Black History Month Review of “The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch” by Chris Barton

This story of John Roy Lynch, the first African-American speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, is a terrific book for several reasons. The most important is, the author actually gets the story of the Reconstruction Era correct. While many Americans know a lot about the Civil War, the great majority don’t know much about Reconstruction, and what they have learned is riddled with myth and inaccuracies. As historian Eric Foner points out, we are still dealing with many of the same issues today as we did during this time period, making it all the more critical that we are aware of what actually happened. Chris Barton does a great job not only in presenting the truth, but in doing so in a way that will be understandable to younger readers.

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Another reason this book stands out is because of John Roy Lynch himself, whose story is pretty amazing. Lynch, his mother, and brother were slaves, but were about to be bought and thereby liberated by his white father in 1849 when the father became sick and died. The father had entrusted a friend to complete the process, but the “friend” just sold the family to a new owner.

John Roy’s new job was to serve the owner’s wife by such chores as fanning her and shooing flies from her food. On Sundays, he and the other slaves listened to sermons about doing their master’s will. But John Roy spoke out of place one day, and was sent across the river in 1862 to work in the swampy cotton fields. But by then the Civil War had started, and when the Yankees came to Mississippi, John Roy experienced “true emancipation” when he sold a chicken for a dime and bought a boat ride to Natchez.

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After the war ended, Mississippi whites, like those in other parts of the South, began passing laws to incarcerate as many young black men as they could; in essence, re-enslaving them to use their manpower as before. The labor of prisoners was bought and sold by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day. Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located. (You can read about this in the excellent 2008 book by Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name.)

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John Roy managed to escape “recapture” by becoming a messenger for a local portrait shop, and was soon running it himself. He went to night school to learn to read and write, and got involved in the Natchez Republican club.

In 1868 the new U.S. Government-appointed Governor of Mississippi named John Roy Justice of the Peace, and John Roy hastened to learn law. He then got elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, which chose John Roy as Speaker of the House. He was still only twenty-four years old. In 1872, voters sent him to the U.S. House of Representatives. His own success belied the fact that there was still plenty of resistance to black advancement in the South, and violence by whites steadily increased. John Roy, however, continued throughout his long life to believe in the power of law to bring peace and justice.

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John Roy Lynch’s story is followed by a timeline, an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s note, a list of references for further reading, and a map.

Illustrator Don Tate chose a “childlike, naive style of art,” as he explains in his note, in the hope that the more lighthearted style would help temper the harsh aspects of the story. I think he made a great decision. His watercolors are also framed in sepia, helping establish the historical nature of the story.

Evaluation: “Black history” has been dominated for so long by a very few figures, that it is great to see authors bringing attention to new trailblazers and role models. And as mentioned above, it is always very gratifying when an author does his or her research, and is not reluctant to figure out ways to share essential aspects of American history with younger ears.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2015

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February 15, 1804 – New Jersey Passes Legislation for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery

On this day in history, New Jersey became the last northern state to repeal slavery. The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery provided that females born of slave parents after July 4, 1804 would be free upon reaching 21 years of age, and males upon reaching 25. But there was a catch: after slaveholders freed their slave children, these children would then be turned over to the care of the local overseers of the poor. The bill provided $3 a month for the support of such children. A slaveowner could then have the children “placed” in his household and collect the $3 monthly subsidy on them himself.

According to the New Jersey Center for Civic Education of Rutgers University:

The evidence suggests this practice was widespread, and the cost for “abandoned blacks” rose to be 40 percent of the New Jersey budget by 1809. It was a tax on the entire state paid into the pockets of a few to maintain what were still, essentially, slaves. New Jersey slaveowners also had the option to sell their human property into states that still allowed slaveholding, or into long indentures in Pennsylvania, until an 1818 law that forbid “the exportation of slaves or servants of color.” The Legislature ultimately repealed the entire payment system for the maintenance and support of abandoned slave children in 1811.”

February 13, 1943 – Arkansas Passes Alien Land Act to Prohibit Japanese from Purchasing or Owning Land in Arkansas

Throughout American history, some citizens have had more rights and privileges than others.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.

