King of the Hill

General Washington had not yet been appointed commander of the Continental Army. Nonetheless, the conflict against Great Britain, though running hot after Lexington and Concord, remained an informal, isolated brushfire in the eyes of the Crown. Still, the very presence of soldiers grated Bostonians, enough that outraged patriots plotted retaliation.

June 16th, after dark, these Sons of Liberty acted, digging in on Breeds Hill located near Bunker Hill, north of the city in Charles Town. All that night these newly minted Minutemen stacked preloaded-muskets, entrenched, and waited for sunrise. At first light, the startled Redcoats scrambled to form lines and launch an offensive against the rebels. Though holding the line through three assaults, the Bostonians, low on gunpowder, were forced to melt away into the surrounding area. The shocked Brits decided to call the contest a victory.

But as one royal officer candidly admitted, “if we win anymore like this, we’ll lose this war.”

That is the lesson of Bunker Hill, hold the high ground, and draw the fight uphill to a well-defended position.

General George Washington arrived in Boston the next month, taking command of the motley Continental Army. Positioning his inexperienced troops on the heights surrounding the city, Washington bluffed his military strengths. When actual heavy guns finally reached Washington, the Redcoats had had enough, and on March 17, 1776, all the King’s men evacuated to Canada.

Two philosophers on warfare, China’s Sun Tzu, and Prussian, Carl von Clauswitz had committed to paper their respective views on the value of the high ground. Sun Tzu in the 6th Century, and Clausewitz in the early 19th Century argued its significance. Much like that game, “King of the Hill,” we played as kids, the advantage belongs to the person on top. That essentially defines both tacticians principles.

Yet, physically holding a hill doesn’t go far enough. Both philosophers argued that a moral high ground is equally essential, an armed force must be clad with a virtuous cause. 

A higher moral purpose fills the sails to victory.

In 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, becoming America’s 16th President. That moment weighed with foreboding, as Southern States, one by one, chose to secede from the United States. The new President viewed this idea as impossible–statehood was not a revolving door. In his inaugural address. Lincoln spoke plainly, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

Then Lincoln, and the the rest of the nation watched and waited. On April 12, 1861 guns thundered from Charleston, South Carolina, smashing into Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbor.

Boom, done and done.

The Rebs drew first blood, and Lincoln, by default, seized the moral high ground. After a duration of four long, bloody years, the rebellion collapsed, and slavery ended.

Both the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, elevated America’s retaliation as morally justified, drawing the nation into both World War Two, and the War on Terror.

Everyone around the world is watching the Ukrainian people standing tall against a mystifying invasion by Russia. Ukrainian President Zelensky has brilliantly executed the lessons of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz. His articulate, moral leadership, and courage has more than won the moral high ground test. In contrast, Vladimir Putin has proven his lack of preparation, and barbarity, assuring the Russian President an international pariah.

These principles are timeless and universal, not only in America, but in past conflicts like Thermopylae in the 5th Century, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1940.

Whether the Ukrainian President, is aware or not, he has benefitted from the teachings of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz, and this is Ukraine’s finest hour.

The possession of high ground may decide a battle, war or the fate of a nation.

Carl von Clausewitz

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and writer.

gailchumbley@chumbleg

Rebellions

The Republican Party emerged in 1854 as a voice for liberty, and of opportunity. Forged in sectional controversy, members dedicated themselves to one overriding priority, no slavery in America’s western territories. On that point the fledgling party stood firm.

A lawyer in Springfield, Abraham Lincoln, joined the growing party early, concerned, as were others, with escalating tensions between the North and South.

In 1860, Lincoln threw his very tall hat into the ring, and declared his candidacy for President. Defying considerable odds, Lincoln prevailed over other, more prominent Republicans at the GOP Convention in Chicago. Lincoln grasped the nomination. 

The South responded as one. If Lincoln won the Presidency, they would bolt the Union. He did win, and tried to reason with Southern States through his inaugural address. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

The sticking point of course, slavery. 

