The Historiat : RealClearHistory Blog

A Savage Beating in Halls of Congress

Pat Horan - May 21, 2015

Although gridlock is a constant theme in conversations surrounding today’s Congress, at least the partisanship wasn’t bloody between members. On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Massachusetts’ abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the old Senate Chamber.

Two days earlier, on the Senate floor, Sumner denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed popular sovereignty in Kansas and Nebraska and led to violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery camps. Sumner went on to personally insult the acts’ sponsors, Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Butler had insulted Sumner for his abolitionist views, so the Massachusetts senator returned the favor by claiming Butler had a slave mistress and by mocking his speech impediment caused by a stroke.

Brooks, Butler’s cousin, was not happy. He approached Sumner, telling him, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." The South Carolinian then hit Sumner over the head and struck him again and again for a full minute. The bleeding Sumner was carried away, and Brooks calmly walked away.

Brooks, a hero to the South, was convicted of assault and fined, but he received no prison sentence. He won reelection to his congressional seat, but he died before the next term. Sumner, considered a martyr in the North, suffered from head trauma and post-traumatic stress. It would be three years before he returned to the Senate, but that would not stop him from becoming President Abraham Lincoln’s closest friend in the Upper Chamber.

Lusitania Sinks With Her Secrets

Pat Horan - May 6, 2015

On May 1, 1915, the Royal Mail Ship Lusitania set sail from New York City bound for Liverpool. Though the massive four-stack ocean liner was a merchant and passenger vessel, among its cargo, according to the ship manifest, were munitions for the British forces in World War I. This would have been a secret to the civilian passengers aboard, but the German navy believed that civilian ships were carrying military supplies across the Atlantic.

The beginning of widespread submarine warfare began in the Great War. German U-boats initially complied with international rules protecting neutral ships, but soon fired upon any vessel suspected of transporting war materiel or troops. The Lusitania, in particular, put Germany in a difficult position. An attack on a ship carrying American civilians would almost certainly cause outrage, but Germany was becoming increasingly desperate to isolate Great Britain.

On the day RMS Lusitania set sail, the German Embassy issued a warning in American newspapers that any ship flying British colors, including civilian vessels, would be liable to attack in declared war zones. That did not dissuade over 1,000 passengers, including 197 Americans, from stepping on board.

On May 7, the Lusitania entered the Irish Sea as the German U-boat U-20 was heading to its home port after destroying several ships. What followed would change the course of the Great War.

Patrick: Slave, Shepherd and Saint

Pat Horan - March 16, 2015

We all know that Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and that on March 17 we celebrate him – even if some of us do so more for fun than for religious reasons. Only two letters written by Patrick, the “Confession” and the “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” survive. They are considered to be the best sources about his life. With such little evidence, it’s difficult to know much about Ireland’s patron saint, but these are the details generally accepted by historians and those interested in Irish history and folklore.

Patrick was most likely born sometime in the late fourth or early fifth century in the final days of Roman-controlled Britain. Although the son of a Christian deacon, he was not a religious boy. At age 16, he was captured by Irish raiders who took him back to the Emerald Isle. For six lonely, cold years, he tended to sheep as a slave. During these years, he turned to faith and constantly prayed to God.

When he was 22, the shepherd Patrick heard a voice telling him that a ship would take him home. He fled his master and boarded a ship to return home. After spending some time home, he studied for the priesthood in Auxerre in Gaul (France) under Saint Germanus.

One night, a vision of man named “Victorious” came to Patrick telling him to return to Ireland to evangelize its people. In the “Confession,” Patrick recounted:

[The man’s] name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’

An Audacious Plan for War With Cuba

Samuel Chi - March 12, 2015

In March 1962, the Cold War was ratcheting up to its most heated moment, with the world on the brink of a nuclear confrontation. A major flash point was the island nation just 90 miles off the Florida coast, having fallen into communist hands after a bloody revolution.

The U.S. had tried to free Cuba from Fidel Castro's rule in April 1961, just three months after John F. Kennedy succeeded Dwight D. Eisenhower as president. The CIA-backed plan ended in miserable failure and the military brass was itching to have another go. This time, America would stop at nothing - not even killing its own citizens and soldiers - to provoke a war with Castro's regime.

Operation Northwoods was conceived by the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and presented to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara by JCS Chairman Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer on March 13, 1962. The plan called for various plots against American civilian and military targets, on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and U.S. mainland - by U.S. government operatives.

That's right. Using Americans to kill and maim other Americans and blame it on Cuba. Now, the idea wasn't terribly original when it comes to warfare. The Second World War was sparked by not one but two such "false flag" incidents - the Japanese at the Marco Polo Bridge in China in 1937 and Nazi Germany in Gleiwitz near the Polish border in 1939.

Valentine's Day Massacre Stuns Chicago

Pat Horan - February 13, 2015

On the night of Feb. 13, 1929, Chicago's North Side Gang leader, George "Bugs" Moran, received a phone call from an unknown bootlegger, offering him a shipment of Old Log Cabin whiskey at the phenomenal price of $57 per case. To make the deal even sweeter, the bootlegger claimed he stole the shipment from Moran's nemesis, Al Capone. Moran agreed to have the booze delivered to his warehouse headquarters at 2122 North Clark St. the next day. What followed would be the infamous Saint Valentine's Day Massacre.