In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, approximately 110,000 – 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US (of whom 70,000 were American citizens) were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified its action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown evidence of disloyalty.

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The internees were transported to one of ten relocation centers in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.

Since over eighty percent of the Japanese American population in the United States at the time lived along the coast in the states of Washington, Oregon, and California, most internees went to camps out west. But nearly 17,000 were put on a seven-day train ride across the country to be placed into two camps built in the Arkansas Delta, one at Rohwer in Desha County and the other at Jerome in sections of Chicot and Drew counties. They operated from October 1942 to November 1945. This was the largest influx and incarceration of any racial or ethnic group in the state’s history.

There were 8,475 Japanese at the Rohwer camp, of which ten percent were over the age of sixty, and 28 percent were school age children. At Jerome, fourteen percent were elderly, and a full 31 percent were school age children.

The land used for the camps was situated in the marshy delta of the Mississippi River’s floodplain. These were tax-delinquent lands in dire need of clearing, leveling, and drainage. The internees found upon their arrival that the land was snake-infested and the barracks were only half-built. Some areas had no running water.

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that these American citizens were behind barbed wire in cramped quarters on undesirable land and could not leave, local residents felt hostility toward them, since the camps had “amenities” like electricity that the poor of the Delta did not have. Others resented them just for having Japanese backgrounds.

The internees were far from “coddled,” as the disaffected Delta denizens maintained. They were put to work clearing the land of trees and planting crops. Their work increased the value of the land seven- to fifteen-fold.

Jerome, Arkansas

But resentment and repulsion by the local populace were shared by government officials. On February 13, 1943, the Arkansas state legislature passed the Alien Land Act “to prohibit any Japanese, citizen or alien, from purchasing or owning land in Arkansas.”

As applied to American citizens the statute manifestly violated the Fourteenth Amendment, and it violated the state constitution as well, which held that “[n]o distinction shall ever be made by law between resident aliens and citizens in regard to possession, enjoyment or descent of property.”

[It is interesting to note, but beyond the purview of this posting, that as Patricia Nelson Limerick observed in her book The Legacy of Conquest, 1987: “Race relations . . . parallel the distribution of property, the application of labor and capital to make the property productive, and the allocation of profit.”]

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture reports:

[The Arkansas act] was later ruled unconstitutional, and after the camps closed, several families remained in Arkansas, though all but one left within a year’s time to escape the system of peonage that was common for agricultural workers. [Arkansas] Governor Adkins was particularly opposed to letting Japanese Americans attend college within the state, fearing that allowing such would pave the way to the integration of higher education in Arkansas. All Arkansas colleges turned away Japanese Americans save the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville (Johnson County), which allowed one Nisei male to enroll in the autumn of 1945, as the war was coming to a close.”

Discussion of “High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing” by Ben Austen

Ben Austen’s new book, High-Risers, tells the story of public housing in America in general and in Chicago in particular through the history of one infamous project (Cabrini-Green) and four individuals who lived there. The book resonated with me because of my personal history. I lived in a Chicago housing project (not Cabrini-Green) for five years; I drove a bus as a summer job, and my principal route took me through the largest of Chicago’s projects; and after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, I was second chair as a lawyer defending the Chicago Housing Authority (the “CHA”) in the notorious Gautreaux case, which ruled on February 10, 1969 that the CHA had systematically discriminated against blacks in its choice of sites for constructing projects.

The Chicago Housing Authority was formed in 1937 to alleviate a perceived housing crisis. Chicago was in the throes of coping with the “Great Migration” of rural black families from the south to northern cities in search of work. The goal of the CHA was to eradicate the deplorable slum buildings and replace them with decent, affordable, rent-subsidized housing for the needy. Modest progress in that direction was made with the construction a few small projects before the outbreak of World War II. But the crowded neighborhoods into which these families were forced to live (because of segregated housing practices) deteriorated rapidly and became slums. Money was not spent on upkeep, with leaks, cracked walls, and broken doors going unfixed.

