The problem with fiction is that it must be plausible. That’s not true in non-fiction. –  Tom Wolfe

(April 22, 2018) Three days ago in There Will be Blood  I described how Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller and State Police Chief Lynn Davis were threatened with assassination if they persisted in attempting to shut down illegal gambling in Hot Springs in 1967. Among the threats disclosed to the Hot Springs New Era newspaper in December was one by a prisoner in San Angelo, Texas who said he had been approached earlier by gambling interests “who suggested killing Rockefeller by sabotaging one of his jet planes.” When commenting to the media, Rockefeller characterized the threat as the second serious one he had received since becoming a politician.*

Although Davis downplayed the Texas rumor, he recalled years later that the governor did, in fact, once come close to losing his life in a suspicious airplane incident. It happened on a flight to Memphis with his staff. As the plane approached the airport Rockefeller’s Falcon Jet pilot was unable to lower the landing gear. The jet burned low on fuel as the crew tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to lower the wheels. Without them, the pilot would need to try a belly landing, which could easily end with fiery deaths for everyone on board.

Eventually, someone suggested that the crew phone the manufacturer for recommendations while the plane circled to exhaust its fuel. Sure enough, Falcon personnel said that the crew could lower the gear with a manual crank after removing a metal plate on the floor to get at the mechanism. Although ripping up the carpet gave them access to the floorboard, they had no screwdriver to remove the metal plate. Fortunately, a dime proved to be a satisfactory substitute and the landing gear was cranked down manually after the floorboard was removed.**

More about Hot Springs during the gangster era is in my new book, The Devil’s Town.

*  *  *

* James Pierce, “From McMath to Rockefeller: Arkansas Governors and Illegal Gambling in Post War Hot Springs 1945 – 1970” (University of Arkansas, Master’s Thesis, 2008), 85

**Lynn Davis, They Said it Couldn’t Be Done, (Little Rock, Ark., Days Creek Press, 2009), 188-89


Detecting Historians with Truman Delusion

(April 21, 2018) Twenty years ago Paramount Pictures released The Truman Show, which was a movie staring Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank. Truman was a thirty year old character who had lived in a single artificial community his entire life. All of the other people in his town were merely actors in a reality TV show about Truman’s life, The Truman Show. Truman was the only one on the set who did not realize that his daily life as depicted in his fictional hometown of Seahaven was a popular TV show that had been running for thirty years.

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But the show owners could not continue to milk the cash cow if Truman ever learned the truth, which everyone in the cast went to great lengths to hide. For example, from childhood he was taught to fear sailing lest he discover the boundaries of the giant archeological dome that encompassed Seahaven. The town’s print and broadcast media attempted to dissuade his interest in travel by regularly releasing stories highlighting the dangers of travel. Eventually his curiosity about the World beyond Seahaven got the best of him and he visited a travel agency. But as this three-minute video excerpt shows, the agency walls greeted him with warning posters about airplane crashes, terrorist hijackings and other travel hazards. Similarly, when he booked a seat on a passenger bus to Chicago, the bus broke down before it left Seahaven.

As a result, Truman was forced to live a false narrative that one film student labeled The Truman Delusion. The producers, directors, and the rest of the cast censored any contrary evidence, or opinion. On the few occasions when sympathetic cast members tried to tell Truman the truth they were written out of the script. Eventually, however, Truman found the camouflaged edge of the archeological dome and walked along it until he located an exit.  

Unfortunately, today’s students of the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era are often victims of the The Truman Delusion. Too often history professors censor any interpretation that fails to conform to the dominant viewpoint of a virtuous North and evil South. They suppress original interpretations, encourage students to shout down contrary speech and ignore contradictory evidence. Few object to the destruction of Confederate monuments. In a word, censorship is the telltale symptom of The Truman Delusion.

Although presently applauded on many college campuses, previous generations of academics condemned censorship.  The presently controlling interpretations of history, for example, might never have seen the light of day had earlier professors refused to tolerate minority opinion. Lost Cause Mythology might otherwise still predominate as might the Dunning School of Reconstruction.  Ulysses Grant might still be portrayed as a “butcher” and “drunk.”