By the time Lincoln took the oath of office, eight Southern States had voted to secede from the Union. This president understood the fears of the South, and knew what drove the secessionists. He didn’t hate them, he did not want them punished. During the last year of the war Lincoln, in his second inaugural address gently offered an olive branch stating, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Lincoln’s lasting legacy held that the Civil War meant more than reunification of the states. His  “new birth of freedom” implied a higher ideal, the turmoil meant something more honorable, and timeless: the cause of humanity. The Emancipation Proclamation came first, then the 13th Amendment, forever freeing those held in bondage. This president took no credit for prevailing over the Rebels, hoping only to heal the divisions that fueled the rage.

His martyrdom on April 15,1865 left the GOP imprinted with Lincoln’s goodness, modesty, and nobility. This first Republican President endured four years of national hell, and never forgot his mission.

Lincoln met the Rebellion, and vanquished it.

America today hears no soaring rhetoric from the GOP, nor elegant prose, only hate speech and bellyaching. The GOP has severed the cords of duty to country, replacing patriotic obligation with an unapologetic lust for power, and self interest. 

For four years the taxpayers have been fleeced, and minorities targeted, the kind of intolerance Lincoln abhorred. Long standing alliances were cast aside as a self-serving dunce cozied up to America’s enemies. The Republican members of Congress have forsaken their obligation to country first, pretending and excusing that all was normal in the turbulent White House. 

The greatest harm perpetrated by, and enabled by the current GOP, is the violent attack on the heart of our democracy: the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The irony is rich. As the Republican Party grew from a rebellion, it will now perish from another.

Inheritance

Harry Truman understood the gravity of his duty right off. When FDR died in April, 1945, the newly installed Vice President got the word he was now president. And what a Herculean task he had before him. A world war to end, conferences abroad, shaping a new post-war world, and grappling with the human rights horrors in both Europe and in the Pacific. Add to all of that, he alone could order use of the newly completed Atomic Bomb.

On his White House desk, President Truman placed a sign, “The Buck Stops Here.” With that mission statement Harry Truman stepped up to his responsibilities despite the formidable challenges he faced.

Did Truman inherit the worst set of circumstances of any new president? Maybe? But it is open to debate.

America’s fourth President, James Madison, found himself  in one god-awful mess. His predecessor, Thomas Jefferson had tanked the US economy by closing American ports to all English and French trade. Those two powerful rivals had been at war a long time, and made a practice of interfering with America’s neutrality and transatlantic shipping. Despite Jefferson’s actions the issue of seizing US ships and kidnapping sailors never stopped. By 1812 President Madison asked for a declaration of war against England that, in the end accomplished nothing but a burned out White House and defaced Capitol.

Following the lackluster administrations of Franklin Pierce, then James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln stepped into a firestorm of crisis. Divisions over the institution of slavery had reached critical mass, and Lincoln’s election was enough for Southern States to cut ties with the North. So hated was Lincoln, that his name did not appear on the ballot below the Mason-Dixon. And the fiery trial of war commenced.

The Election of 1932 became a referendum on Herbert Hoover, and the Republican presidents who had served since 1920. Poor Hoover happened to be in the White House when the economic music stopped, and the economy bottomed out. And that was that for Hoover. His name remained a pejorative until his death. 

Franklin Roosevelt prevailed that 1932 election, in fact won in a landslide victory. Somehow Roosevelt maintained his confident smile though he, too, faced one hell of a national disaster. 

In his inaugural address the new President reassured the public saying fear was all we had to fear. FDR then ordered a banking “holiday,” coating the dismal reality of bank failures in less menacing terms-a holiday. From his first hundred days the new President directed a bewildered Congress to approve his “New Deal.” 

The coming of the Second World War shifted domestic policies to foreign threats as the world fell into autocratic disarray. FDR shifted his attention to the coming war. When President Roosevelt died suddenly, poor Harry Truman was in the hot seat. But that is where I want to end the history lesson.

If any new President has had a disaster to confront, it is Joe Biden. Without fanfare or showboating Biden, too, has stepped up to the difficulties testing our nation. 

Much like Truman and Lincoln before, 46 is grappling with a world in chaos, and a divided people at home. In another ironic twist, like Madison, Biden witnessed, a second violent desecration of the US Capitol.