The end of World War II created another dimension to the problems with housing. An acute shortage developed as 11 million men were mustered out of the military and started having families. The Baby Boom of the late 40’s and early 50’s resulted in a population expansion that simply overwhelmed the existing housing stock. Few, if any, cities experienced the obstacles and difficulties produced by the combination of the Great Migration and the Baby Boom in as great a degree as Chicago. Whites and blacks were competing for housing which exacerbated racial tensions. “White neighborhoods established racial covenants,” Austen writes, “bylaws that barred homeowners from selling to African Americans. At one point, 85 percent of Chicago was covered under these restrictions.”

A tenement on South Indiana Avenue, the type of housing for half of the city’s black children. From Chicago’s South Side. 1946-1948.© Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos.

The story of public housing in Chicago, and to a lesser extent in the country as a whole, is in fact a story of race relations. In High-Risers, author Ben Austen states that from 1945 to 1950, there were 500 recorded outbreaks of racial violence in Chicago, and 350 of them involved housing. The CHA attempted to alleviate the situation by providing decent housing, but was greatly constrained by the attitudes of the people and the government of Chicago.

The concept that some people (in particular, black people) would receive subsidized rent and desirable housing simply because they were poor was not popular with middle class white America, and it was almost universally despised by lower-middle class whites on the south side of Chicago. Whites had little appreciation of the effects of generations of white privilege (indeed, this is still largely the case), and saw this as nothing but “mooching” at their expense. Knowing the bad feelings that attractive public housing might engender, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio made certain that federal money would not be spent to beautify public housing projects. Chicago’s largest project, the Robert Taylor homes, was positively ugly. No money was spent on landscaping; instead, the perimeters were just paved over. There were “no flowers, no trees, no nothing. Everything became blacktop.” Cabrini-Green was not as bad, at least not initially, but after years of neglect and mismanagement it became an eyesore. As a result, few, if any, white families desired to move into Chicago’s projects.

Senator Robert Taft of Ohio

Selecting sites for projects proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of operating the CHA. Chicago was – and still is – one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Austen writes that the authorizing legislation required the approval of a site by the City Council before construction could begin. Depositions taken in the Gautreaux case revealed that the Council had established an informal working procedure whereby the Council as a whole would defer to the wishes of the alderman in whose ward a potential site was located. In effect, this procedure gave white aldermen effective veto power over the location of projects in predominantly white wards. This in turn meant that projects could be constructed only in predominantly black wards or unpopulated neighborhoods. One sub rosa argument used by the CHA to justify its site locations to the white population was that the projects’ black residents would move “there” instead of “near you.”

Returning from WWII meant the realization of the American Dream for some, but for most African American G.I.s it meant the continuation of segregation.

An invidious consequence of greatly restricting the number and area of potential sites was that the CHA had to build high rise structures if it was to meet the enormous demand for subsidized housing. In the words of a CHA executive:

We no longer had power to select where the projects were going to go, and we had very little space to work with, so we had to go to the high-rises.”

Thus, most of the housing units constructed by the CHA were contained in towers of 14 or more stories, located close to one another. In all, the CHA constructed 33 projects containing 168 high rise buildings. All the projects but one were located in predominantly black neighborhoods.

There were also projects for poor whites, and one had an interesting history, particularly to me, since I lived there from ages 3 to 8. It was a CHA project of temporary housing for [white] WWII veterans called Airport Homes near Midway Airport. Before the CHA could assign tenants to the building, the office where the keys to the buildings were kept was broken into by some veterans looking for housing. The burglars distributed the keys to their friends, who were able to move in as “squatters.” My father was one of those friends.

My earliest memory was being awakened in the middle of the night at my grandmother’s house where we were living at the time with her and several of my father’s siblings. My father said that we had a place to live! We moved with some furniture that night. The CHA initiated eviction procedures against the squatters. Some recent law school graduates volunteered to represent us squatters for a small fee, and we and the other squatters lived there for five years before being evicted. That project was razed, and is now a park.

