Monthly Archives: April 2018

Winners Really Do Write the Histories

(May 1, 2018) For the past one-hundred-and-fifty years few Americans enjoyed a better reputation than Alexander Graham Bell. Not only is he credited with inventing the telephone, the gadget is said to be an unintended by-product of his efforts to discover a device that would enable his deaf fiancée to hear. He went on to found the Bell System, which dominated telecommunications for a century. In Bell Labs his company gave America the World’s finest industrial research laboratory until the parent company was required to subdivide into pieces by an antitrust consent decree thirty six years ago. In one tribute, at a time when ordinary businessman were rarely so honored, the U. S. Post Office issued a ten cent stamp picturing Bell’s image almost eighty years ago. For much of the twentieth century Bell’s American Telephone and Telegraph Company was America’s biggest corporation. As students, nearly all of us were taught to admire Bell’s inventiveness, perseverance, integrity and accomplishments.

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In reality the Bell legend is false. AT&T’s century-long dominance of the telephone industry empowered it to perpetuate a bogus narrative. When AT&T controlled ninety percent of America’s telephones, there were few voices to contradict the company’s version of history. After AT&T was broken apart by the 1982 consent decree, nearly all of the minority voices had been silenced. The true story of how Bell got his patents involves dishonesty, Patent Office collusion, and downright bribery. It all happened during the second term of Ulysses Grant’s presidency, whose Administration was saturated with corruption.

On February 14, 1876 Elisha Gray of Chicago’s Western Electric Company filed a provisional patent for “An Apparatus Using Telegraphic Means to Transmit and Receive Sounds.” At the time, Western Electric was an independent company that sold equipment to Western Union and other telegraph companies. The “Apparatus,” therefore, was targeted at Western Union, which was the biggest telegraph operator in 1876. Bell’s future father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard, was a Boston patent attorney who disliked Western Union, which he wanted the U. S. Post Office to forcibly take over.

Somebody at the Patent Office illegally told Hubbard about Gray’s patent application. Hubbard hurriedly wrote-up a competing one for Bell and bribed a Patent Office employee to falsely record that Bell’s application had arrived several hours earlier than Gray’s. (Hubbard had earlier funded a laboratory for Bell in order for Bell to invent a method of sending multiple telegrams over a single wire simultaneously.)

On February 24, 1876 Hubbard sent Bell to an unlawful and secret meeting with a Patent Office examiner in Washington. The examiner permitted Bell to inspect Gray’s patent. The inspection enabled Bell to learn how Gray intended to accomplish the telephonic task and Bell unscrupulously copied Gray’s description to the margins of his own patent application. It was an illegal post-facto augmentation.

Bell’s application was approved on March 7, 1876. The rapid approval is suspicious since normally months elapse before a patent is granted. Also unusual was the absence of hearings to resolve whether Bell’s patent overlapped with Gray’s. Unbeknownst to Gray, Bell’s first demonstration of his telephone on 10 March used a microphone device depicted in Gray’s patent. Since Gray was not informed of the illegal collusion between the Patent Office and Bell, he sent Bell a congratulatory note after the demo.

Hubbard wanted Bell’s telephone to be exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Industrial Exhibition slated for Philadelphia that summer. But Bell was reluctant because he knew his microphone was unreliable and obviously pirated from Gray. Although his exhibit at the Centennial was based on Gray’s theory, Bell changed some of the components in Gray’s microphone transducer design. When Hubbard soon thereafter learned of a superior transducer developed in Germany, he purchased the component’s technical rights. With Bell’s purloined version of Gray’s patent and the German transducer, Hubbard offered to sell the integrated telephone technology to Western Union, but the telegraph giant turned him down.

Alexander Graham Bell basically dropped out of the picture after Hubbard soon thereafter hired a businessman to manage the company that would become AT&T. Western Union fought back in 1878 by questioning the validity of Bell’s patents as compared to those of Gray. The company also hired Thomas Edison to develop a microphone that would prove to be better than Hubbard’s German technology. Edison’s version was so successful that it remained the dominant sound-to-electricity transducer used in the telephone industry until the 1970s. I remember those carbon-granual-filled discs about the size of a Ritz cracker that were accessible merely by unscrewing the voice cover of a typical telephone handset.

