Archive for the ‘History’ Category


Revisionist History

April 7, 2010

Update:  Ha!  Sometimes it hurts being this good!

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history; and


Virginia governor Robert McDonnell has officially proclaimed April as “Confederate History Month for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”  Given that Virginia was the heart of the Confederacy (what with its capitol being Richmond and Robert E. Lee being it’s native son) I don’t really have an issue with the idea, but there’s a right way to honor your state’s history and a wrong way.  Guess which one the Governor took?  Just like Lee deciding to get involved in a war of attrition with a far larger enemy, McDonnell has adopted the wrong strategy.  If you read the proclamation ( ) you’ll find that there are certain peculiarities with the wording that smack of revisionist history, the goal being to play up the good parts of the confederacy and downplay the negative.  Here are some of the juicier sections:

1.  Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today

“Long recognized” means ‘we’ve always honored our Confederate past, who said we haven’t?’ Except that the previous two governors didn’t issue proclamations honoring the Confederacy.  The language is trying to create a false impression of Virginia’s take on its history in order to make the present course of action appear acceptable.  It’s the bureaucratic version of saying, ‘it’s alright because we’ve always done it this way.’

2.  …all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army…

In other words, ‘you didn’t beat us, we simply ran out of ammo.’  It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that the south still has the ability to rise again should they feel the federal government is assuming too much control over the states (i.e. health care – and don’t think for a second that this proclamation isn’t in part a response to the health care bill and the belief that the federal government has overstepped it’s bounds.  In this case, Governor McDonnell is manipulating the history of the civil war to play up the state’s rights aspect in preparation for the upcoming legal battle over the right of the federal government to impose health care legislation on the states.  See )

3.  …this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live,…

First off, ‘defining’ tends to connote a good thing.  Defining is never used in the context of a bad thing.  You never hear the phrase, ‘Slavery was a defining chapter for African Americans.’  While it’s not explicitly stated, the implication is that the Civil War was a good thing for Virginia.  Same with ‘understood and remembered by all,’ which is another way of saying ‘people today don’t really understand what the war was about and we need to educate them.’  Finally, “in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live” specifically implies that some of the issues over which the civil war were fought were legitimate (states rights) and others were not (slavery), which brings up my final point…

4.  In the entire proclamation, not once does the word ‘Slavery’ appear.  How on earth do you talk about the civil war and not even mention slavery except in some vague references to ‘the context of the time?’  The only people who don’t think slavery was a key issue over which the civil war was fought are the people who come from the south.  The argument is that the south seceded because the federal government was growing too strong and the states felt they would become ‘fiefdoms’ of an all-powerful government.  While it is certainly true that state’s rights were an issue, what these revisionists fail to mention is that the reason southern states felt emasculated was because of attempts by the north to limit the expansion of slavery!  Every major point of friction between the North and the South in the decades leading up to the Civil War were over the expansion of slavery into the expanding territories of the U.S.  From the Missouri Compromise to the Nullification Crisis to the Compromise of 1850 to the Kansas/Nebraska Act, every one of them was fundamentally over the issue of slavery expanding into the territories. 

Senator Sumner (MA) was almost beaten to death by Representative Butler (SC) in Congress over a pro-abolition speech Sumner had made. But you're right...I'm sure slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War...

Furthermore, the South had been threatening secession for decades by the time the election of 1860 came around, and it was only because a Republican (remember, Republicans started out as a left wing party that championed the rights of all citizens, in contrast to the right wing Democratic party that supported the expansion of slavery) won the election by stating he opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories (but did not believe the federal government had the power to abolition slavery where it already existed) did the south actually make good on their threats.  In other words, yes, the civil war was over slavery!!  Whether slavery was presented as a moral, political, or economic issue is another matter, but in the end, slavery was the main reason that brought about the civil war and for Governor McDonnell to proclaim April ‘Confederate History Month’ without acknowledging this is just plain revisionist history at its worst.  If you want to honor the history of your state, by all means do so, but you can’t cherry pick the parts you like and ignore the parts you don’t.  That’s the problem with history:   It’s rarely black and white, even when that’s what it’s about.