In the early days after the war, the CHA made an effort to “qualify” good families for the projects. Two- parent families with at least one employed parent were given priority. The CHA even attempted to move a highly qualified black family into the project in which I lived. Austen describes the black family as “Jackie Robinson-like” in their presumably acceptable (to whites) traits. But that wasn’t good enough for the white residents of the project itself or for its neighbors. Not very peaceful demonstrations materialized almost immediately after that family moved in. I remember having to walk through a cordon of (white) police officers to go to and from kindergarten.

Trumbull Park Homes, located in a white neighborhood, was also supposed to be “whites only.” However, as the Encyclopedia of Chicago reports, the project was “accidentally” integrated on July 30, 1953, because the CHA assumed that Betty Howard, an exceptionally fair-skinned African American, was white. Beginning on August 5 and continuing nightly for weeks thereafter, crowds of whites directed fireworks, rocks, and racial epithets toward Betty and Donald Howard’s apartment. Police responded with a show of force but few arrests.

The CHA abandoned the attempt to integrate the projects after a short time.

Austen focuses his story on the notorious Cabrini-Green project. One aspect of Cabrini-Green that made it stand out from other projects was its proximity to the Loop, Chicago’s shopping and business center, and the “Gold Coast,” Chicago’s most expensive residential neighborhood. As you can imagine, the whites didn’t put up with that “waste” of lucrative real estate for long.

Austen is quite sympathetic to the people who lived in the projects. His sketches of four long-term project residents shows that they tried hard to maintain their neighborhood in the face of white animosity, CHA incompetence, and black gang activity. Nevertheless, reading between the lines, the reader can infer that even if they had been white, his subjects’ socioeconomic status made them less than desirable neighbors, particularly to Gold Coast residents.

Two miles of 16-story towers, including the Robert Taylor homes in the foreground, stretch toward the Chicago skyline in 1996. They have since been torn down. (NPR). My bus route ran up and down the left side (from the perspective of this picture) of the projects

Despite the efforts of tenants like those featured in the book, the physical condition of the projects (particularly the high-rises) deteriorated rather rapidly. As mentioned above, money for maintenance was a low priority. By 1965 when I drove a city bus on routes through the projects, broken windows, poor lighting, and abundant graffiti were evident to anyone driving by. In addition, Austen notes that the CHA was particularly inefficient when it came to repairing elevators, in spite of the buildings being high-rises. The stairwells were murky, with lightbulbs not replaced once they burned out. Austen quotes architect and city planner Oscar Newman who said at the time: “No one seems to be minding the store; what’s more, no one seems genuinely to care.”

Moreover, Chicago’s black gangs eventually took over most if not all of the buildings. My law school classmates who took Chicago police “ride-alongs” said the police officers told them that “the law stopped at the sixth floor,” which was as high up in a building they could get in response to a complaint before the perpetrators would be warned of their presence in time to escape. In addition, the apartments were so cheaply constructed that criminals could just push through a bathroom vanity in adjacent apartments to get into the one next to it.

Cabrini-Green at night

In the aftermath of the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the black neighborhoods of Chicago erupted in violence. An enormous number of (non-project) houses and apartments in predominantly black areas were destroyed in the rioting. The people left homeless by the rioting had no option but public housing, which put a tremendous stress on the already limited resources of the CHA. Many of those people, who would not otherwise have qualified for public housing because of prior criminal convictions or lack of employment, were assigned to the projects. The deterioration of the projects accelerated thereafter.

Burning Buildings on Chicago’s West Side, April 5, 1968

There were other difficulties as well. Over 60 percent of the families in public housing had only one parent at home. Th author writes: “Women on welfare were in many ways discouraged from marrying or officially sharing a residence with the father of their children, since the presence of a man could leave them ineligible for benefits.” Thus the median income of CHA residents was low and many kids spent days and nights unsupervised while their mothers worked, often at more than one job. Kids had no places to play besides the blacktop, unless they could get to churches or youth centers. Area schools were grossly deficient. Other amenities were scarce as well: for instance, grocery stores were literally miles away, and no one could afford cars.

