The Historiat : RealClearHistory Blog

Deadliest Shipwreck Was in America, Not Great Britain

Brandon Christensen - April 23, 2018


On April 27, 1865, a steamboat carrying just over 2,000 people, most of them Union soldiers headed home to the North, exploded and sank in the Mississippi River, killing nearly all aboard. The soldiers were mostly recently released Union POWs from Southern labor camps, who were weak and still recovering from various illnesses. To complicate matters, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed on April 26 and the entire focus of the media establishment at the time was on that breaking news, rather than the Sultana disaster.

This sinking was the deadliest maritime disaster in American history, and it couldn’t have happened at a tougher time. April meant that the waters of the Mississippi still had icy run-offs, and the port nearest where the Sultana exploded, Memphis, was technically an occupied city, being part of the Confederacy. It didn’t officially surrender until May 13. In addition to the temperature of the water and the city the Sultana was headed toward, annual spring flooding made the journey upriver that much more difficult.

To make matters worse, the Sultana was built with an official, legal capacity of 376 passengers in mind, and many steamboat captains suspected the captain of the Sultana (J. Cass Mason, who died in the explosion) of taking a bribe to take the POWs -- and overload the vessel.

At the time of the explosion, there were 70 paying passengers, 85 crew members, and 2,000 soldiers (some the recently freed Union POWs, some guards, and some Southern POWs placed on Union parole). Overworked and undermanned, the Sultana exploded around 2 a.m. local time. The explosion ripped through the decks just above the boiler room, immediately killing many of the just-released POWs. The explosion also incinerated the pilot’s room, and as the entire ship went up in flames, it drifted pilotless along the Mississippi.

Plain-Speaking Pyle Chronicled America Before WW II

Richard Brownell - April 19, 2018


They weren’t heroic figures as they moved forward one at a time, a few seconds apart. You think of attackers as being savage and bold. These men were hesitant and cautious. They were really the hunters, but they looked like the hunted. There was a confused excitement and a grim anxiety on their faces.

They seemed terribly pathetic to me. They weren’t warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice.

“Anticipation is the Worst,” Normandy, July 13, 1944

Ernie Pyle is best known for his frontline reporting of the life of the common soldier during World War II. His dispatches gave Americans on the home front an honest view of the hardships, grit, and heroism of G.I.s who fought to keep the world safe from tyranny. His drive to capture this side of the war put him in harm’s way on many occasions, and it cost him his life on April 18, 1945 while covering the war in the Pacific.

On Smoking Pot and America's Freedoms

Brandon Christensen - April 16, 2018


The history of April 20 has become something of an urban legend in American culture over the past few decades. April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, and was the day of the infamous Columbine High School shooting in 1999, the equally infamous Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster of 2010, and, as “4:20,” the day of pot smoking.

The first time I ever got high was on 4:20, before school started. I hail from northern California, from the Mother Lode to be specific. Mormon high school students attend seminary every morning before school starts. I usually caught a ride from one of them, on his way to school from seminary. We’ll call him “Cody.” Cody drove a small black Toyota that had two 10-inch subwoofers in the trunk. Cody loved weed, and so, inevitably, I discovered the pot culture thanks to a generous Mormon.

The history of marijuana in the United States was, for the longest time, hazy at best, and at its worst, prone to tall tales and outright fictions. However, Barney Warf, a geographer at the University of Kansas, produced an excellent 2014 article titled “High points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis” that deserves to be the foundational work for the history of marijuana in the United States. According to Warf’s scholarship, smokable marijuana first entered the United States through Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-11, and began proliferating throughout the country’s seaports soon after it appeared. (This seems a bit too sudden and a bit too clean for my tastes. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that smokable marijuana had long been a staple of coastal American cities. It’s  more likely that 1910 is when marijuana began appearing in the regional and national press.) In the 1920s, weed was popular not only with Mexican refugees but also African-Americans and hippies (“Bohemians”), so governments and their crackdowns on its use were largely tolerated up until the 1990s.

