One of the hazards of not studying history is that it can badly distort the present and the future as well as the past. This is a particular problem for younger Americans as, over the past three decades or so, there has been so little evidence of cultural progress in government, the arts, the economy, or America’s reputation in the world. Rare exceptions include cyber technology and, somewhat surprisingly, the declining death rate of war. For an older American like myself, on the other hand, history was an act of progress for nearly my first forty years or so – from the New Deal to the 1960s and up to Reagan. I didn’t have to study this history; I lived it.
And besides, history was a more important item in the curriculum when I was young. One thing I learned from it was that mankind in many ways improved through time, not just technologically thanks to things like the printing press but morally through such things as the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of women. One of the reasons post-1980s America has discouraged me so much is that this improvement seems to be determinedly fading away.
I was reminded of this by the argument, offered by Donald Trump’s lawyer among others, that George Washington was no better than Robert E Lee because the former also owned slaves. This ignores the fact that one of the aforementioned help to create the republic while the other attempted to destroy it. And if we as a people had not improved in decency and other ways since the 18th century, what purpose was there for us to be on the planet at all?
In other words, the fact that those in the past were flawed in ways that we now soundly reject is a sign of human progress and our judgment should be based on the time someone lived not by the standards that have evolved. As Barbara Tuchman put it, “To understand the choices open to people of another time, one must limit oneself to what they knew; see the past in its own clothes, as it were, not in ours.”
And though I far prefer Benjamin Franklin or Frederick Douglass to George Washington, for all the latter’s flaws I greatly favor him over Robert E. Lee who, even by the standards of his own time, tried to destroy something great and good.
Remember further, before judging the past, that some day we will share responsibility for the planet’s climate and, perhaps, even for still believing in war, which may have become the abolition cause of another era.
But there is no way we can handle such issues by listening to the likes of Donald Trump’s lawyer. A Don Dileo put it once, “History is the sum total of the things they’re not telling us.”
Sam Smith – This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One, the biggest war that most Americans never think about.
I’m one of the exceptions for two reasons. The first is that I came to comprehend an aspect of the conflict that is generally ignored. World War One helped introduce a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, “attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive.” Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery — willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.
For example, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Richard Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half the officers assigned to them. But the internal bureaucratic logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance during this period: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. It is no accident that Hitler and Lenin turned to the teachings of American technocratic apostle Frederick Winslow Taylor to carry out their evil or that the Nazis used IBM cards to help manage their death camps. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.
The second reason I can’t forget the war is that, while it occurred long before my birth, it caused death to hang like a shroud over my family. My mother’s brother was killed by a shell as he he served as liaison between airplanes and the artillery – part of a three year period in which my grandfather also lost his wife and sister.
My uncle’s first cousin was an aviator with the famed Lafayette Escadrille who lost his life a few months earlier while on a scouting mission over German territory. According to one account, “It was almost a year later that the remains of his charred Spad were located about three kilometers south of Montdidier, with a lone grave close by, marked with broken pieces of the plane.”The Escadrille consisted of American pilots who joined the French Army to fight against the Germans before the US entered the war. In all, 65 American pilots died while in the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps.
Another uncle whom I would never meet came back from the war and, according to one of his grandsons, never smiled again. He had been involved in moving dead bodies from the front. Suffering from what we would call post traumatic stress syndrome, he committed suicide ten years later.
Finally, one of my father’s brothers was lost near Lisbon while serving as an officer aboard Admiral William Halsey’s first command. The then Commander Halsey wrote my grandfather:
“Your son was in charge of the forecastle and with the men was busy all the way down the river securing things for sea. As we got to the entrance it was seen there was a large sea running, so we slowed barely to steerage way. We finally ordered all hands off the forecastle. Your son requested permission to stay and secure a hatch. As the safety of the vessel depended on this hatch being secured, permission was granted. . . Scarcely three minutes later a high white wall of water was seen bearing down on us. There was no time to yell more than ‘hold on’ when the sea hit us. When it cleared, even high up on the bridge where I was, I was gasping for breath from the effects of the water. Life buoys were let go and searchlights were turned on, but your son and young Arthur were never seen again.”
