Monthly Archives: March 2018

Escaping Poverty

(March 30, 2018) Between 1957 and 1960 six high school boys in Coalwood, West Virginian acquired the character that would eventually lift them out of poverty. They built rockets and won the Blue Ribbon at the National High School Science Fair in Indianapolis where an anonymous competitor tried to sabotage their entry by stealing and hiding their key exhibit. The boys were named Homer Hickam, Billy Rose, Quentin Wilson, O’Dell Carroll, Roy Lee Cooke, and Sherman Siers.

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Homer was the leader. After high school he earned a Virginia Tech engineering degree, served in the Vietnam War, became a NASA engineer and is presently an author. His best known book is a memoir about the boys’ high school experience titled Rocket Boys. Hollywood made a movie version with the anagram title, October Sky. 

As the picture below documents, Homer and his five friends were not economically privileged. Billy Rose’s family may have been the poorest. When their electricity was cut off he studied by the light of a kerosene lamp. But Billy joined the army after high school and later earned an electrical engineering degree. Quentin Wilson became a petroleum engineer, O’Dell Carroll an insurance salesman and Roy Lee Cooke a banker. Even as a boy Sherman Siers was partially crippled with polio but he also grew to become an engineer and a 7-handicap golfer. Unfortunately, he died at age thirty-four of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and three children.

Coalwood, West Virginia – 1988

In a 2003 interview on Oregon Public Television Homer Hickam explained how he believes Coalwood’s small town values molded the boys:

As far as [Coalwood residents] were concerned the family was holy. We keep our families together. That gave us kids a great sense of security . . . no matter how much the parents argued . . . we knew they were going to stay together. I knew only a single boy in Coalwood whose parents were divorced, and he was a periodic visitor who came to see his grandparents.

[Coalwood residents] are proud of who we are. We stand up of what we believe. We trust in God but we rely on ourselves. God we thank for what he’s given us: our brains, our bodies, our country, our parents. But we don’t just fall back on that and say, “Please give us some more.” That’s not what its all about. It’s about taking everything you’ve been given and relying upon yourself to go and do the things you want to do. It’s one to the great values that Coalwood still has to teach us.

Learn more about the Rocket Boys here.

 

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Ride With the Devil

(March 28, 2018) A Civil War novel that gives readers sympathy for the followers of William Quantrill is surprising enough, but the language and mannerisms captured by Daniel Woodrell in his Woe to Live On add new magic to his tale of Missouri Bushwhackers. As a bonus, director Ang Lee faithfully brings the story to the screen in his 1999 movie, Ride With the Devil.

The protagonist is a teenaged German immigrant named Jake Roedel who sides with the Missouri Rebels because his best childhood friend was the son of a plantation owner. As the war progresses his new best friend becomes Daniel Holt, a slave. Like Roedel, Holt joined his white childhood friend to be with the Bushwhackers.

The antagonist is another Rebel named Pit Mackeson who distrusts Roedel because most German immigrants sided with the Union.

* * *

Jake Roedel explains to Holt why the Rebels fight: [The Yankee] is the cut of man who if you say the sun is high, he will say, no, you are low. That is nothing in itself to war over. But then he will say, I believe my way, my life, and person have more loft to them than yours do, so be like me. . .The Rebel is not the man you want to say that to. He don’t care for it. . . The Rebel will fight you if you try to force him to your way. And it don’t matter too much what your way is, neither.”

“Is that good?” asked Holt

“Holt, to me it is the best that can be said of any man—he had his convictions and he backed them up.

(As the conversation continues Holt explains he does not know his precise age.)

“Holt, we are the perfect age for not cottoning to being invaded and shoved around.”

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Early in the story Jake writes: “Pit Mackeson glared at me wrinkle-nosed as if I were something hogs had vomited.”

Later he describes meeting a former Rebel named Clark who tired to escape the war by getting a minor wound. At the Battle of Wilson’s Creek he put the toes of one leg in front of a rolling enemy cannon ball and lost his whole leg to become a cripple. Jake met him later and described their departure: “I stared down [from my horse] at Clark, a cripple by bad choice and felt certain he would not last long, as death offers so many opportunities to nitwits.”