Children in the Ida B Wells Projects play in the rubble, 1973

The Cabrini project became nationally notorious when two white officers were shot by snipers ensconced well above the sixth floor in one of the towers. The police response was swift and brutal, but it alienated most of the black residents of the project. The project received even more notoriety when then Mayor Jayne Byrne moved into one of the units to publicize the conditions faced by the residents.

Aerial View of Cabrini Green 1981

Despite efforts of the residents and the CHA to renovate Cabrini, there was really no hope of maintaining a public housing project on the Cabrini site. Chicago was in the process of urban gentrification that expanded inexorably from the Loop. Older housing near Cabrini was either being renovated or razed and replaced with new, high standard housing. The second Mayor Daley wanted to convert the Cabrini site to an up-scale neighborhood. Would-be gentrifiers did not see displaced families; they only saw dollar signs. [A four bedroom apartment with a lake view in that neighborhood (now that the projects are gone) would cost at least $1.5 million today.] The response of the CHA was to let the Cabrini project slowly disappear through attrition: as any family moved out, it was not replaced. Gradually, every tower became vacant or nearly so. Once a building was reduced to just a few residents, the CHA moved them and razed the building. The residents of the projects had no choice as to when and where they would be relocated. By the end of 2002, forty-two out of fifty-one high-rise public housing towers were demolished, and some 25,000 households were evicted in the process.

Robert Taylor Projects Demolition

The end of the Cabrini-Green project marked the end of an era. The utilization of high-rise buildings to house under-employed black residents was deemed by most observers to be a failure, one which was blamed on the residents themselves.

The most invidious consequence of building subsidized high-rises was to institutionalize segregated neighborhoods. In the Gautreaux case, even though the court found that the CHA had unlawfully discriminated against blacks in the choice of sites for projects, the court was severely challenged to find an appropriate remedy. Its initial order prohibited the CHA from constructing future projects in predominantly black census tracts. (The use of census tracts as a measure or definition of neighborhood was my idea.) But an unintended consequence of that order was that the CHA simply stopped building any new housing. Instead, the CHA merely subsidized qualified families to move into existing housing. This procedure at least opened the possibility of fostering racially integrated housing. Future public housing in the rest of the country took the form of low density, low-rise buildings and supplemental rental payments to allow poor families to move into units they could not otherwise afford. But of course, wherever the poor moved into, the better off moved out of, and segregation once again prevailed.

While Austen’s High-risers personalizes the story outlined above by giving details of four real people who lived in Cabrini-Green, I found I was less interested in their personal stories than I was in the history of public housing in Chicago. I have deliberately short-changed the stories of the individuals in order to give my personal view of that history. In that regard, I apologize to the author, who has written a moving and compelling book.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

February 8, 1820 – Birth of William T. Sherman & Review of “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” by Robert L. O’Connell

This tribute to Sherman is so much more than a biography. O’Connell provides a truncated history of the Civil War, an excellent analysis of the army and its strategy and tactics, and a fascinating look at the role Sherman played in the development of the American West following the hostilities. Finally, he shows the way religion tore apart Sherman’s family creating a generational ripple that was undoubtedly the country’s loss as well as Sherman’s.

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O’Connell makes a compelling argument not only for Sherman’s criticality to Union victory in the Civil War, but also that Sherman needed to be second in command to feel the comfort and freedom to express his strategic brilliance. (One thinks of George Washington as General of the American Patriot Army, in horror of the possible repercussions of being in command, and constantly writing to Congress that it wouldn’t be his fault if they didn’t win.) O’Connell avers that it was the team of Sherman and Grant, whose strengths complemented each other, that was the key to Union victory.

1864 Portrait of General Ulysses Grant by Matthew Brady

1864 Portrait of General Ulysses Grant by Matthew Brady

Among the personal characteristics of Sherman that O’Connell points to as contributing to his success, he includes his West Point training, his personal charisma, his intellectual energy, and his past work experience which gave him intimate knowledge of the American terrain, an excellent command of logistics, an appreciation for the strategic importance of both the Mississippi and railroads, and an understanding of when it was best to quit and cut his losses.

