The Bloody Shirt

Principled soldiers of conscience, the victorious army knew they had served well, defending the Constitution to the last full measure.

May of 1865 witnessed Washington’s Grand Review of the Union Army. Smartly uniformed soldiers filed past crowds, in a river of Union blue. The guns had silenced a mere month earlier at Appomattox, Virginia; the Republic preserved.

A brilliant sun glinted off polished bayonets, and the parade route decorated with miles of silk banners, tattered company colors and patriotic bunting. Rejoicing greeted the passing soldiers in shouts and fluttering handkerchiefs. Flower petals rained down in a fragrant carpet of gratitude. 

The bloody war finally, truly, had ended. 

One year later, near Springfield, Illinois, a group of veterans established a fraternal association, the Grand Army of the Republic. The idea caught fire nationally as other veterans founded their own local chapters; a place men could remember, share, and grieve for lost friends. Soon these war horses got busy extending their service to those they had defended.

First, survivors lent aid to disabled fellow veterans, assistance to widows and their dependents, and orphan homes. Soon preserving battle sites added to the group’s outreach. Before long members began seeking electoral office to further serve the nation.

A story has it General Benjamin Butler, now a Congressman, grew extremely agitated while speechifying, and produced a torn, and bloody shirt he claimed came from the battlefield. Soon the practice of “waving the bloody shirt,” invoking war credentials, became customary for candidates. The saying “vote the way you shot,” launched the careers of numerous politicians. 

Presidents from Ulysses Grant, (1868-1876) through William McKinley (1896-1901) had faced the rebels on the battlefield.*

War memorials and monuments mushroomed, funded with GAR donations. Reunions, benevolent societies, veterans homes, and hospitals kept local chapters busy. In fact, much of GAR efforts were eventually assumed by the Federal Government, particularly pensions for those who had served.

Over time survivors of the Civil War dwindled in number. However, the organization soldiered on until 1956 when it finally faded. Loosely related, though more a coincidence, our last five star general was serving as president when the GAR closed its doors. President Dwight David Eisenhower, who kept a farm in Gettysburg, happened to occupy the White House.

This brotherhood, this Grand Army of the Republic, rose to defend our democracy in the mid-19th Century. This model of valor, and sacrifice shaped the character of the military for years to come. 

But one truth is quite clear, no officer ever advocated for a coup, and there was not one sucker or loser in their ranks.

In 2021 we can do no less.

*Chester Arthur served in the New York Militia, Grover Cleveland did not serve.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, author and playwright. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Masterpiece

Russia and the US didn’t have much contact in the 19th Century. A rumor had once circulated insisting presidential candidate, John Quincy Adams had procured American virgins for the Russian Czar as a young diplomat. Not true, but there it is. 

Still the political tyranny of Russia was widely understood in America. Lincoln condemned the racism and intolerance stateside, remarking that Russia’s oppression was, at least, less hypocritical. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward later negotiated a purchase for Alaska with Russia. Seward’s Ice Box, 1867 newspapers scoffed.

Some sixty years later, during World War One, revolutionaries deposed the Czar, and later murdered him, and his family. The US shipped Doughboys to France, and dispatched American forces to Archangel, to aid the White Russians in defeating the Bolsheviks. The Whites failed.

In the newly founded USSR, Vladimir Lenin formed the Comintern with the express aim of exporting Communism worldwide, prompting the first American Red Scare.

Then came Depression and World War Two. Josef Stalin, a ruthless despot, struck a nonaggression deal with Hitler, splitting Poland as a buffer. Neither trusted the other, and in 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. End of alliance.

After Pearl Harbor the Russians found themselves allied to Britain and the US. Stalin didn’t trust Washington, and Washington didn’t trust Stalin. Not only had the Russians cut and run during WWI, but recently had signed this treaty with Hitler.

Before the Second World War ended, Stalin signaled his intentions by spreading the Red Army throughout Eastern Europe. Western allies relented and allowed Soviets forces first into Berlin, where Communists held that sector until 1989.