After a blow to the forehead leaves Jake with blood-filed blister: “The blood blister on my brow throbbed and throbbed as if it might crack open to reveal a condor.”

Reacting to a thunderstorm: “The universe sometimes makes war seem a mere chigger in comparison, but that is no way soothing to the one who has the itch.”

Commenting upon a dour woman: “Perhaps joy did not come her way much of late, as the Happy Train of life had long been derailed in these parts.”

After Jake becomes sympathetic toward a group of Federal captives by reading their letters his best friend Jack Chiles says: “Oh, hell, Jake. Too much knowledge is only a form of torture. You can do nothing with it but recognize a wider variety of agonies.”

Describing a Bushwhacker speech impaired by a wound: “He was a good man, but mocking him was not a safe idea.”

On meeting the beautiful Sue Lee: “She flung a great big smile my way that put the cats to scratching in my belly.”

Describing an obvious conclusion: “That was clear as cow patties on a snow bank.”

* * *

Watching as Sue Lee revealed her interest in Jack Chiles: “Then she did this thing that I would have plunked down five cents to see if I hadn’t gotten it for free. . . Romance is a sweet enough enterprise but it makes you lonely to watch it. . . [It left me] just about as useful as a Christian impulse at an ambush.”

“My God,” I said. “Where’s your manners, Chiles?”

“Gone to Texas. Now, you and Holt give us some privacy.”

Jake and Holt left the cabin: “I felt wounded and left by the roadside. . . [The taciturn] Holt was barely more company than a rock.”

Later Chiles is wounded: “Well, Sue Lee and me together were about as good a doctor as a blind drunk moron from Egypt. . .We burned the ragged wound closed . . . the smell don’t bear discussion.”

They had to amputate one of Chiles’s arms: “The job was miserable. It was no good. It was way down there past terrible.”

* * *

During the Lawrence Massacre Mackeson intends to kill and old man and a boy, but Roedel intervenes:

“Bring those men in the yard,” commanded Mackeson. “I want to show them something.”

“We’ll take care of them,” said Jake.

“Why you little Dutch [German] son of a bitch,” said Mackeson. “You do what I tell you, or I’ll kill you.”

In response, Jake cocked his pistol and put it in Pit’s face. “When do you figure to do this mean thing to me Mackeson? Is this very moment convenient for you? It is for me.”

“Ah, hell with it,” he said. “There’s plenty other houses to burn.”

*

The Lawrence Raid made me queasy. There are lines you can’t go over and come back the same.

Jake describes the preacher who marries him to Sue Lee: “The man had several pistols on him, as he was aware that the Lord works in mysterious ways and some of them require the blasting of others.”

Which Historian Cares About the Truth?

(March 26, 2018) Last month at his Dead Confederates blog, Andy Hall posted the following:

“If you follow the debates over the public display of the Confederate Battle Flag online, you’ve likely seen this image (right), purportedly showing a World War II Marine in the Pacific. Why, the argument goes, if the Confederate flag was good enough for the Greatest Generation, are you precious librul snowflakes all up in arms about it?”

(Evidently he intentionally misspelled “liberal” to imply that anyone who believes that American troops sometimes displayed the Confederate Battle flag is necessarily on the political Right, and a dimwit.)

Next Hall correctly explains that the image was probably altered with digital photo editing software like Adobe’s PhotoShop. It appears that the Confederate flag in the above image was inserted into a June 1, 1945 photo of a Marine placing the Stars-and-Stripes on a conquered Japanese defensive position at Okinawa. Hall finally concludes, “I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: if you have to make up phony evidence to support your “heritage,” it’s not worth saving.”

Nick Sacco re-posted Hall’s analysis at his “Exploring the Past” blog and commented, “It might help [the photo corrupter] to take a training session on using photoshop (sic.) before attempting to make lame ‘heritage’ memes. Great work from Andy Hall.” Sacco is a Ranger at the Ulysses Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis and thereby an employee of the Federal Government. As he explains in this Journal of the Civil War Era article he sees no reason why items displaying the Confederate flag should be sold in Civil War museum gifts shops.