While Western Union and AT&T were battling in the courts, Western Union’s CEO died unexpectedly. The company soon fell under the control of Jay Gould, a notorious Wall Street denizen. Gould had little interest in transforming Western Union into a telephone company. Instead, he liked to use the company to gain an advantage on the stock exchange by getting advance notice of important news events transmitted over Western Union wires. The Associated Press, for example, relied upon telegraphy instead of telephony for news dissemination because the infant telephone technology could only transmit a short distance compared to telegraphy.

Gould settled the lawsuit with AT&T on terms that gave Western Union forty percent of the profits for Bell’s telephone systems in New York and Chicago. Western Union was also allocated twenty percent of the Bell patent royalties over their seventeen year life, which expired in 1893. Only years later did Gray learn of Bell’s patent theft. Since Gould’s settlement required that Western Union officially acknowledge Bell as the inventor of the telephone and AT&T acquired Western Electric in 1881, Gray had no recourse.

Other companies were victims of Bell’s illegal patent monopolization. One was Tennessee-based Pan Electric Telephone Company, which was organized in 1883. Among its officers were Joseph E. Johnston, Isham Harris, J. D. C. Atkins, Augustus Garland, and Dr. J. W. Rogers. Johnston was formerly a Confederate General and Atkins a former Rebel Colonel. Harris was Tennessee’s Confederate wartime governor and Rogers was an Episcopal Rector in Memphis. Garland had earlier served in the Confederate Congress.

Initially  AT&T wanted to buy Pan Electric, especially after the latter’s telephone devices were tested at Bell’s laboratory (then in Boston) and found to be superior. Ultimately patent litigation ensued in which Pan Electric challenged the legitimacy of Bell’s patents and Bell accused Pan Electric of being a patent troll. Bell won, but the entire affair became political with Republicans supporting Bell and Democrats supporting Pan Electric. But that’s another story, and a good one.

Source: Derek Cheung and Eric Brach, Conquering the Electron, (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 54-65; Russell Pizer, The Tangle Web of Patent 174465

You Saw Her Here First

(April 30, 2018) Last week when music rapper Kanye West shared his admiration for a youthful, black political commentator by Tweeting “I love the way Candace Owens thinks” Ms. Owens was suddenly shoved into the limelight. Leading mainstream and African-American media sources felt compelled to comment upon Ms. Owens, although few knew little, if anything, about her. Examples include, New York Magazine, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox News, Essence Magazine, The Root, Ebony, The Daily Mail, Daily Beast, Slate Magazine, Wired Magazine, Yahoo! News, and The Huffington Post, among others.

In contrast, subscribers to Civil War Chat first learned about Candace almost nine months ago when I posted “The Final Word On Charlottesville.” The post featured her five minute video analysis about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer at the former Robert E. Lee park. For those that missed it, the video is provided a second time below.

Ulysses Grant’s Attempts to Rewrite History

(April 30, 2018) In contrast to the wave of recent Ulysses Grant hagiographies, a couple of nearly ostracized voices have been disclosing how the general’s false statements and mistaken recollections (if not outright lies) have shaped the currently popular but erroneous perspectives of Grant. Dr. Frank Varney of Dickinson State University has written two books that correct Grant’s military record. The first, General Grant and the Rewriting of Historywas released five years ago. The second, tentatively titled The Men Grant Didn’t Like, will be published later this year.

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In anticipation of his second title, I invited Dr. Varney to provide the post below listing prominent examples of Grant’s false statements and erroneous recollections.

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Philip recently asked me to list a few of Ulysses S. Grant’s most glaring misstatements. It’s actually hard to keep the list short, but I’ll do my best.

One. Grant said that at the Battle of Belmont he launched an attack—which was supposed to be a reconnaissance in force—because Union General W.H. L. Wallace and his men were in danger. Supposedly a surprise Confederate troop movement had left Wallace’s command in a tough spot. Grant’s attacking force, which was initially successful, ultimately itself became in danger of being cut off and only narrowly escaped. But the need for Grant’s attack was moot because Wallace denied that his men were ever in any danger. Moreover, Confederate reports in the Official Records bear Wallace out: there was no Rebel threat to Wallace as Grant described.