During the much-loathed Prohibition era (1920-33), marijuana was targeted along with alcohol and other substances deemed by prohibitionists to be dangerous (economist Bruce Yandle has a famous article on this type of regulation that's worth reading). Unlike alcohol, which was re-legalized in 1933, marijuana ended up in a legal limbo that continues to this day. The legal, political, economic, and cultural battles surrounding marijuana use in the United States have helped shape three generations of lawyers, businesspeople, activists, academics, and medical professionals. Thanks to the questions posed by marijuana prohibition, rigorous and creative arguments in favor of the drug’s legalization have contributed to a better understanding of our federal system of government, of Judeo-Christian morality, and non-Western ethical systems (pot-smoking “Buddhists” are practically cliche today), of the human body and especially the brain, of global trading networks throughout history, and of intercultural exchange and communication. Freedom still defines us as a society. Freedom binds Americans together. Freedom drives our conversations and our institutional actors. This may be difficult to remember as the news cycle grows ever more sensational, but this quiet, humble truth still remains.

A Southerner’s Unlucky Place in Civil War History

Richard Brownell - April 11, 2018


Many people crave to be eyewitnesses to history, seeing firsthand the moments that shape our lives and our world. Wilmer McLean would likely respectfully disagree.

At the onset of the Civil War, Wilmer McLean was living a good life. Born in Manassas, Va. in 1814, he spent several years as co-owner of a successful wholesale grocery business. In 1853, he married a widow by the name of Virginia Mason, who came from a wealthy family. In 1854, they inherited a 1,200-acre plantation in Manassas that straddled a stream called Bull Run.

McLean, a veteran of the Virginia militia and lifelong resident of the Old Dominion, was certainly sympathetic to the Confederate cause. But he was 46 years old when shots were fired at Fort Sumter and too old to fight. However, there were other ways that McLean could support his fellow Virginians.

In July 1861, as Confederate and Union forces squared off and prepared for battle 25 miles outside of Washington, D.C., McLean was approached by Confederate officers for assistance. Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard was in need of a headquarters from which to command his forces, and McLean’s property was perfectly situated to fill the need.

Horrors Didn't End When Bataan Death March Did

Brandon Christensen - April 9, 2018


On April 9, 1942, the United States of America surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army after the bloody, months-long Battle of Bataan ended. The battle itself was among the most important in the entire Pacific war campaign for a number of reasons.

First, the surrender of ~75,000 American and Filipino forces was the largest in American (and Filipino) history. Second, the losing effort on the part of MacArthur and the Filipinos significantly slowed down the Japanese effort to quickly overtake Euro-American colonial possessions in Asia. Finally, the logistics of transferring such a large number of prisoners of war burdened the Japanese so heavily that Tokyo’s hypocrisy - as a liberating anti-colonial power - was highlighted for all other Asians to see clearly.


Bataan itself is a peninsula situated across the Manila Bay from Manila itself (Manila is, and has been since 1571, the capital and largest city in the Philippines). When the peninsula fell to the Japanese, Tokyo was immediately presented with a difficult conundrum: how transport ~75,000 captured soldiers and another ~40,000 civilians to an inland location far from the fighting. The man tasked with coordinating the transfer of prisoners and refugees, Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, began marching prisoners on April 10.


As the prisoners were being massed together for the long, 60-70 mile march to Capas, Japanese soldiers executed hundreds of Filipino prisoners and robbed many more of their possessions. Along the road, the prisoners, as well as Japanese infantry tasked with guarding the prisoners, were subjected to harsh jungle conditions (sweltering humidity, tropical rainstorms, snakes and bugs, malaria, dysentery, etc.) and brutal treatment by the guards. Because the Japanese were not prepared for the sheer amount of prisoners, food rations were few and often withheld by equally hungry Japanese guards, beatings were common, and executions random. Torture methods included stripping captives naked and forcing them sit within sight of drinkable water pools, the “sun treatment,” where prisoners were stripped of cover and forced to march in the hot sun, or dangling food and water in front of the marchers before beating the taunted with a rifle butt. If a prisoner fell, he was stabbed with a bayonet, shot, or run over by a truck.

Fremont Attack Set Stage for Native American Cleansing

Brandon Christensen - April 2, 2018


On April 5, 1846, a small military expedition led by Captain John Fremont attacked a seasonal Native American village on the Sacramento River and killed hundreds of Wintu, mostly women and children. The estimates for the official number of dead vary from 120-900. This act of brutality on the part of the American government wasn’t the worst of America’s long and storied frontier violence. Rather, the butchery and callousness with which Fremont’s men undertook their mission is a sublime example of the closing of the American frontier and the settlers’ belief in manifest destiny.