Unfortunately, too many of today’s historians are teaching their students to live in a fake World like The Truman Show. A World where the Southern soldier was evil, Confederate leaders were minions of Satan, today’s Southerners must be shamed for their ancestors and Ulysses Grant was the war’s best general and a great civil rights President. And when the students try to escape like Truman the typical prof tells them, “Don’t listen to those ideas, don’t read those books, don’t let those speakers come to campus. Those authors are racists, those speakers are white supremacists, those ideas are fascist, and those people are hillbillies, hayseeds, sore losers and rednecks. Don’t be like them, be like me.”

Mark Twain once cogently remarked, “In matters of opinion all of our adversaries are insane.” Thus, historians holding the majority opinion are just as likely to believe that those with the minority opinion are under the influence of The Truman Delusion as vice versa. But the best way to identify the true propagators of the delusion is to learn which side advocates censorship, avoids debate and shouts down contrary opinions.

There Will Be Blood

(April 19, 2018) When Winthrop Rockefeller became Arkansas’s governor in 1967 the century-old practice of illegal gambling in Hot Springs was threatened with extinction. As late as 1964 a New York Times investigative reporter described the resort town as America’s largest illegal gambling center. To be sure, Las Vegas was bigger, but gambling was legal in Nevada whereas it was illegal in Arkansas.

At times Hot Springs gambling was limited to private clubs whose members secretly included the guests of leading hotels. At other times it was brazen with neon lighted casinos and sidewalk loudspeakers announcing horse race results from across the country. Much depended upon who was mayor of the town and who was governor of the state. It is likely that at least some of the complicit governors were influenced by generous campaign contributions and other forms of bribery. Unfortunately for the casino operators, however, there was not enough money in the state to turn Rockefeller’s head should he decline to acquiesce to the status quo.

After a couple of months of indecision Rockefeller resolved to enforce the state’s anti-gambling laws. But State Police Department leaders soon demonstrated they were reluctant participants. Like most entrenched government officers, they had long seen anti-gambling governors come and go while Hot Springs gambling merely fluctuated from furtive to flamboyant. Consequently, in August 1967 Rockefeller appointed a thirty-three year old FBI agent named Lynn Davis as the new Chief of the State Police. Davis promptly began to raid the casinos and remove their equipment.

The town’s gaming interests did not give up without a fight. Since Rockefeller was too wealthy to be swayed by political donations they fought back in other ways, including assassination threats. Although some were frivolous, others were taken seriously.  In one case Davis bluntly informed a rumored source of such a threat that he would suffer revenge “if anything happened to me or Win Rockefeller.” In a 2003 interview eight years before he died, Davis even revealed that Rockefeller “had hired three people to do that person in” if retribution became necessary.*

In  December 1967 political allies of the gaming interests went too far when they threw Davis in jail for a night because he declined to disclose the identity of an informant. Since he was merely doing his job the public finally reacted decisively with indignation against the perpetual practice among state and local law enforcement organizations of winking at illegal gambling. After a century of play, it was “game over” for the casino operators.

* * *

More about the history of gambling in Hot Springs is available in my book, The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era

*Lynn Davis, “Arkansas State Police Project,” Interviewed by Michael Lindsey (August 18, 2003), p. 19 [davislynnstatepolice.pdf]


Habitually Blaming Southerners

(April 16, 2018) In the hours following JFK’s assassination fifty-five years ago, recorded television interviews with “the man on the street” reveal a readiness among some Northerners to blame Southerners for killing the President. To be sure, most respondents  expressed no judgments about who was responsible and instead limited their comments to their shock, dismay, disbelief, sadness and general anger.

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The first thirty-seven minutes of the interviews in the YouTube video below were conducted by the three major television networks in five cities: New York, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Like most others across the country, the Dallas respondents spoke of their sadness, disbelief, anger and shock. But they also mentioned the shame they felt that it happened in their city.