To his credit, though his predecessor left a long trail of rubble, Biden understands the traditional role of Chief Executive, while clearly many Americans have forgotten, or worse, rejected. Biden is addressing the issues testing our country, not only for those who elected him, but those who did not. An American President can do no less.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. She has completed her second play, “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Forgotten Cause

In 1938, old men aided by young volunteers, shuffled off of trains arriving from all points of the compass. For the most part these gents were in their early 90’s, and looked forward to comradeship and scheduled festivities. 

Organizers had planned three full days of tours, music, and ceremony, complete with a flyover and fireworks. The Battle of Gettysburg’s 75th commemoration had begun.

There had been an earlier anniversary event, in 1913, but this time visitors knew this gathering would be the last. Those in attendance understood, as did the elderly guests of honor, that those who hadn’t fallen on that Pennsylvania battlefield in 1863, would soon join the brethren who had. 

After this commemoration, the narrative would pass from eye witness accounts into America’s collective memory.  

No longer wielding rifles, many maneuvered the grounds pushed about in wheel chairs, walkers, and canes. Old men brandished ear trumpets to catch the orations of the many visiting dignitaries. The men listened as President Franklin Roosevelt delivered remarks dedicating the Eternal Light Memorial, located near the “Bloody Angle.” Battlefield tours transported veterans, and well-wishers from Cemetery Hill, to Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top, the Devils Den, and finally the exposed fields of Picketts Charge.

There, at the stone fence, gray old men in blue, and others in gray and butternut, shook hands at the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. The original climax of a fateful third day offensive, signaling the eventual doom of the the Confederacy.

Ironically, left uninvited were the scores of African Americans who had harbored such hope for new lives after emancipation. Unfortunately, Reconstruction had ended with little to show for progress or Civil Rights. Instead Freedmen found a new enslavement, recognizable in every aspect, but iron chains.

Forty Acres and a Mule had never materialized, as promised by victorious Union commanders. Now relegated to tenant farming, Freedmen struggled in the same conditions as before, but now as sharecroppers. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty, black farmers found insufficient harvests debited into the next season, and then the next, in an endless cycle of debt peonage. 

The Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy V Ferguson legalized segregation by insisting any negative correlation attached to feelings of inferiority lived only in the minds of Blacks. Separate water fountains, parks, transportation, and schools worked just fine for the elderly veterans from the North and South.

The moral force of the Civil War had died as thoroughly as the nearly 7-million who perished upon the scattered battlefields.Those veterans who reunited in 1938 Pennsylvania found white identity and brotherhood far outranked any new birth of freedom envisioned by President Lincoln 75 years earlier.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Ms Chumbley recently completed her second stage play, “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The More They Stay The Same

This poem surfaced after the end of the Civil War. The sentiment speaks for itself. Despite the passage of time, America is again dealing with those who still cling to grievances held for nearly a century and a half.

(*Note The Freedman’s Bureau was a government agency that aided newly freed people of color. **Pardons were granted to those who swore an oath of loyalty to the Union after the war.)

The past is rather instructive, as we find ourselves still dealing with the same raw hate.

Play the link at the bottom of this post, and follow along with the words.

O I’m a good old rebel,
Now that’s just what I am.
For this “fair land of freedom”
I do not care a damn.
I’m glad I fit against it,
I only wish we’d won,
And I don’t want no pardon
For anything I done.

I hates the Constitution,
This great republic too,
I hates the Freedmans’ Buro,
In uniforms of blue.
I hates the nasty eagle,
With all his braggs and fuss,
The lyin’ thievin’ Yankees,
I hates ’em wuss and wuss.

I hates the Yankees nation
And everything they do,
I hates the Declaration,
Of Independence, too.
I hates the glorious Union-
‘Tis dripping with our blood-
I hates their striped banner,
I fit it all I could

I rode with Robert E. Lee,
For three year near about,
Got wounded in four places
And starved at Point Lookout
I caught the rheumatism
A campin’ in the snow,
But I killed a chance o’Yankees
I’d like to kill some mo’.

Three hundred thousand Yankees
Is still in Southern dust,
We got three hundred thousand
Before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever
And Southern steel and shot,
I wish they was three million
Instead of what we got.