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Nonetheless, anyone seeking the truth can find significant evidence that American soldiers sometimes displayed the Confederate Battle flag while in uniform and in battlefield areas. Here are nine such photos. Perhaps one reason the flag was shown is that even today forty percent of American military recruits are Southerners whereas only fifteen percent are from the Northeast.

Evidently without the benefit of Hall’s certainty that the “phony evidence” of a Confederate Battle flag at Okinawa implies the “heritage” of such heroics “is not worth saving,” Sean Michael Chick independently reflected on the matter at his Ongoing Civil War blog. Chick had been reading Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, which was a source for Ken Burns’ PBS series on World War II titled, The War. Sledge, who was among the Marines fighting the Japanese at Okinawa, wrote:

Earlier in the morning [of May 29, 1945] . . . Marines had attacked eastward into the ruins of Shuri Castle and had raised the Confederate flag. When we learned that the flag of the Confederacy had been hoisted over the very heart and soul of Japanese resistance, all of us Southerners cheered loudly. The Yankees among us grumbled . . .

The date is important because Hall admits that the photo he identifies as digitally altered was taken three days later on June 1, 1945. Moreover, according to Professor Greg Grandin of New York University, “In World War II . . . the first flag Marines raised upon taking the [Okinawa] headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Army was the Confederate one. It had been carried into battle in the helmet of a captain from South Carolina.”

Presidents Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump Agree

(March 25, 2018) After signing the $1.3 trillion spending bill, President Trump joined all three of his most recent predecessors in proclaiming that his office should have some form of line-item veto authority, which was granted by the Confederate Constitution but prohibited by the U. S. Constitution. Generally our last four White House occupants want the office to have the authority so that Presidents may isolate pork-barrel projects from an omnibus bill and get them removed in order to save taxpayer money.

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In 1996 a Republican Congress gave President Clinton such power. He promptly used it to cut $2 billion from the Federal budget. The act, however, was challenged and ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998. Later Presidents, including Obama in 2010, have asked Congress for a new line-item veto bill that might circumvent the Supreme Court’s 1998 objections. Nothing came of it.

In contrast, Section 2 of the Confederate Constitution’s First Article gave her President the power to veto specific items in bills passed by Congress. As with contemporary U. S. Presidents, the purpose was to minimize wasteful spending. Under the Confederate Constitution any bill subjected to a line-item veto was to be returned to Congress where the entire bill could be passed by a two-thirds majority vote. In contrast, should our Supreme Court continue to rule future variations of line-item veto bills to be unconstitutional, the only way American Presidents will  get the power is by a two-thirds majority vote in Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states.

Antebellum Southerners persistently objected to public works spending by the central government. Such projects were regarded as a responsibility of the individual state under the States’ Rights doctrine of the Tenth Amendment.

Combating the False Narrative

(March 24, 2018) In Yuval Harari’s Sapiens (humans) the author explains how humans are organized to rule the world and subsets of sapiens are organized to rule mankind. By implication, he shows how distorted anti-Southern narratives have come to dominate the interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

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Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals. . . Any attempt to understand our unique role in the world by studying our brains, our bodies, or our family relations, is doomed to failure. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.

This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

The chief cause of the unrestrained anti-Southern bias of American history is that many historians came of age during, or after, the 1960s civil rights movement.  Men like James McPherson correctly raised the profile of race and slavery in the story but eventually he—and especially his acolytes—went too far. Presently, the academy is dominated by Pious Cause Mythologists whose historical revisionism is based upon the metaphor of the Evil Twin It explains the Civil War and Reconstruction as a contest between twins in which the North is the “good” twin and the South is the “evil” twin.

They equate the causes of secession with the causes of the war thereby ignoring the fact that the North could have let the South secede in peace. When pressed,  they claim that the North chose to fight to prevent secession for the noble-sounding cause of “preserving the Union” as an abstract concept. In reality Northerners wanted to avoid the economic consequences to themselves that would result from disunion. The Pious Cause Mythologist’s most wicked sin, however, is censorship. They forbid any narrative that fails to conform to the Evil Twin metaphor. If the academy had been equally closed-minded when men like McPherson and Blight came of age, Battle Cry of Freedom and Race and Reunion might never have seen the light of day.