Strange currency

July 10, 2009

Today I purchased a bottle of OJ and when I got my change it included a one dollar coin.  I thought, “Oh, a one dollar coin, that’s interesting, don’t see too many of those in circulation…oh well.” and I continued on my way.  When I got back to my desk I looked at the coin and saw that instead of Sacagawea, John Tyler was on the coin!  I had no idea that John Tyler was on any currency, let alone a one dollar coin!  For those of you not acquainted with the late, great John Tyler, allow me to capture his rather amazing life in a few short pithy sentence.  John Tyler was our 10th president, and the first person to reach the position without being elected.  That’s right, John Tyler was the Vice President to William Henry Harrison, who famously died after only 30 days in office.  Tyler, who is forever referred to as ‘our accidental president,’ rushed back to Washington on hearing the news, an action he immediately regreted.  At that point in time our Consitutions wasn’t really clear on the whole line of succession thing, so it wasn’t clear whether the VP would simply become the President, of if he was still the VP filling in for the President until new elections could be held.  Tyler, in a bold and daring move that set a precedent for how VPs should act when their President dies, made it abundantly clear that he was the President and that anyone not happy with that could go screw.  All seemed to be resolved when it suddenly occurred to everyone in Tyler’s party (Whig) that no one really knew what Tyler stood for.  Rightfully concerned, Henry Clay (a Whig, and big one at that) confronted Tyler demanding to know his position on the major issues of the day, such as Tarrifs, Banks, and other such sexy topics, and quickly realized that Tyler oppossed everything that Harrison had been elected to do.  Awkward.  And so the next few uneventful years were spent with the Whigs in Congress continually submitting new pieces of legislation for the President’s approval, and the President routinely vetoing them.   (He did however annex Texas, something the rest of the U.S. is still pissed about.)  Once election time came around Tyler was swiftly voted out of office.  After a couple failed attempts to get back in the game, Tyler figured northern politics were for suckers and sided with the Confederacy where he became a representative in the Confederate congress, thus making him the only President to ever secede from his own country.  Put that in your history books and smoke it!

All of this is a long winded way of saying, “What the hell is he doing on my one dollar coin!”


Historical Irony

April 9, 2009


Update:  Captain Bainbridge has been redeemed!  It took 206 years but his soul can finally rest knowing he positively contributed to the mission of combatting the pirate threat to U.S. merchant vessels.  In case you hadn’t heard, Navy SEALS, operating on board USS Bainbridge, killed three of the four pirates and rescued the U.S. Captain being held hostage.  Of course, if Bainbridge had done his job right the first time…but nonetheless, a great day for the Navy!

Does anyone find it ironic that the ship the Navy dispatched to the Somali coast to deal with the pirate threat is the USS Bainbridge, a ship named after a Navy Captain who in 1803 ran his ship aground while pursuing pirates off the coast of Africa? 


Captain William "hard luck" Bainbridge ("hard luck" because he was continually getting caught in bad situations that the Navy would always find to not be his fault)

As a quick reminder, Captain William Bainbridge was a U.S. Navy Captain who in 1803 was ordered to sail as part of a squadron of Navy ships to deal with the pirates based out of Tripoli who were harassing U.S. merchant  vessels.  This problem was not new, and for many years the pirates would capture U.S. merchant vessels and demand that a ransom be paid.  The U.S. government would always pay the ransom and simply considered this ‘tribute’ as part of the cost of doing business.  Eventually, the U.S. had enough, and President Jefferson (who, ironically, had been elected on a campaign of diminishing the Navy) ordered the construction of a naval fleet big enough to dispatch to the Mediterranean to stop the pirate attacks.  Captain Bainbridge was appointed Captain of the USS Philadelphia, a 44 gun frigate, and along with several other vessels under the command of Commodore Preble, set sail for the Mediterranean. 


The USS Philadelphia after striking an uncharted reef. Not good.

Once they got there, the squadron met with little success, as the pirates would continually evade the U.S. ships by sailing close to shore, where the deep draft of the U.S. vessels prevented them from pursuing.  (They could have used a Littoral Combat Ship!)  Things finally came to a head one day when Captain Bainbridge decided he had had enough, and ordered the Philadelphia to pursue the pirates who were fleeing to shore.  Sure enough, the Philadelphia hit an uncharted reef and ran aground.  Despite the best attempts of the crew to free the ship, the Philadelphia was stuck fast, and it wasn’t long before the pirates came back, boarded the ship, captured the crew, and claimed the ship for their own. 


USS Philadelphia after Lt. Stephen Decatur and his boarding party were done. Give that man a medal!

So, not only was Bainbridge responsible for running his ship aground, he was also responsible for allowing the enemy to capture his vessel, free it, and take it for their own.  To give you an idea of what a 44 gun frigate would equate to today, it would be equivalent to the pirates capturing one of our aircraft carriers.  This was a huge deal and could very well have dramatically altered the balance of power in the region.  Fortunately, a daring young Lieutenant named Stephen Decatur serving under Commodore Preble came up with the brilliant plan of sneaking into the harbor where the Philadelphia was moored, climbing on board while disguised as pirates, and setting the ship on fire so it could not be used against them.  Think of the rebels trying to attack the death star, but without being able to use the force.  That’s what these guys were doing.  In the end the plan worked, and Decatur and his crew escaped back to their ships after successfully destroying the Philadelphia.    The Barbary Wars continued for several more years, but the pirate threat was largely defeated and U.S. naval might had been shown to the world.  Admiral Nelson, the British hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, is noted to have referred to Decatur’s raid as, “The most daring act of the age.”  Nice. 


USS Bainbridge (DDG 96), a state of the art Destroyer. Hope your nav equipment is working!

So, if history is any guide, what is going to happen is that the USS Bainbridge will run aground while pursuing these pirates, and the Navy will have to dispatch USS Decatur (under the command of the USS Preble, of course) to go and rescue them.  If I were the Captain of the USS Bainbridge, I would be incredibly mindful of the historical forces in play.  Captain Bainbridge may not have had GPS, but with this much as stake, I wouldn’t be taking any chances!