It would be another month before the United States officially declared war on Mexico and seized California from the newly-independent country south of its border. Yet the writing was already on the wall, especially in northern California.


The butchery itself happened near what is present-day Redding, Calif., about 160 miles north of Sacramento. When Fremont and his men arrived in Sacramento, a group of American squatters claimed that a group of Indians, encouraged by Mexican authorities, was planning an attack on squatter settlements near the Sacramento River in Reading’s Ranch (present-day Redding). This may or may not have been true, as there are certainly plenty of historical examples from all parts of the republic to suggest that Indian attacks on squatter settlements were common. But it is equally illustrative of how the United States came to acquire so much Native American land in spite of the treaties Washington signed with various “tribes.”


Captain Fremont - who went on to be California’s first senator and the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate - continued his killing spree, marching his men up the Sacramento River into Oregon, murdering Native Americans on sight, and only turning back to California when word of the war with Mexico reached him.

Truth Is, Ike Loved Politics and Being President

Richard Brownell - March 29, 2018


Dwight D. Eisenhower often portrayed the image of being above politics. His supposed reluctance to accept the nomination for the presidency and the quiet, dignified way he carried himself while in the White House gave the appearance of a man who didn’t like to get mixed up in political matters. Some would even assume that he didn't really like being president. They would be mistaken.

Politics were in Eisenhower’s blood. So much so that had it not been for the 22nd Amendment, he would have run for a third term. He appeared reluctant to hit the campaign trail for his Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, but that was because Ike was no fan of Dick, not because he didn't want to get involved in the election. As Geoffrey Perret notes in his biography Eisenhower, when Eisenhower hit the campaign trail, it was not so much in support of Nixon as against Kennedy, “whom he mockingly called ‘the young genius.’” More than anything, Eisenhower wanted to protect his own record, which Kennedy was disparaging in the press.

When Kennedy won, though, Eisenhower did not ignore his request for advice on the issues of the day, particularly in dealing with the Soviets, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was something new in the presidential experience. It had not been practice for presidents to look to their predecessors for advice and counsel. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson after him, wisely recognized that Ike was a wealth of information and ideas; the man who defeated the Nazis and the man who faced down the Soviets and led America through some of the Cold War’s most tumultuous years.

Eisenhower got involved in the 1964 presidential campaign and took to the airwaves in defense of Barry Goldwater. The conservative candidate was having a tough time unifying the party, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had labeled Goldwater an extremist. The Goldwater campaign thought that Eisenhower could rally the GOP behind their candidate, but he was initially reluctant to do so. Goldwater had once called the Eisenhower administration a “dime-store New Deal,” which annoyed Ike, who had a long memory and was known to carry a grudge or two. In the spirit of party unity, Eisenhower recorded a television spot for Goldwater, and made an appearance at the 1964 Republican National Convention, but it made no difference. Lyndon Johnson defeated Goldwater in an historic drubbing.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain

Brandon Christensen - March 26, 2018


On March 29, 1939, Francisco Franco and his fascist forces overran the capital city of Spain, Madrid, and declared victory over their enemies, the Spanish Republicans. The Spanish Civil War is still a hot-button issue for ideological partisans on both sides of the aisle. At stake in these arguments is how to define what constitutes the left-wing and the right-wing in politics. Essays by Jacques Delacroix, Jonah Goldberg, John HolboPseudoerasmus, and the late Ralph Raico are worth reading if you want to delve into whether fascism was left- or right-wing.


When the war started, the Nazis and the Soviets began sending weapons; the Nazis to Franco’s camp, the Soviets to the Republican’s camp. (The Republicans were a hodgepodge of socialists, liberals, and anarchists who banded together to defend the democratically-elected government Franco and his allies loathed.) The governments of democracies (and their undemocratic colonial possessions) officially steered clear of the war, though. London persuaded Paris to avoid the war in order to avoid conflict with Berlin, and Washington was in the midst of a post-World War I isolationist phase.