Combating Pious Cause Mythology requires that a valid contrary narrative be authored, distributed and discussed. Unfortunately, academic presses will not publish such manuscripts because colleges and universities have come to be dominated by professors who subscribe to the Evil Twin interpretation. Moreover, they generally only permit students with similar beliefs to be awarded PhD’s. They also have the advantage of tenured positions with generous salaries, which enables them to crank-out more of their distorted histories like the Lord makes poor folks—one right after another.

But authors of contrary narratives must normally rely upon book sales to provide the income required to keep publishing. Thus, readers can combat the Evil Twin interpretation by buying, reading, sharing, and discussing such books.

Experiencing History

(March 23, 2018) As I age, some younger historians increasingly portray public events witnessed in my lifetime in a way that contradicts my experience. One example is the false dismissal of recollections that returning Vietnam veterans were sometimes greeted with condescension. Some regular blog readers may now better understand why I often quote Yale History and Religious Studies professor Carlos Eire as follows:

Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. . . Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.

As a child in 1960, Professor Eire refugeed from Castro’s Cuba. He later wrote Waiting for Snow in Havana as a memoir to disclose what the Castro regime was really like because “many intellectuals, journalists and educated [Americans] fell for [Fidel’s] myth” that he was leading a well-intentioned utopian revolution. The dictator relied on the gullible hunger among our elite classes for myths and heroes. When he last spoke to the United Nations Newsweek headlined that Castro was “The Hottest Ticket in Town.” But Professor Eire remembers Castro as a tyrant to his own people.

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Presently, Americans are experiencing a tariff debate that echoes the sectional disputes of the antebellum, and much of the postbellum, years. Today, China responded to President Trump’s recent tariff hikes for steel and aluminum by threatening tariffs on leading imports from America. One example is soybeans, which is mostly used as feed for cattle.

Presently the Upper Mississippi Valley grows most of America’s soybeans. Illinois is the top producing state with about fifteen percent of our nation’s total. Moreover, almost half of America’s soybeans are exported. Last year the USA accounted for about ninety percent of China’s soybean imports and China bought about eighty percent of our soybean exports. In addition to putting a tariff on American soybeans, the Chinese are planning to buy more beans from other countries such as Brazil.

Thus, midwestern soybean farmers don’t oppose the aluminum and steel tariffs merely because the duties make aluminum and steel products more expensive. They are more worried that China’s retaliatory response will prompt a slash in export sales. China’s reciprocal tariffs will make American soybeans more expensive for Chinese importers who will thereby be incentivized to buy soybeans from other countries.

To put this in the context of the Civil War consider the following points. First, on the eve of the Civil War the South accounted for about eighty-percent of America’s exports. Second, about eighty-percent of America’s cotton was exported. Third, American cotton accounted for about ninety percent of Great Britain’s cotton imports. Thus, the South was far more dependent upon export-friendly tariff policies than any other section of the country. And it was also much more dependent upon such policies than America’s top soybean-producing region is presently.

Nonetheless, most modern historians dismiss the tariff as a cause of the Civil War. They note that tariffs taxed all consumers, not merely those in the South. But the argument ignores the point that higher tariffs incentivized the British to buy cotton from countries other than America. This is so because the British needed to be able to sell manufactured goods in the USA in order to earn the exchange credits required to buy cotton. High tariffs designed to protect the North’s manufacturing industries made it difficult for Britain to sell manufactured goods into America. Britain remained dependent upon Southern cotton only as long as the region remained the low cost producer. Southern attempts to retain a cost advantage led to nearly a century of peonage for white and black sharecroppers well into the twentieth century.

In one of his last acts as a Lame Duck President shortly before Lincoln took office, James Buchanan signed the Morrill Tariff Bill to increase duty rates and broaden the list of applicable items. Soon thereafter when Augustus Belmont—for whom The Belmont Stakes is named—tried to encourage the United Kingdom to back the federal Union during the Civil War, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston replied, “It is true that we don’t like slavery, but we want cotton and we dislike your Morrill tariff.”

Finally, the South’s economy remained export-based, and therefore injured by tariffs, far into the twentieth century. Nonetheless, dutiable rates averaged 45% for fifty years after the war as compared to 19% at the start of the war. Consequently, the South’s export economy continued to be penalized as it was trying to rebuild after the war.