The second Red Scare hit America hard. Stalin’s operatives managed to lift atomic and hydrogen bomb intelligence. The Berlin Wall was built, and the entire Soviet Sphere of Influence made for an intense Cold War. Conflicts popped up in America, and around the world. Sputnik, the U2 incident, the Rosenbergs execution, Joe McCarthy hearings, duck and cover drills, and the black list ruining countless careers. Proxy wars cast a real chill over the free world. 

Some of America’s greatest Cold Warriors included President Eisenhower, JFK, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. These Chief Executives understood that any agreements with the Kremlin required verification. Our Soviet rivals were seasoned operatives, and no ally of the west.

So where does this story leave us? Clearly the Kremlin is no friend. Spy networks, election hackers, and embedded operatives are perpetual threats, that is for sure. Maria Butina, the little red groupie of the NRA, for one. So, when an American President smiles and pays court to Vladimir Putin the proof is clear. 

The Russian government is patient, and that patience has paid off. Putin’s masterpiece? He elevated a Russian asset to the White House, and convinced GOP voters to look the other way. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Richer Than Myth

We all closed our eyes and directed to imagine a stage play. The lights dim to darkness and the curtains open revealing a maid busy at a fireplace feather dusting the mantel.

I dutifully shut my eyes envisioning white marble and busts of philosophers as the servant did her thing.The instructor asked us to further imagine the play’s star dramatically entering from the wings. She asked what would we do as an audience? Clap of course, because the story is about to begin.

Right?

And that dear reader is the model history educators have employed for eons. America was just waiting for white folks to appear, so the story could begin. The implication is that nothing of significance had yet happened. Just the maid dusting the mantel.

To accept that John Wayne or James Arness won the west is but a myth for films and television. American history in noway resembles an episode of The Waltons. The reality of the narrative, stripping away the fiction is much richer when including the whole story.

Mining and ranching customs in America are largely of Spanish origin. Standard size horses spread northward from Mexico as escapees from Hernan Cortes and other conquistadors. The rendezvous system came to be under the French, and their Huron fur-trading partners. From totems, to kivas, to longhouses indigenous people developed distinct cultures. New World foods like corn and potatoes conquered Europe, and African exploitation introduced American traditions in music, food and language.

In short, the story of America didn’t start with Plymouth Rock, nor Jamestown. It isn’t sunbonnet madonnas, bravely trudging west, or white hatted heroes saving the day.

No clear lines separate villains from heroes. If the myth makes you feel good, watch “Lonesome Dove,” or “The Alamo.” Keep in mind both are works of fiction. If it’s accuracy you’re after, crack a history book, or catch a Ken Burns documentary.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

No Fooling

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, 1964

“. . .the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Short run, or long run, popular beliefs seem to come and go. An idea that gains traction in one generation is frequently cast off with time and fresher understanding. The quality that sustains ideas must rest upon a moral high ground; an affirming principle.

Hear me out.

On April 12, 1861, the opening shots of Civil War thundered over Charleston Harbor. The South Carolina legislature had already voted to secede from the Union, and President Lincoln cautioned their action. Assuring Southerners he had no intention of interfering in state matters (slavery), Lincoln warned that rebellion was his business, and that fateful step rested solely in Southern hands. The President kept his word. 

However, once shots were fired on Fort Sumter, the Union rapidly mobilized. 

His policy had been a sound one. The Union prepared to defend the Constitution as South Carolina’s aggression had provoked righteous outrage. 

A century later President Lyndon Johnson attempted to orchestrate a similar scenario in Southeast Asia. In August of 1964, the American people were told North Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired upon two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. There was no real evidence of the incident, apart from heavy weather and the distracting fog of war. From that event the United States began feeding ground troops to hold the line against Communism. Officially dated from 1959 until 1975, the Vietnam War expended 58,000 young men, and countless Vietnamese nationals.

Today Vietnam is a Communist country. Johnson’s gung-ho attempt backfired because his policy had been built on a lie. 

Likewise, George W Bush squandered world-wide goodwill after the attack on 911. With America in mourning from the terrorist assault on our soil, this president redirected righteous ire to the nation of Iraq. Afghanistan, where the actual culprits were hiding out, came later. 

