 pound Hays was the genial host. Even though he neither smoked nor drank himself, Hays kept the cigars lit and the booze flowing. The idea that Prohibition, which had started that January, should keep the hard working pols from wetting their whistles, was an obtuse argument in this convention of connivers and deal makers. Which is why Hays stood out so much.   “Neighbor”, he once said to Herbert Hoover, “I want to be helpful.”  It was his natural Hoosier instinct.
Harry Daugherty’s (left) natural instinct, on the other hand, was his drive for his man. He said of Harding (right), “I found him sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water.“
Since the top three vote 'getters' were not willing to compromise with each other, the Senators at the Blackstone were now looking for “The best of the second raters.”, and Daugherty suggested that Harding was their man. Harding was willing to compromise with anybody over anything to get elected. There is no indication that anybody even mention Will Hays - not even Will Hays, who was in the room.. Or maybe he was out getting more ice.
They dispatched a small delegation upstairs to Hardings’ hotel room, where they roused the stunned Harding from his bed.  They asked him point blank if there were any embarrassing episodes in his past. Now, Harding might have said that giving a job interview while standing in his pajamas might qualify as an embarrassing episode, but he did not. He might have mentioned the child he had fathered with one of his many mistresses. Or he might have mentioned his many mistresses. Instead Harding swallowed and said, “No, he had never done anything embarrassing”. He was lying of course, but that would not come out until Harding was long dead.
It wasn't as if the party managers issued orders and the party regulars fell in line. It would take five more ballots before the crowd at the Colosseum would give up out of exhaustion and hand the nomination to Harding. But as of 2:15 A.M., the decision has been made, just as the reporters in New York had written that Daugherty had predicted - if nobody seems to be winning, we will rally around Harding and make do.  What a way to pick a president! And it worked.
At 5 A.M. on Saturday 12 June, 1920, Kirke Simpston filed a story that included the following phrase, “Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today.” And that is how the phrase "smoke filled room" entered the vernacular. The connotation became negative because after Warren G. Harding won in a landslide, he and his “Ohio Gang” - his buddies, including Harry Daugherty - moved to Washington D.C. and started selling everything  that wasn't nailed down.  Many of them ended up in jail, or disgraced, or at least spending a lot of the graft they had collected on lawyers.
Harding appointed Harry Daugherty (above) as his Attorney General. And after three heady years, Harry was forced to resign when his chief aide, Jess Smith, was caught taking kickbacks from bootleggers. Smith had been collecting the kickbacks for his boss, Harry Daugherty, but the professional politicians in Washington decided not to prosecute Harry.  And luckily Smith committed suicide, so Harry was allowed to just resign.  As Forest Gump might have put it, Presidents are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. Take the little ear of corn, Will Hays.
Will Hays served as Hardings’ Postmaster General. But after only one year he smelled the impending scandals, or maybe his disappointment and frustration at being ignored finally began to burn,  and he got out. In 1922 Hays took another job, running the Hays Production Code office, which set standards for on-screen morality in the Hollywood film industry. It was the Hays Commission which gave us forty years of married couples sleeping in twin beds, no acknowledgement of drug use (which had been going for several thousand years),  no adultery in marriage (ditto) without retribution, and endless stories with Sacerin sweet "Hollywood Endings". It was the Hays' Commission that turned Rhett Butler’s exit line from "Gone With the Wind"" into a major social crises, even though the line had already appeared in one of the most widely read books in America.  Mr. Hays had built his entire career selling smoke and mirrors, and he was not going to get out of that business just because he had gotten out of politics.
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Thursday, January 11, 2018


In the dark, late on the evening of Thursday, 14 May, 1863, after abandoning Jackson, Mississippi General Joe Johnston (above) paused 6 miles north along the New Orleans and Memphis rail line. There he composed another missive – to call it an order seems to be stretching that definition beyond the breaking point - to Lieutenant General Pemberton, somewhere to the west, near Bovina Station. He wondered if Pemberton might be able to cut Grant's supply line. He wondered how long Grant's army could survive, once it's supply had been cut. And he urge, again, that Pemberton unit their forces. “I am anxious to see a force assembled that may be able to inflict a heavy blow upon the enemy." And that was the passive aggressive order he sent to Pemberton, near midnight on Friday, 15, May.
Later that morning another 4,000 man brigade joined his forces, bringing Johnston's strength to about 10,000 men. But the new arrivals were exhausted, and needed at least a day to recover. More troops were coming, and within a week Johnston would have perhaps 30,000 men. But ominously, forty miles to the west on that morning, Lieutenant General Pemberton and his army was not moving toward a junction, as ordered earlier, but were waiting.
Pemberton's original plan had been a compromise between his conflicting orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to hold Vicksburg, and his “orders” from General Joe Johnston, to abandon the city and march his army east to join forces with Johnston's gathering little force. Pemberton's solution to this conflict seemed practical. 
Pemberton left 2 divisions of infantry and the battalion of artillerymen – about 13,000 men in total – to hold Vicksburg and the heights above the mouth of the Yazoo River. With his remaining 3 divisions of infantry and Wade Adam's Cavalry -about 17,000 men - he would advance eastward along the Southern Railroad to Edward's Depot (above). By staying along the railroad he was protecting his own supply line.
However last night, at a council of war, Pemberton had accepted Major General Loring's suggestion, that the army should strike away from the railroad, toward Raymond – 20 miles to the southeast. The goal was to cut Grant's supply line, force him to pull back to protect his “line of communications”, and thus allow Johnston's smaller force to safely advance and link up with Pemberton. Thus Grant would be forced to react to the rebels for a change, perhaps even cause him to make a mistake. But, leaving the railroad required shifting the Confederate's supply line. And that required finding more horses and wagons.