Two. Also pertaining to Belmont, Grant told a great story about how, when he realized that one of his units failed to retreat with the rest of his command, he single-handedly went in search of them, led them to the rescuing transports, and was the last man aboard. According to his account he rode his horse up a single, narrow plank to the cheers of his men. Sadly, no other account of the episode exists but his, in spite of the fact that there were, or should have been, thousands of witnesses.

Three. As commanding general at the Battle of Shiloh Grant stoutly denied that he was surprised the Rebel attack that opened the battle, when everyone else in his army except General William T. Sherman agreed that he was taken by surprise. Since Sherman had only the day before the attack told Grant that no action was in the offing, his defense of Grant has an obvious motive. Consider also that when the attack began Grant was at breakfast, eight miles away. Logically, if he had known an attack was coming, he would have been with his army.

Four. Grant said that the Battle of Shiloh was very nearly lost because General Benjamin Prentiss caused a break in the Union defense line and allowed his command to be cut off and captured; and that General Lew Wallace took the wrong road and arrived too late to be of use on the first day of the two-day battle. Neither of those statements is true, when looked at dispassionately rather than taking Grant at his word.

Five. Grant said that General William S. Rosecrans disobeyed orders at the Battle of Iuka and allowed the defending Confederates to escape. In fact, Rosecrans notified Grant of a necessary change in the Rosecrans-column attack plans, and Grant’s first report agreed that Rosecrans had taken the proper steps.

Six. Grant falsely claimed that Rosecrans had failed to pursue the retreating enemy at both the battles of Iuka and Corinth. In fact, Rosecrans did pursue in both cases—until recalled by Grant.

Seven. Grant stated that he had no choice but to relieve Rosecrans after the Battle of Chickamauga because of a telegram he received from military observer Charles Dana indicating that Rosecrans was on the verge of abandoning Chattanooga. There is ample evidence that this charge was untrue. Dana denied ever having sent the telegram, and Grant never produced it in spite of repeated demands that he do so.

Eight. Grant claimed that General Joseph Hooker continually attempted to detach troops from General Sherman’s army in Georgia in order to enable Hooker to conduct independent campaigns. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate this. Even Grant-ally Sherman never claimed it happened. Sherman did, however, claim that Union General John Schofield had complained that Hooker tried to give him orders, but Schofield flatly denied Sherman’s claim.

Nine. Grant insisted that General George H. Thomas was slow. Sadly, too many historians have repeated and ever after accepted the charge as valid. However, a look at the reports of the officers who commanded Thomas—Generals Don Carlos Buell, Rosecrans, even Sherman—never complained that Thomas was slow. In fact, Thomas was an admirable general whose reputation was damaged by Grant’s tendency to damn him with faint praise.

Ten. Grant claimed that he regretted General Phil Sheridan’s removal of General G. K. Warren in the closing days of the war, after a victory. If the regret was genuine, Grant—as general in chief of the army—certainly had ample opportunity to correct the problem. But he failed to do so. Consequently, it took nearly two decades before a court of inquiry was held that exonerated Warren. During the inquiry, and in interviews and articles during the interim, Grant did his best to damage Warren, blaming him for things in retrospect that Grant had not blamed Warren for at the time, most notably the debacle of the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg. In fact, my research leads to the inescapable conclusion that Sheridan relieved Warren at Grant’s behest.

Although Grant was a fine general he had a strong tendency to ignore facts in order to embellish his own reputation. In doing so he did great harm to the careers and reputations of others. My first book, General Grant and the Rewriting of History, addresses issues three through seven in the above list. The final three are addressed in my second book, which is currently being prepared for publication. It is tentatively titled The Men Grant Didn’t Like, but that may change.

Book one sold out in hardcover and is being reprinted in paperback to be shipped next month. The film rights have been optioned, as well. Book two should be available later this year. The issues above are examined at much greater length, and in much greater detail, in those books.