When history hits that close to home that often, it’s hard to ignore or forget
During the Civil War, my great great grandfather on my father’s side, Isaac Ogden, vainly argued with his young son Ludlow not to join the Confederates. Ludlow had lived in the south and was opposed to slavery but supported secession. He wrote his father, “I cannot in the hour of danger desert the friends of so many years” as he went off to join a Louisiana regiment and later the Texas Rangers. He was killed near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, while on a scouting expedition.
As it became clear that Ludlow was joining the South, his mother Sarah faced another fear: her younger son Morris – only 17 – might be drafted and end up in battle against his own brother. She arranged to have her own brother, a brigadier general in the Union Army, take Morris onto his staff. He survived the war but only barely, once escaping from a hotel moments before it was attacked by using a sheet as rope to reach his horse and once on a boat raided by Confederates thanks to his location being kept a secret by a young woman southern spy he had earlier befriended. My grandmother later wrote, “They shot and stabbed all the paymasters and Union men, but Morris, shivering in his berth, was untouched. Morris went again into the saloon. The girl was still sitting coolly at the piano surrounded by the bodies of the men who had been killed. . . He went quickly away. He said he never wanted to see her again.”
The Civil War not only divided a nation; it divided families.
The second story took place in the same months as those shown in the movie and might have even affected them if Lincoln had ever heard about it.
My mother’s mother, Charlotte, had come from a line of plantation-holders and slave owners. My grandmother’s father, Charles Moses Shepherd Jr., had been wounded at the battle of Shiloh and was taken prisoner at the end of the war by the Union Army.
After the war, Shepherd’s whereabouts become exceedingly murky, but it is clear that he ran into deep financial trouble and essentially abandoned his children to their maternal grandmother, Ruhama, who took them to Philadelphia to live with a relative. My grandmother Charlotte was less than two years old at the time. When one of Charlotte’s brothers died, Ruhama wrote her own son:
Mr. H telegraphed the sad news to Mr. Shepherd, very fully; Then I wrote to him on the day the darling was buried, & Lotty H. had written to him during his illness; but not a line has been rec[eive]d from him. Can he be sick, or maybe he is away. We don’t understand not hearing from him.
In 1871, his plantation, Golden Grove, was almost seized by the tax collector. In 1872, a court ruled against Shepherd in an indebtedness case. No news or funds reached Philadelphia. Nothing more is known of him until his death in 1876.
Charlotte’s brother Kenner was a wanderer and sometime railroad brakeman, his travels took him as far as western Montana. He was a seedy-looking heavy drinker described by one Louisiana acquaintance as a “mean bastard.”
After Charlotte married my grandfather, Kenner would periodically show up seeking money. According to my sister Meredith and her husband Chad, who looked into the matter:
“These visits, building upon memories of her father’s neglect and financial ineptitude, intensified [Charlotte’s] distrust of Shepherds, and are said to have upset her so much that her husband . . . eventually had to pay the man off to get rid of him. “
Kenner had been named after a side of the family that fared considerably better, at least for a while. According to one account:
William Kenner arrived at Cannes Brulees at the turn of the century.. . . . Kenner played an important role in organizing a company which received a franchise from the United States Congress to dig a large canal across New Orleans. The canal was never started, but Canal Street received its name from the aborted project.
Kenner bought a plantation and married Mary Minor, the 14 year old daughter of Stephen “Don Estavan” Minor who had served as Spanish governor of Mississippi, “swatted mosquitos and hacked through cane thickets” as he later helped Andrew Ellicott plot the 39th parallel across the top of Florida and owned a goodly chunk of Natchez. Mary Minor gave birth to four sons and then died at the age of 27.
Six years later a trusted partner of Kenner absconded with most of the assets of the business and three years after that, William Kenner died at the age of 47. The Kenner boys, all under 16, were rescued by a family friend, Creole lawyer Etienne Masareau. They went on to own three large plantations, roughly occupying the current town of Kenner.
The most unusual of the four was, Duncan Kenner, the brother of my great great grandfather. Kenner had become a major slaveowner and one of the South’s richest men, reputedly losing $20,000 in one card game. He also married a Creole.