It took time to seize the transport – until now Pemberton had refused to simply take what he needed – and to load the wagons and organize them into a column. And so Pemberton's entire army spent the morning on their asses while this wagon train was formed. The rebel army was not ready to move until the morning was almost gone. And then, before the great advance had made much more than a single mile, it was forced to halt again.
You see, there were three routes which could be taken from Edward's Depot to Raymond. The most northern road crossed Baker's Creek on a bridge and then rounded the northern slopes of a low hill before reaching a crossroads. Continuing east lead to Bolton. Turning south, on what was called The Middle Road, lead to Raymond. The central route, called the Jackson road, turned right off the Bolton Road a quarter of a mile east of the bridge, and then climbed that 75 foot hill. On its broad flat top the Jackson road crossed a narrow north south lane called the Ratcliff Road, before descending back to level ground where it passed the farmhouse of Sid and Matilda Champion, who had given their name to the entire hill.
The farmland had been a wedding gift from the father of the bride, and in the 7 years since their nuptials, Sid and Matilda  (above) had built a 2 story home, and introduced 4 children into the world. Sid had joined the 28th Mississippi cavalry in '62. And now, a year later, with soldiers from both sides gathering around her home, Matilda had taken the children to her father's home in Madison County, Mississippi. The property was left to be guarded by the slaves who toiled soil. 
Following the Jackson Road after it passed the Champion home, lead to the small Jackson Creek and then it crossed The Middle Road. Turning south led to Raymond, but should the traveler continue east they would eventually reach Clinton and then the state capital of Jackson.
But General Pemberton had chosen the most southern route, which a mile east of Edward's Depot forded Baker's creek. It avoided Champion's Hill entirely, and ran adjacent to a light railroad, which in peace time had carried the cotton harvested in and around Raymond to the southern railroad at Edward's Depot. But this proved to be a most unfortunate choice, because, as the head of Pemberton's column approached the Baker's Creek ford the rebels found the stream so swollen with Friday's downpour, it had washed out the bridge.
A little scouting would have warned Pemberton of this problem But no one had checked the route in daylight, even with the hours of delay in getting started....
...not even the one armed General Loring (above), whose division formed the vanguard of this sad sack of a march. So now, Pemberton's little army had to turn about in place, one unit after the other slowly filing a mile back to Edward's Depot, and then lining up again on the Bolton road. It took another hour or more. The inability to execute a simple march sapped the energy and spirit of the troops. But the man most offended was Major General Loring. He had been urging Pemberton to attack the Yankees since the Battle of Port Gibson. This entire maneuver was his idea, And as its implementation quickly revealed its drawbacks, Loring blamed not himself but Pemberton. Old “Give 'em Blizzards” already low estimation of Lieutenant General Pemberton, plummeted even further.
Then Pemberton made things even worse. After crossing the bridge and turning south on the Jackson road he chose to lead the column onto the narrow and badly maintained “Ratcliff Plantation Road”, which ran a mile south across the top of Champion's Hill before dropping and reconnecting with road he had originally intended upon using. This final choice slowed their progress even more, and the effect of all this waiting, marching and counter-marching, and now following the narrow dark country lane, was that when darkness finally brought the frustrating and exhausting day to an end,  Private Wesley Connor, a member of the Cherokee Artillery near the rear of the column, recorded his unit set out promptly at 7:00am, and then “... marched two hundred yards, halted an hour or two, and then marched back to our position...” They then waited another 11 hours, until 6:00pm , when they “Left our position again, and marched eastward several miles and then southward. Bivouacked five or six miles from Edwards Depot.”  Loring's division had traveled the farthest, but by nightfall was little more than 4 miles down the Raymond road – reaching the property of the twice widowed, 46 year old Sarah Ann Walton Bowles Ellison.
Lorings men pitched their tents around the widow's house, while Lieutenant General Pemberton slept comfortably inside. Two miles up the road to the north centered of the junction of the Raymond and Ratcliff road was the division of Major General Bowen. And behind them, the troops commanded by Major General Stevenson camped around the hill top.  And behind them was the supply train, which had delayed the army for half a day. That train had advanced less than four miles in total. It was a disastrous day's march. In fact, the wreckage of Pemberton's first bold decision would save his army because it failed.
Awakening before 5:00 the next morning, Saturday, 16 May, 1863, Pemberton learned that the cavalry scouts sent ahead to locate Grant's supply trains had found the roads from Port Gibson to Raymond, completely empty. Suddenly Pemberton is adrift. Where are Grant's supply trains? Where is Grant's army” Then about 6:30 the commander of his cavalry brigade, Colonel Wirt Adams (above) came galloping up and dismounted. He reported that his men were skirmishing with Yankee infantry on the Bolton Road, at the very rear of Pemberton's army. And behind those skirmishers there appeared to be a lot of Yankee soldiers on the road to Edward's Depot.
Almost immediately a new rider appeared, bearing a message from General Johnston, in Jackson, Mississippi and dated on the afternoon of Thursday, 14 May. It informed Pemberton that Johnston was being forced to surrender Jackson, and added, “Our being compelled to leave Jackson makes your plan (to attack Grant's supply line) impractical. The only mode by which we can unite is by your moving directly to Clinton...".
And abruptly, Pemberton had no choice but to do that very thing.
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