I can’t take up my musket
And fight ’em now no more,
But I ain’t going to love ’em,
Now that is sarten sure,
And I don’t want no pardon
For what I was and am.
I won’t be reconstructed,
And I don’t care a damn.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Gail also has penned “Wolf By The Ears,” a play in two acts.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Worst White Man

This is an image from a college history text. The visual illustrates Southern society in years prior to the Civil War. There are plenty of inferences to derive from this chart; the most revealing being how little America has changed.

Although the election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked a high note in the story of America, our coming of age, so to speak, the violent reaction has exposed an old low.

In the aftermath of the Obama years, ugly ghosts have been summoned and let loose. Specifically, as in the years prior to the Civil War, the Southern aristocracy has, once again, activated yeoman, and lower class whites to fight their battles. How? Reinforcing the idea that a black president was one too many for today’s white aristocracy.

The depth of modern racism honestly feels surprising, proving that America actually hasn’t grown at all. In fact, a new civil war is underway, unleashing a fresh wave of fury from the most dangerous creature of all–an armed underclass white man. Planter society still reigns, and has incited those who believed they’ve been shortchanged by a complex, and changing country.

The link tying the 1860’s to the 21st Century? Convincing poor whites that the worst white man is still a better president than the best black man. (And I don’t mean Joe Biden.)

This needed to be said, so I said it.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January; Figure Eight.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Die was Cast

The threat of disunion appeared long before either the Civil War, or the insurrection on January 6, 2021. The architects laying the chaotic cornerstone? President John Adams, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.

David McCullough in his celebrated biography, John Adams, portrayed this Founding Father as a brilliant man, and that is true. However, his self righteous streak succeeded in undercutting his talent and better judgement. As the second president of the United States, John Adams, proved to be a prickly, and thin-skinned chief executive. A dour Yankee, Adams could not tolerate public criticism, and as many later presidents, came to view the press as an adversary—enemies of the government.

In a rage over newspapers excoriating his administration, Adams shepherded the Sedition Act through Congress in 1798. Opposition editors soon found themselves in the President’s cross hairs, and some were actually jailed. The Alien Act, also passed in 1798, aimed to delay new voters, by lengthening time for naturalization, as immigrants were certain to vote against Adams and his Federalist Party. (Hmm. The press, immigrants, and voting rights. Imagine that).

Jefferson, (still Adams’ Vice President), promptly took action to counter Adams’ wrong-headed legislation.

Launching a full out, but anonymous denunciation of the Adams Administration, Vice President Jefferson published tracts vilifying Adams, and emphasized the sovereignty of the states guaranteed under 10th Amendment.

Returning from France, where he had served as American ambassador, Jefferson had been appalled by the powerful Federal Constitution created in his absence. As a ‘natural aristocrat,’ and slave master, Jefferson was unwilling to cede power to any higher authority than himself, and his fellow patricians. Instead the “Sage of Monticello,” asserted the right of states not to obey laws they didn’t like.

Two state legislatures agreed to debate Jefferson’s counter measures, Virginia and Kentucky. Penned secretly by Jefferson, and Madison, these resolutions insisted the states were the final arbiters of what was legally binding. A new term emerged from this controversy—Nullification.

The die was cast, the seeds of disunion sown. In the years following, nullification intensified, fertilized particularly in 1832 by John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina Senator. That that state became the first to secede in 1861, sparking the US Civil War, is no coincidence.

The traitors who invaded the halls of Congress last January took their cue from Jefferson, as if they, too battled the evils of John Adams. Scapegoating the media, immigrants and the Federal government has left a long, bloody stain on American history. As I write, the States of Georgia, and Texas among others, are attempting to limit voting rights once again. Texas has also taken a nullifying stance, limiting a woman’s right to her own body, despite Federal protections.                        

No government has a self-destruct button, none. John Adam’s pique, and Thomas Jefferson’s reaction stamped an incompatibility that still, today, inflames American politics. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Don’t They Realize?