Although the governments of the democratic West eschewed involvement and declared neutrality, there was no legislation at the time prohibiting individual or collective efforts from participating in the war. So thousands of volunteers from the U.K. and its settler colonies, like George Orwell, and the United States set out for Spain in order to “fight fascism.” The American volunteers formed the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, and of the 3,015 volunteers who fought on the side of the Republicans, 681 lost their lives.


The volunteers were almost all political leftists with sympathies for the Soviet Union and socialism. (In 1936, Stalin’s and Lenin’s crimes against Soviet citizens were underreported, to put it kindly.) American volunteers first arrived in Spain in 1937 after the Republicans had issued a plea worldwide for volunteers to help them fight the better organized, Franco-led Nationalists. The Yankee volunteers formed the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in January of 1937 and Republican Generals ordered the battalion to the front lines the very next month, after 30 days of training.

Birth and Rise of the Republican Party

Richard Brownell - March 22, 2018


This week is the 164th anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party, one of the oldest functioning political parties in the world. The moment of the creation of what would later be nicknamed the Grand Old Party can be traced back to March 20, 1854 in Ripon, Wisc., where a group of men came together to establish an anti-slavery coalition to meet the growing danger that slavery posed to the country. (Some say that Michigan is actually the birthplace of the Republican Party, and it was there that the first statewide Republican convention took place, but that wasn’t until July 6 of the same year.)

For decades, the precarious political balance between free and slave states was held together by the Missouri Compromise. Slavery would not be allowed to expand above a certain latitude, which was just fine with politicians in the North. Southerners, however, believed that they were being unfairly hemmed in, and they wanted change.

On Jan. 4, 1854, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois gave the South what it wanted and upset the established order by introducing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This bill essentially nullified the Missouri Compromise and would allow for states entering the union the power to decide on whether to allow slavery by popular sovereignty.

The bill set off a political firestorm, but opponents of slavery found they had little recourse against the Democrats. The once powerful Whig Party had long been a champion of the anti-slavery cause, but by 1854 it was a shadow of its former self. Its lackluster performance in recent elections signified that the Whigs did not hold a strong enough national coalition to beat back the pro-slavery forces. A new coalition would be needed to turn the tide.

Lesson of Stamp Act: Colonies Are Costly

Brandon Christensen - March 19, 2018


On March 22, 1765, the parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Stamp Act. It lasted less than a year. Repealed on March 18, 1766, the act was the first of many taxes levied on British North America between 1765-76, when war broke out between 13 of the U.K.’s North American colonies and London itself.

Why did London begin taxing its North American colonies so heavily? The U.K. went to war with France on behalf of the colonists in America. The war became worldwide and the U.K. expanded its territory significantly at the expense of France. The colonists were British citizens and considered themselves to be culturally and politically British. The British considered the colonists British, too, but the upper classes were disdainful of their counterparts in the New World, which led to grudges.

The tax on stamps (and the goods that followed) was put into place on British America to pay for the war that, again, London fought on behalf of its colonial factions. The Americans were doing what economists call “rent-seeking,” and they didn’t want to pay their share once the bill came due. Most observers at the time saw this clearly enough. Adam Smith was perhaps the Crown’s most eloquent defender, because while he correctly pinned the blame for the war on the colonists, he argued that it would be cheaper to let the colonists go instead of trying to forcibly tax them and risk a full-scale war. Edmund Burke, a conservative with political aspirations at the time of the Stamp Act, was also keenly aware of the fact that the colonists were to blame, and that it would be folly to try and make them pay for the war.

So what was the issue that the colonists wanted to go to war over? Land. Specifically, land that belonged to Native Americans in the “northwest,” also known as the Ohio River Valley. The problem was that the British Empire, of which the colonies were a part of, had signed treaties with various Native American powers in the region, as well as the French. (The predecessors of the current American world order - the Dutch and the British empires - had a long and storied tradition of signing treaties with “indigenous” polities. This can be hard to fathom sometimes because the United States only deals with nation-states rather than various types of political units. This has less to do with American ignorance and more to do with the fact that after World War II, the international world order that the Americans helped patch together was based on nation-states, a new approach to international relations. Colonists in British North America constantly, ceaselessly ignored the treaties their government had signed with foreign polities and the hostilities eventually boiled over into a global war between France, the United Kingdom, and numerous polities in North America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. (The various Native American players in the region, as well as the French, were no angels either, but that’s a different story for a different day.)

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