In contrast, three New Yorkers and one San Franciscan reflexively blamed Southerners. The New Yorkers rushed to judgment within three hours of the President’s death before the public was aware that Lee Harvey Oswald would be arrested at three o’clock New York time. Since he was interviewed after sunset, the San Franciscan could have known about Oswald’s arrest, but presumably did not. Nonetheless, the four variously described the imagined guilty Southerners as “segregationists,” “right-wing radicals,” and “ultra conservatives who have been spreading hate in Texas,” among other derogatory terms and phrases. Admittedly, another New Yorker suggested that the assassin was more likely a communist than a “right-wing fanatic.”

The accusers could not even wait a matter of hours to learn the true identity of Kennedy’s assassin. They felt no reluctance to falsely blame Southerners.


Why Northerners Abandoned Reconstruction

(April 10, 2018) Most modern experts conclude that white Northerners abandoned Reconstruction in the mid-1870s because they were  “tired of dealing with the South’s racial problems and ready to move on.” Yale professor David Blight suggests that by 1875 Northerners rationalized their desertion of blacks by reasoning that they had given blacks “equality under the law,” which was thereafter up to the African-Americans to enforce for themselves. White Northerners, says Blight, did not comprehend their responsibility to provide “equality of opportunity” until the 1960s. His explanation vouchsafes nineteenth century Republicans with the moral high ground for promoting black suffrage and at least trying to obtain racial equality.

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As explained in a previous post, however, Republicans may have focused on black equality merely because African-Americans composed the solitary minority group that was large enough and sufficiently Republican-loyal to impact political power in Washington. Ulysses Grant, for example, received less than half of the white popular vote in his first presidential campaign in 1868. In contrast to its advocacy for blacks, the infant GOP failed to urge equal rights for Native-Americans or Asian-Americans. In fact, Asian-Americans could not even become naturalized citizens until 1943 and they represented two-thirds of California’s lynch victims between 1849 and 1901.

William Hesseltine and other earlier historians provide two better explanations for why Northerners abandoned Reconstruction. First, it was a threat to the nation’s entire economy and to big business. Second, it fueled the culture of political corruption that permeated Washington by providing Republicans a nearly robotic voting bloc.

In The Tragic Conflict Hesseltine wrote, “So long as corruption, supported by federal troops, held sway in the South, the conquered region gave no security for Northern investments. Moreover, the North began to see that the South was corrupting the nation. Federal troops in the South kept Republicans in control of the nation and the national government was becoming as corrupt as the state governments in the South. . . . The Republican Party, freed from a responsibility to the electorate, became rotten.” As a result, a series of scandals shook the nation’s confidence in the federal government during President Grant’s second term. 

Simultaneously, Southern blacks began to distrust their new guardians. All could see that the Carpetbaggers took the best political offices for themselves. While they gradually evolved into a class of sharecroppers, black voters became increasingly disillusioned to contrast their modest economic rewards for voting Republican compared to the original promises. Mississippi was the only state in the era to have black senators even though blacks represented over half, or nearly half, of the electorate in six states.

Although sharecropping is commonly identified with blacks, white sharecroppers significantly outnumbered black croppers. Since the entire region was impoverished, Northern businesses worried during the five year depression of the 1870s that if poor Southern whites and blacks ever united they might spark a Communist movement like the one that led to the Paris Commune Revolt in 1871. By the mid 1870s the Republicans were the Party of big business. Large Northern businesses wanted conservative state governments in the South. While the Bourbon Democrats (Redeemers) gave Northern businesses the conservative governments they wanted, the Bourbons also placed the region’s state governments on sound economic footing by slashing government expenditures thereby protecting Northern investments in the South from excessive taxation. 

As usual, the money trail leads to the proper explanation. The popular explanations of Blight and similar historians have a low signal-to-noise ratio.

Iuka: A Shadow of Truth

(April 9, 2018) While Lee was invading Maryland and Bragg was “liberating” Kentucky, the latter asked the Confederate commanders in north Mississippi to distract Union General Ulysses Grant in west Tennessee so that he would not join Union General Don Carlos Buell in the defense of Kentucky. The first Mississippi Rebel leader to act was General Sterling Price when his 15,000 soldiers captured a Union depot in northeast Mississippi at Iuka on September 15, 1862.  Two days later Ulysses Grant approved a plan suggested by subordinate General William Rosecrans to eliminate Price’s army by converging on it with two separate 8,000-man units from the North and South simultaneously. Grant would be in overall command while Rosecrans would lead one column and General Edward Ord the other.