In the end, nothing of value came from that lie, except uncorking anarchy in Iraq.

This last January another massive presidential lie duped hundreds into thinking an election had been stolen. No proof of the deception existed, because nothing sneaky happened. To the contrary, abundant truth refuted the the claim. 

A self-absorbed swindler convinced hundreds of followers to act upon his interests. Citizens mobilized themselves and attacked our nation’s Capitol. No proof, no moral high ground, no affirmation of our democratic system, just puppets exploited by a very sick man.

Mr Lincoln understood the power of truth.

You’ve Been Played

Strains between the North and South had reached critical mass by November, 1860. Escalating tensions burst with the election of America’s first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. The South Carolina legislature responded by voting to secede from the Union on December 20th, a mere month later. By Spring 1861, the Confederate States of America solidified, and in April cannons fired upon a Union fort in Charleston Harbor. A bloody fraternal war began. 

A longstanding question is how in the world did Planters, a small slice of the southern population, convince a mass of their social inferiors to sacrifice all, defending their aristocracy? The answer is rather simple, and lamentable. Folks from the lower rungs bought into the rules set by the elite. The Planter Class had established the rituals of polite society, and every white man below the Mason-Dixon hoped to someday to join their ranks (acquiring land and slaves).

The lower classes defended a minority they ached to join.

A small middle class of land holding farmers, and city professionals, also labored to reach the same social summit. In other words, acquiring the trappings of wealth, punched one’s ticket to ride.

Beneath this merchant-landholding tier massed poor whites. These desperate souls were left to precariously scratch out some kind existence as itinerant tenants. Contempt for this hardscrabble class is still evident through pejoratives that are still in use. Belittling terms like crackers, trash, hillbillies, and rednecks linger on in our lexicon.    

The Old South, in general, also distrusted the outside world. Foreigners, Yankees, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, meaning anyone who might challenge rigorous, aristocratic formalities. The consequences for this delicate arrangement were profound. As the North industrialized, innovated, and modernized, Southern society languished, governed by reactionaries, more interested in public manners and bloodlines.

Outraged and insulted by Yankee ways, the wealthy roused the lower classes to defend Southern traditions, while in reality, barring any real opportunity of upward mobility.

This dynamic remains modern American politics. The GOP, in our time, is requiring the same fidelity. Party leadership honestly does not wish to serve you. All candidates want is your money and your vote to protect their interests, (especially the guy at the top). These characters are happy to rile voters through exhibitionism, and scapegoating whatever grievance you wish, especially piling it on minorities, the poor and the dispossessed.

But remember this, the traffic is one way only, and you are serve them, not the other way around. Keep delivering cash and power to the top, and nothing changes.

In short, you’ve been played by your chosen betters.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Humiliated, Angry, and Hurt

After losing reelection, he left Washington early. Humiliated, angry, and hurt, John Adams boarded a morning coach leaving the Capitol.

The prevailing issue in the campaign of 1800 concerned France, and that nation’s ongoing, and bloody revolution. Moreover, the French had declared war on England, and both belligerents  meddled in American domestic politics to turn public opinion.

As President, Federalist John Adams, had skillfully steered America clear of the European conflict, avoiding the danger of being ensnared between the two superpowers. Proud of his diplomatic accomplishments, Adams still brooded, unhappy with his lack of support from the country. His detractors belittled him, disparaging Adams as a pale substitute to the legendary George Washington.

His political challenger in 1800? The clever and calculating Thomas Jefferson. 

An outspoken critic of the Adams Administration, Jefferson had been hurling plenty of invective toward the sitting President. What had once been a warm friendship between the two men quickly soured. Petulant and  thin-skinned, Adams had lashed out by pushing laws that restricted the free press and cracked down on immigration. Outraged by these policies, Jefferson, and his growing cadre of supporters, challenged the clear violations of the Constitution. 

In only the nation’s third presidential election the moment appeared volatile and uncertain. On one side was the defensive and testy incumbent, and on the other, a political foe intent on replacing him.  

Adding to the turbulence, a political wildcard entered the fray; New Yorker, Aaron Burr.