The attack did not come until almost 5:00pm on July 2, 1863. The Yankees under the command of General George Meade held on to Cemetery Hill, and Ridge, south of the town of Gettysburg. Situated across the open ground of boulders, corn fields, and wheat fields waited the Confederates commanded by Robert E Lee. Lee’s forces had failed to capture the high ground on day one, and were forced to settle for the less desirable Seminary Ridge.

On the second day, action had concentrated on the southern end of the battle field. Fighting in the Wheat Field, and the Devil’s Den played prelude to the main assault on Little Round Top.

Two summits lay at the end of Cemetery Ridge, and the smaller of the two was vulnerable to any flanking maneuver by the Rebs massing below. The Alabamians could have deployed around the far left and attack inside Union lines. But, that risk lessened when Union Colonel Strong Vincent detected Confederates assembling below.

Boys from Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Maine were ordered to double-quick around rubble strewn Little Round Top. At the end of that line stood Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine. And as many already know, Chamberlain held off three attacks by the Rebs climbing the steep terrain. Out of ammo, Colonel Chamberlain finally ordered a bayonet charge, downhill against the foe. And it worked. 

Less well known were the Yankee soldiers who guarded the hill that night. Under orders to watch for any further action, these guards could hear the moans and piteous cries of their comrades dying below in the darkness.

One of the soldiers was said to have remarked, “Don’t they realize they saved our country today?”

And those words bear repeating on this sad day of honor and remembrance.

To the faithful members of the US Capitol police force, you who defended our nation on January 6, “Don’t you realize you saved our country today?”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-volume memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January:Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Final Straw

The September 11th attacks in 2001 got our school year off to a strange start. There was, of course, the horror, and a lot of unplanned discussion about the Middle East. The course I taught covered Early American History through Reconstruction, and I couldn’t afford to take a lot of time to debrief. Nonetheless, the events of that day provided useful lessons that surfaced later in the year. 

By the following Spring the curriculum arrived to the series of calamities that led to the Civil War. The last compromises crumbled, and blood had spilled at Harpers Ferry. The story then turned to John Brown, God’s Avenging Angel, determined to slay slavery. 

Brown is a complicated figure, believing he had been chosen by the Great Jehovah, to draw the sword of mighty justice.

And a debatable issue offered itself.

The link to Brown and 911 suspect, a French-Moroccan terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, centered on jail time. Moussaoui’s trial was underway and came up in class discussion.

John Brown had been captured in Harpers Ferry, after a standoff with Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E Lee. Intending to spark a slave insurrection, Brown and his raiders, including his sons had occupied the Federal arsenal in that river town. But once the military arrived the old man subsequently surrendered. 

As Brown awaited trial in Charles Town Virginia, the Governor, Henry Wise permitted reporters from Northern papers to interview Old Brown. To the press, Brown passionately defended his cause, insisting it was the work of righteousness. Newspaper readers throughout the North responded with support and compassion, gathering disciples for the cause of freedom.

However, in the South, the old man’s name was reviled. Viewed as a criminal below the Mason-Dixon, Brown was vilified as evil incarnate, hell bent on inciting slaves to murder their masters. Military training increased across the South, in preparation to defend their “peculiar institution.”

John Brown’s raid is often seen as one of the final straws, aside from Lincoln’s election the next year, leading to secession and a force of arms.

Prior to of horror of 911, Zacarias Moussaoui was detained in Minnesota. His immigration status apparently had irregularities, and his flight school enrollment tripped some security wires. At his trial, Moussaoui put on a noisy show, acting as his own attorney, and pitching frequent temper tantrums in the courtroom for all to see, including journalists. Initially the accused insisted he was innocent, then later confessed. Quite the circus.

During and following the conviction of the terrorist, Moussaoui demanded the judge permit him access to the press. The French terrorist had his side of the story, and he wanted to air his grievances on a national and international platform.

The judge said no. And Moussaoui today is a lifer, quietly incarcerated at Super Max in Florence, Colorado, and barely a footnote in history.

The significance of this complicated, and controversial comparison? Surely the Civil War would have transpired regardless of Brown; slavery was inconsistent in a nation that professed liberty.

But that fifteen minutes of notoriety can produce real dangerous blowback.  

In light of the events on January 6th, thank the Lord DJT is grounded from social media.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles on Kindle.