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The standard battle narrative reflects selective use of Grant-favorable versions of his multiple—sometimes contrary—post battle reports and remarks in his Memoirs twenty-three years later when he wrote that under his plan Price’s “annihilation was inevitable.” Rosecrans and Ord had 17,000 men between them. Ord would descend on Iuka from the north, while Rosecrans came up from the south. Once Price had his attention thoroughly fixed on Ord, Rosecrans would fall on his rear so that the Rebels would have to choose between death and capitulation.

Accordingly, on 17 September Ord moved twelve miles down the Memphis & Charleston Railroad to Burnsville, where Grant established headquarters, having instructed Rosecrans to concentrate at Jacinto, eight miles south. From these two points, the two columns were to push to within striking distance of Iuka the following day in order to deliver their attacks soon after dawn of the 19th. But Rosecrans reported that one of his units had been so badly delayed that he could not be in position before midafternoon of the appointed day. As pictured in the map above, Rosecrans was to arrange his attack so as to block Price’s two escape paths: One to the southeast and the other to the southwest.

Grant told Ord to go ahead with the opening phase on 19 September. But he also told him to await the sounds of Rosecrans’s attack in order to be sure that Price’s escape hatches were closed. Ord’s forward movement captured Price’s attention, but the Federal column north of town did nothing more for the entire day suffering casualties of only one man wounded. When Ord received a four o’clock message from the front at six o’clock—inexplicably two hours later—telling him of “dense smoke arising from the direction of Iuka” he merely assumed Price was evacuating.

The smoke had been beyond, not in the town, and it came from Price’s guns, not his stores. When the Confederates learned of Ord’s approach from the south about two o’clock they opened the battle in that sector.  Grant and Ord failed to hear the cannon fire because a strong wind  out of the northwest created an acoustic shadow. In fact, Grant did not even suspect that Rosecrans was in position until the morning of 20 September when he received a note the latter had written the night before. It urged Grant to push into the Rebels from the north. Ord finally made his attack at about nine o’clock in the morning on 20 September while Rosecrans assaulted from the south. But the two columns were converging on an empty town because Price had escaped on the road that led to the southeast. Rosecrans had lost 790 men and Price 535.

Grant’s initial battle reports praised Rosecrans. It was, after all, the latter’s men who did all of the fighting. But Grant’s later reports criticized Rosecrans for failing to block both of Price’s escape roads and also for failing to aggressively pursue Price after he had evacuated Iuka.

Grant criticisms are unfair.

First, Rosecrans was fighting a battle outnumbered two-to-one, while Ord and Grant were nearby doing nothing. Second, he could not block both of Price’s escape routes unless he could get closer to the south end of town where the two roads converged. If he tried to cover both roads at the latitude of his battle line his smaller force  would have to be split in two and separated by a distance that was too far for the segments to support one another. Third, he could not overpower the enemy and get close enough to Iuka to block both roads unless Ord drew off some of the enemy’s strength by attacking from the north. But that never happened. Fourth, Ord’s men were well-rested and should have been used for pursuit instead of the battle weary and footsore men in Rosecrans’s column. Fifth, while Grant criticized Rosecrans’s alleged un-energetic pursuit, the commanding general set a bad example by leaving the area to visit his family in west Tennessee.

According to Dr. Frank Varney, who authored General Grant and the Rewriting of History, objective historians should be asking several questions about the Battle of Iuka that they generally fail to consider. Did Grant provide effective leadership? What went wrong at his headquarters? Had Grant temporarily fallen victim to latent alcoholism? What was happening within the Federal column north of town? Varney adds that after the battle Grant submitted “a report that was quite at odds with his first messages about Iuka, and submitted it immediately after an acrimonious exchange of telegrams with Rosecrans. . . This should warn us that Grant was not above rewriting official documents in anger and . . . would revise his version of events if it suited him.” Varney also reminds readers that Grant may have been motivated to such actions because his reputation at the time of Iuka was still not secure due to his controversial performance at Shiloh less than six months earlier.