Burr, like Jefferson, had opposed unpopular and heavy handed Federalist policies, and Jefferson knew the ticket needed an electoral-rich northern state for strength. As party leader, Jefferson assumed Burr understood his lesser place, and only when the electors met did he learned just how wrong he had been. 

In the final tally, poor John Adams not only lost the election, but came in a distant third behind both challengers. Thomas Jefferson garnered 73 Electoral votes, followed by Burr with 73 of his own. Adams came in last with 65. (That tie is another story.)

Humiliated, Adams left Washington DC in a huff, but made no move to challenge the outcome. And though the former President did not greet the President-Elect, and pointedly skipped the inauguration, John Adams did not put his interests above the nation’s. 

He conceded in silence because he valued our country over his own interests. 

There is no precedent for false assertions from the clear loser in 2020.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Peer Review #3

The military choir filed out of the Entrance Hall in a precise formation, trailed with a warm wave of applause. The President had enjoyed the evening performance, and bristled that no reporter had stayed to detail the concert for the public. “This is the kind of story real Americans would like to see on the news,” he complained, as he shook hands and chatted with departing well-wishers. 

The grand chamber soon emptied and the White House staff swept in, quickly stacking chairs, breaking down risers, and disconnecting sound equipment. The President turned from the racket, and headed toward the white Doric columns separating the hall and staircase. And it was there, beside an alabaster column, that the President stumbled upon a most unexpected visitor.

Lounging against the smooth white marble leaned a tall, lanky gentleman dressed in an antiquated silk dressing gown, white hose, and embroidered slippers. The man cooly assessed the stunned President.

“Are you familiar with the story of John Peter Zenger” the intruder murmured in a soft drawl. 

“Why are you still here? The entertainment left that way,” the President snapped, thumbing toward the side entrance.

“Zenger, a German immigrant, edited and printed a newspaper in New York,” the visitor continued, calmly shifting his position against the pillar. “Zenger had published an unflattering editorial of New York’s Colonial Governor, and the testy royal had the journalist jailed, charged with libel.”

The President, annoyed by the imposition, wanted to hurry up the stairs to his living quarters, but his legs remained stubbornly rooted in place. 

“Well, that Zenger character deserved it, he barked, unable to control his tongue. “Reporters need to watch what they write, and who they offend—like me. I’m the President, and they say terrible things about me, all lies and more lies.”

The tall figure crossed his arms and looked evenly at the President. “A jury of Zenger’s peers acquitted him, opining that if truth was stated, there is no libel,” the stranger subtly smiled. “That particular case established freedom of the press in this country, a principle I later insisted appear in the Bill of Rights.” 

“Do you understand how much I could accomplish if . . .”

The apparition spoke quietly over the President. “I, too criticized a president bent on stifling  free expression” the visitor thoughtfully paused. “President John Adams supported passage of the Sedition Act in 1798 to silence critical voices such as mine.” 

The oddly dressed gentleman began drifting through the pillars into the Entrance Hall, as if floating on a sudden breeze. Unwillingly, the President followed. “I’m particularly fond of this room,” the visitor whispered, “it was the only finished room in my time.”

“The press wants to destroy my administration,” this time the President spoke over his visitor. “With their unlimited snooping, the constant leaks, and the treasonous things they say about me on cable tv.”

The apparition appeared indifferent to the President’s complaints. “A particular writer, James Callender, cast enough aspersions upon Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Adams, that he found himself jailed under the Sedition Act. Once I moved into this House, I pardoned Callender, and hired him to again take up his poison pen.” The spirit seemed sadly amused, “when I refused to appoint Callender to a government post, his pen turned full force upon me, exposing my deepest, most safeguarded secret.”

“The Sedition Act. I like that,” the President beamed, indifferent to the visitor’s revelation. “What’s the matter with my lawyers. They never told me we have that law.”

Instantly the apparition jutted his face directly into the startled President’s. “You must not respond,” he breathed.  “You must ignore what is written and reported regarding your administration. Never, never challenge the freedom of the press, to do so diminishes the office of chief executive, exposing you as petty and small.”

“But the Sedition Act says . . .” the President squeaked, unnerved.