After my mother’s death, I stumbled across a little known part of his story told in a book I found on one of her shelves, Retrospections of an Active Life, published in 1909, authored by John Bigelow, former Union envoy in Paris:
Kenner was a member of the Confederate Congress. He had long been satisfied that it was impossible to prosecute the war to a successful issue without a recognition of the Confederacy by at least one of the maritime powers of western Europe, into the ports of which the Southern States might carry their prizes, make repairs, and get supplies. He was also satisfied that they would never secure recognition or any substantial aid so long as the foundations of their projected new empire rested on slavery. He communicated these views to President Davis. The President asked what he had to propose in the premises. He said he wanted the President to authorize a special envoy to offer to the governments of England and France to put an end to slavery in the Confederacy if they would recognize the South as a sovereign power. The President consented to submit the suggestion to several of the leading members of the Congress, by some of whom it was roughly handled.
They protested that the emancipation of the slaves would ruin them, etc. Mr. Kenner told them that he and his family owned more slaves, probably, than all the other members of the Congress put together, and that he was asking no one to make sacrifices which he was not ready to make himself. The result of the consultations was that Kenner himself was sent abroad by President Davis, either with or without the confirmation of the Senate, with full powers to negotiate for recognition on the basis of emancipation. As soon as he received his commission he took a special train to Wilmington, North Carolina. On his arrival there he found either that the blockade was too strict, or that there was no suitable transportation available from that port, and returned at once to Richmond, determined to go by the way of the Potomac and New York. When he mentioned his purpose to Davis, “Why, :Kenner,” he exclaimed, “there is not a gambler in the country who won’t know you. You will certainly be captured.” Kenner had been one of the leading turfmen in the South for a generation. “I am not afraid of that,” said Kenner. “There is not a gambler who knows me who would betray me. I am going to New York.”
Being a very bald man, Kenner provided himself with a brown wig as his chief if not only disguise, and proceeded on his journey. By hook and by crook he finally reached New York and drove to the Metropolitan Hotel. Discovering that the waiters were colored, and that there were too many chances of some of them knowing him, also that ex-Senator Foote of Mississippi, who had deserted the Confederates, was residing at this hotel, he succeeded in getting a note to Mr. Hildreth, then managing the New York Hotel, and an old and trusty friend, asking that a certain room on the lower floor and north side of the hotel be made ready for him, and named the hour that he might be expected, adding that he could not sign the letter, but was a friend. At the time named he went to the hotel and directly to the room he had ordered. The fireman was preparing a fire. While at his work at the grate the door opened, and in walked Hildreth to see who his ‘friend,’ and new lodger might be. Upon recognizing Kenner, he exclaimed, “Good God!” He was checked from continuing by observing Kenner’s fingers on his lips.
They talked upon indifferent matters until the fireman left, and then Hildreth asked Kenner, what could have brought him to New York at such a time. “Do you know,” said he, “that it is as much as your life is worth to be found here?”
“I am going to sail in the English steamer on Saturday, ” said Kenner, and I wish to stay quietly with you until then. You can denounce me to the government if you choose, but I know you won’t.”
Kenner did not leave his room till he left it in a cab for the steamer. His meals were served in his room by Hildreth’s personal attendant. As soon as Kenner arrived in London he sought an interview with Palmerston, to whom he unfolded his mission. Palmerston said that his proposition could not be entertained without the concurrence of the Emperor of France.
“With the Emperor’s concurrence would you give us recognition?” asked Kenner.
“That,” replied Palmerston, “would be a subject for consideration when the case presents itself, and may depend upon circumstances which cannot be foreseen.” Kenner went to Paris and had an interview with the Emperor, who told him he would do whatever England was willing to do in the premises, and would do nothing without her.
Kenner then returned to Palmerston to report the Emperor’s answer. During his absence, the news of Sherman’s successful march through the South had reached London.
Palmerston’s answer to him was, “It is too late.”
Bigelow’s story is mostly confirmed, with some variation, by a fascinating recent book about a little known aspect of the Civil War, how Britain was, and wasn’t, involved. Armanda Foreman, in A World on Fire, describes how Jefferson Davis attempted to deal with the prospects of total defeat:
President Davis decided to make one last appeal to Britain. With nothing left to offer, and with no threat of blackmail or an Anglo-American war to dangle, Davis resorted to the previously unthinkable: he proposed to abolish slavery in return for recognition of Southern independence. On December 27, 1864, he asked Duncan F. Kenner, one of his few remaining allies in the Confederate Congress, to go to London to speak to Lord Palmerston.. .. Meanwhile, Davis arranged a secret meeting between Kenner and the Confederate congressional leaders, who reluctantly accepted that there was no alternative.