The Wages of Censorship are Tyranny

(April 27, 2018) Every totalitarian state and organization in history suppressed free speech and diversity of thought.  To be fair, the accusation applies not only to governments but also religions including, at times, Christianity as evidenced by Galileo’s house arrest for teaching scientific truths. When those holding a minority opinion are shouted down or censored, the majority becomes increasingly tyrannical. Within the context of Civil War history the intolerant reinterpretation of Confederate monuments and their consequent destruction is a prime example.

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After the ordinary man loses his voice we all cease to be individuals and become subjects of the ruling authority. Anyone who does not think it can happen in America might wish to become familiar with the intolerance that it currently promoted on college campuses as documented in the video represented by the trailer below. No where on campus is the intolerance for minority viewpoint stronger than in the teachings of Civil War and Reconstruction history.

Harper Lee’s Predecessor

(April 23, 2018) Thirteen years before Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 at age 34, fellow Alabaman Joe David Brown released his first novel, Stars in My Crown, in 1947 when he was thirty two years old. Both stories are fictional memoirs about white male relatives in the impoverished South told from a child’s viewpoint. In one case the narrator is a Depression-era daughter and in the other he is a Reconstruction-era grandson. The corrupting influence of racism is central to both stories which Hollywood later adapted into movies by the same names.

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The lesser-known Brown completed five novels before he died at age sixty in 1976.  Kings Go Forth is based upon his World War II experiences and was well ahead of its time. Addie Pray draws upon his knowledge of confidence games as practiced in the South by ne’er-do-wells during the Great Depression. Kings was released in 1956 and Addie in 1971.

In Kings two American soldiers compete for the affections of a beautiful French girl, Monique. Sam is an exemplary officer and Britt an enlisted man. Sam has Monique all to himself but hesitates to propose when she reveals that her deceased father is black. She says she is reluctant to marry any American under the circumstances. Resolving his own racial prejudice after a week of introspection Sam decides he wants to marry Monique come what may. To celebrate he takes her on a dinner date where she meets Britt.

Although Britt is only a corporal he has demonstrated bravery and ingenuity in combat and his father owns a Mississippi textile mill. But he is also a lady’s-man and a schemer who originally tried to avoid military service by attempting to bribe his draft board. Not until after Britt wins Monique and the pair consummate their love does he learn of her mixed blood. He immediately abandons her, which drives Monique to suicide.

When Sam learns of Monique’s suicide he tells Britt that he will kill him when they return to the battlefront. Sam promises, however, that they will be facing each other when he makes the attempt so that Britt may defend himself. Meanwhile there’s a war to win and the two get caught up in a desperate battle with the Germans. Sam is badly wounded and Britt decides to surrender as the surrounding German soldiers approach the two Americans. Sam radios for American artillery support and directs a bombardment to the position that he and Britt were defending. Next, Sam awakens in a hospital with an amputated arm where he learns that Britt did not survive the bombardment.

In the movie version, Frank Sinatra plays Sam, Natalie Wood is Monique, and Tony Curtis is Britt.

Addie Pray is Brown’s signature work, which is best-known by its movie title, Paper Moon. Unfortunately, Hollywood transported the setting to Kansas from the Deep South where Brown placed it. The con-games he depicts were authentic to the South during the Great Depression where he learned them while writing for a Birmingham newspaper. Addie is the storyteller and a recently orphaned thirteen-year-old daughter of a prostitute who is taken into informal guardianship by a con-man who may, or may not, be her dad. Her guardian is Moses Pray who is commonly known by his nickname, “Long Boy,” which reflects his six-foot-three-inch height.

The pair scratch out a living through a variety of confidence games and by staying one step ahead of the law as they roam through the South. The language and expressions are regionally quintessential slang. For example, when Long Boy invites a prostitute to join them on their adventures Addie describes the buxom woman:

“Oh, my, that bosom! If Grant had met up with breastworks like that he never would have taken Vicksburg.”

Through a combination of experience, craft, and talent, Harper Lee and Joe David Brown portrayed their beloved South authentically but had the courage to challenge its faults. Their stories are devalued by changing them or moving their settings for politically correct purposes.


 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.

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* 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