“Is unconstitutional,” the visitor finished the sentence. “I, too, resented what appeared in the press, besmirching my personal life, and my family. However, I resolutely remained aloof to the reports. And so must you.” 

The visitor began to sound weary, worn by the conversation. “I once stated that if I had to choose among the freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment, I would preserve Freedom of the Press. With that liberty secure, all others are assured.

As the visitor finished his statement, he lifted his eyes to some mysterious point above, and vanished. 

Dismayed by the experience, the President scrambled up the stairs.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Marking Time

2020.

Are the awful events of these last twelve months a once-off, bad patch of misfortune? Or is there a deeper explanation for the emergence of Trump, Covid, economic disaster, and civil unrest?

American History is steeped in a collection of pivotal moments, episodes that molded the nation’s continuing path. Can the events of 1776 stand alone as a turning point, or of 1865? 

A long metaphoric chain links one scenario to the next, marked by momentary decisions, government policies, or beliefs, that surface at one point in time, and voila, America’s story fleshes out to the future.

Add chance circumstances to the narrative and predictability flies out the window. 

Does 2020 stand alone as a singular event, or an inevitable outcome seeded somewhere in the past? Surely the march of history can be much like a chicken-egg proposition.

Mention 1776 and thoughts gravitate to the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, and the emergence of General George Washington. But that struggle for freedom actually began at the end of the French and Indian War. 

As for 1865, when the guns silenced at Appomattox Courthouse, Robert E Lee’s surrender affirmed America as a nation-state. But thirty years earlier, President Andrew Jackson’s administration had sparked the eventual war over the issue of slavery. Thinly disguised as the doctrine of states’ rights, the intractable argument of slavery festered. The “Peculiar Institution” is, was, and always be the cause of that bloodbath. In point of fact the fury of one man, John C Calhoun, South Carolina Senator, and former vice president, lit the fuse of war thirty years before Fort Sumpter.

As to the folly of Trumpism, arguably the roots are deeply burrowed in America’s collective past. Author, and historian Bruce Catton, wrote about a “rowdyism” embedded in the American psyche. Though Catton used that term in the context of the Civil War, his sentiment still resonates in the 21st Century, i.e., Proud Boys, and the like. 

Closer to today, the Cold War seems to have honed much of the Far Right’s paranoia. The John Birch Society, for example, organized in the late 1950’s escalating anti-Communist agitation. Senator Joe McCarthy rode to fame on that same pall of fear, (with Roy Cohen at his elbow) only to fail when he went too far.

But the presidential election of 1964 seems to mark the most distinct shift toward the defiant opposition that fuels Trump-land.

Vietnam, in 1964 had not blown up yet. JFK had been murdered the previous fall, and his Vice President, turned successor, Lyndon Johnson was the choice of a grieving Democratic Party. The GOP fielded four major candidates in the primaries: three moderates and the ultra conservative, Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Senator Goldwater gained the nomination that summer with help from two men, conservative writer Richard Viguerie and actor Ronald Reagan.

Viguerie broke political ground through his use of direct mailing, and target advertising (what today is right wing news outlets). Reagan, once a New Deal Democrat, crossed the political divide and denounced big government in “The Speech,” delivered on behalf of Senator Goldwater. These two men believed Conservatism, and Laissez Faire Capitalism had been wrongly cast aside for liberal (lower d) democratic causes. 

Their efforts struck a cord with legions of white Americans who felt the same resentment. The Liberal Media and Big Government from the Roosevelt years were Socialistic and anti-capitalistic. No urban problem, or racial strife or poverty appeared in their culdesacs or country clubs. And taxes to support Federal programs squandered and wasted personal wealth.

So many other issues shaped the modern New Right. Communism, the Cold War, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and progressive politics alienated the wealthy class. 

But here’s the rub. Ultra conservative ideology is unworkable, an ideal that awards only a small, exclusive few, (today’s 1%). So 2020, and 2016 both have roots running deep in the core of the American experience. 

2020 isn’t about this moment, not really.  

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle. Also the stage plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears” (the second in progress.)

gailchumbley@gmail.com