This was approximately one month after Sherman’s march on Georgia and even as the fierce debate in the Thirteenth Amendment, so amazingly pictured in “Lincoln,” was underway.
When Davis’s envoy, Duncan Kenner, reached New York on February 6 after a hazardous trek through the back roads of Virginia and Maryland, he discovered that the slavery issue had been taken out of his hands. On January 21, the U.S. House of Representatives had finally voted – by 119 to 56 – to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, thus abolishing slavery on American soil. … Kenner also learned that the two governments had engaged in halfhearted peace negotiations [also in the movie] on February 3 – known as the Hampton Roads Conference – which collapsed on the first day These were all good reasons for him to give up, but he was determined to see the mission through to completion. He boarded the Southampton-bound America on February 11, posing as a Frenchman in order to confuse the detectives standing guard at the pier. Kenner believed the fate of the Confederacy lay in his hands: Wilmington was gone, Charleston was tottering, and Richmond was surrounded. But if Lord Palmerston could be persuaded that there was no longer any moral impediment to Southern recognition, Kenner still had faith that the combination of Britain’s navy and Confederate courage would win independence for the South.”
Duncan Kenner arrived in England in February 24.
The battles of Petersburg and Appomattox took place March 25 to April 9 and the Civil War came to an end
Writes Foreman, “Even if Duncan Kenner had succeeded in obtaining Southern recognition from Palmerston in exchange for emancipation … it was too late for the Confederacy.”
Sam Smith, 2002
I have considered Pilgrims among the most overrated American historical figures ever since I wrote a college paper in Robert G. Albion’s class on forty recorded voyages to New England before the Mayflower. And that didn’t include all the ones made by those who didn’t – or didn’t know how – to write it down. About a decade before the Pilgrims, for example, Samuel Champlain not only visited Plymouth harbor, he charted it, including Plymouth Rock.
But history favors occupiers over explorers, hunters, fishermen, and traders. And the literate over the literate. If you want to be remembered here, you have to stay here. And write it down.
A wonderful history of Maine, “Lobster Coast,” also suggests that the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving dinner didn’t hold up all that well. That winter the Pilgrims were forced to go to get food from some of their pre-arriving countrymen manning a trading post on a Maine island.
The first Europeans to visit New England waters were probably Scandinavian fishermen, who could make the northern transit of the Atlantic and never be more than a few hundred miles from shore. John and Sebastian Cabot, five years after Columbus, passed through and charted Maine’s Casco Bay on their way from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. By 1602, when Bartholomew Gosnold arrived at Cape Neddick, his presence was considered by the Indians to be less than remarkable. John Bereton, the chronicler of the voyage, wrote:
“One who seemed to be their commander wore a coat of black work, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band. . . They spoke divers Christian words and seemed to understand more than we, for lack of language, could comprehend. . . They pronounced our language with great facility; for one of them sitting by me, upon occasion I spake smilingly to him with these words: ‘How now sirha are you so saucy with my tobacco,’ which words (without any further repetition) he suddenly spake so plaine and distinctly as if he had been a long scholar in the language.”
As far back as 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, arriving to the west of Casco Bay near Ogunquit, got a reception from the Indians that suggested more than a little previous contact with Europeans or “the boat people” as the natives called them. The Indians insisted on standing on a cliff and trading with Verrazano’s crew by use of a rope. “We found no courtesy in them,” Verrazano complained. Worse they rounded out the transaction by “showing their buttocks and laughing immoderately.”
As for Robert G. Albion, who got your editor started on all of this, his course was considered a “gut” at Harvard, heavily attended by football players and other lightweights. While I fit the latter category, I also was an avid sailor and an admirer of Albion’s mentor, maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morrison. Much later, I realized another reason Albion didn’t get much credit at Harvard; he was, well ahead of his time, a social historian on a campus that believed deeply that history was the work of great men. Nonetheless, another student of Albion named his motor yacht the “Robert G. Albion,” making the professor probably the only Harvard professor ever to reach this pinnacle of honor.