Since the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, the black market sale of alcohol had become an immensely lucrative business, and organized criminals violently competed for turf and profits. Chicago became the symbol of this bloodshed. The two most powerful factions were the largely Irish- and Polish-American North Side Gang and the predominantly Italian-American South Side Gang, also known as the Chicago Outfit.

Full-scale war broke out in 1924 when Chicago Outfit leader Alphonse Capone decided to have his North Side rival, Dion O'Banion, "whacked" in O'Banion's florist shop headquarters.

The North Side's new leader, Hymie Weiss, and his lieutenants (including Moran) forced Capone's partner into hiding and killed several prominent South Side allies. Capone retaliated by ordering a hit on Weiss in 1926, which eventually left Moran in charge.

U-2 and Cold War That Nearly Turned Hot

Samuel Chi - February 9, 2015

On the Glienicke Bridge in East Germany on Feb. 10, 1962, a prisoner exchange took place. The Americans handed over Soviet spy Rudolf Abel while receiving in return Capt. Francis Gary Powers, who had spent nearly two years as a captive after his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union.

Glienicke Bridge, connecting Allied-controlled West Berlin to Potsdam in East Germany, was known as the Bridge of Spies. After the Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961, the restricted crossing became the place where NATO and Warsaw Pact members frequently swapped prisoners. The exchange in February 1962 was the first of its kind on the bridge, and it marked an important point in the escalation of the Cold War that nearly became a nuclear showdown.

Powers, who had left the Air Force and joined the CIA in 1956, was flying a U-2 over Soviet territory on May 1, 1960 on a mission to detect missile installations. Equipped with state-of-the-art high-resolution photo technology and capable of flying at 70,000 feet, the U-2 had eluded the Russians because their fighter planes simply could not reach such an altitude. But on that day, one of the eight Soviet surface-to-air missiles connected with Powers' plane near the Ural Mountains. Powers had to bail, parachuting to safety, but was quickly detained by Soviet personnel on the ground.

Powers' capture took place two weeks before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was to meet U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Paris in the first summit between the Cold War leaders in five years. There had been hopeful signs that the superpower standoff might finally thaw seven years after Joseph Stalin's death, but the downing of the U-2 and capture of Powers changed all that.

The Final Days of Winston Churchill

Pat Horan - January 28, 2015

Possessing an almost superhuman energy, Sir Winston Churchill attempted to remain in public life until the very end. While he had spent his entire life battling political obstacles and depression and eventually triumphing over these challenges, by the 1960s, his indefatigable character had begun to give way to physical and mental deterioration.

Although the Conservatives increased their numbers in the 1959 election, Churchill’s majority fell precipitously. A series of strokes and a bad fall in 1962 crippled him, and he was unable to attend the 1963 White House ceremony making him an honorary citizen of the United States. He suffered a final stroke in January 1965.

At age 90, Churchill died on Jan. 24, 1965, 70 years to the day of his father’s death. According to historian Paul Johnson, his last words were: “I am bored with it all,” but then added, “The journey has been enjoyable and well-worth making – once!"

How Jackson Repelled British at New Orleans

Pat Horan - January 7, 2015

Thursday is the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans, perhaps the most important battle fought after a peace deal had already been made.

By the end of 1814, the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain had been raging for two and a half years, and both sides were weary. The British had burned Washington, D.C., and largely crippled the American economy, but they had failed to take Baltimore and suffered a decisive loss at the Battle of Plattsburgh in New York. American General William Henry Harrison had defeated Great Britain and her Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames near Ontario. The Indian coalition’s leader, Tecumseh, died in the battle, and the coalition crumbled after his death.

Wartime taxation, years of fighting against the now-defeated Napoleon, and the rebuilding of Europe were also factors in the British desire for peace. On Christmas Eve that year, after months of negotiations, diplomats signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended hostilities and entailed no barrier changes. The War of 1812 had been a stalemate.

Why We Sing Auld Lang Syne

Pat Horan - December 29, 2014

New Year’s – as the clock strikes midnight, we pop open the champagne, watch the Times Square ball drop, kiss our loved ones, and sing the well-known Scottish poem-turned-song. But why? None of the lyrics invoke the arrival of January 1st.

Using lyrics of an older ballad, the Scottish Romantic poet Robert Burns penned the famous verses in 1788. The words would be only be modified for non-Scots to understand, and the song is still widely sung around the world, particularly in English-speaking countries.

As Sally explains to Harry in a famous 1989 romantic comedy, “Auld Lang Syne” is about remembering old friends. The lyrics ask whether we should forget our memories of the past and of those we knew: "Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?" No, we should remember and raise a toast to the past: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Christmas Truce on the Western Front

Pat Horan - December 23, 2014

By December 1914, World War I’s Western Front had turned into a stalemate of trench warfare and barbed wires. The quick end to the war that both the Allies and the Central Powers had envisioned never materialized. Pope Benedict XV implored the belligerent governments for a Christmas ceasefire, so “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” His request was officially refused.

Despite the rejection of the pope’s call for peace and military prohibitions against fraternizing with the enemy, thousands of soldiers – as many as 100,000 – made their own truce that year. On Christmas Eve, British troops saw lights from Christmas trees and heard German voices singing carols across the narrow “No Man’s Land” as night fell. The British joined in singing.

The following day, Allied and German soldiers, not knowing whether they might be shot, crawled out of their trenches to greet one another. They shook hands and exchanged small gifts such as cigarettes and cigars. Both sides took time to bury and honor their dead. Personal accounts also tell of games of football (soccer) between the two sides.

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