1864 Portrait of William Sherman by Matthew Brady

1864 Portrait of William Sherman by Matthew Brady

Beyond the team of Sherman and Grant for the success of the Civil War, O’Connell credits Lincoln’s political brilliance and his insight into his generals (even if he didn’t always have the political capital to change them around); the importance of defected slaves who not only performed hard labor for the Union Army, but served as a network of intelligence about Confederate movements, Southern topography, potential ambushes, arms caches, and so on; the transition to rifled instead of smoothbore weapons; and to the significant role played by psychological warfare.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War by Matthew Brady

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War by Matthew Brady

For those of us who always wondered about the sanity of generals who ordered open-field, close-range infantry attacks, O’Connell points to the revolution in firearms that took place in the middle of the Civil War. Just prior to that time, weapons consisted of smoothbore guns with inferior slugs that used flint for ignition. By 1862, however, many soldiers on both sides obtained rifles with Minié balls and percussion cap ignitions, even if they had to buy them with their own money. The accuracy range of these rifles exceeded that of cannon. The dynamics of the battlefield had suddenly shifted from what made sense when most of the officers had been trained at West Point or fought in the recent war in Mexico. Then, frontal assaults worked brilliantly. Now, they heralded slaughters. But it took the officers a while to adapt.

Rifled minie balls

Rifled minie balls

After the Civil War, Congress created the rank of General of the Army for Grant and promoted Sherman to Lieutenant General. When Grant became president in 1869, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army and promoted to General of the Army.

The Central Pacific's engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific's engine No. 119 meet on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah.

The Central Pacific’s engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s engine No. 119 meet on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah.

One of Sherman’s main assignments was to protect the construction and operation of the transcontinental railroads from attack by hostile Indians. Sherman employed many of his veterans as railroad workers, since they had years of experience with the speedy breaking up and bending of track. In addition, Sherman orchestrated the killing of some five million buffalo between 1867 and 1874, reasoning that if all the buffalo were extinct near the railroads, the Indians would have no reason to approach. O’Connell does not deny that Sherman, like almost everyone else at the time, had Indian exclusion as a goal. Sherman wrote to Grant, after a battle in 1866 between the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians and soldiers of the United States Army in which all 81 army men were killed by the Indians, that “we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.”

He did occasionally express some sympathy for Native Americans. He wrote his wife:

I don’t care about interesting myself too far in the fate of the poor devils of Indians who are doomed from the causes inherent in their nature or from the natural & persistent hostility of the white race.”

But as O’Connell observes, the Indians were doomed whether Sherman were involved or not; “Sherman’s masterful planning only made it more sudden.”

Buffalo Skulls 1870

Buffalo Skulls 1870

O’Connell doesn’t spend a great deal of time on the relationship of Grant and Sherman, but documents the closeness they had during the Civil War (Sherman recalling, “He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk; now sir, we stand by each other always”), as well as the fact that it was not maintained afterward, much to Sherman’s sorrow. But in Grant’s last year, Sherman went to his side repeatedly, helping to restructure Grant’s debts. He served as one of Grant’s pallbearers.

Sherman died in New York in 1891 at age 71. This book is a fitting tribute to a man who, as O’Connell documents, contributed so much to America’s survival in war and to its profile in peace.

Portrait of Sherman after 1865 from the Brady-Handy Collection

Portrait of Sherman after 1865 from the Brady-Handy Collection

Evaluation: This highly favorable, though not hagiographic biography of William Tecumseh Sherman is eminently readable and consistently interesting.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2014

February 6, 1778 – Treaties Signed Between America and France

On this day in history, in the midst of the American war for independence, representatives of the French monarchy and the American republic signed treaties of commerce and alliance between them, and against Great Britain. The Treaty of Alliance created a military alliance against Great Britain, stipulating American independence as a condition of peace. The treaty also required France and the U.S. to concur in any peace agreement. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce recognized the United States as an independent nation in addition to promoting trade between France and the United States. The treaties were negotiated by the American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee.

Engraving of Benjamin Franklin while serving as envoy from the American Congress to  the French Court

Engraving of Benjamin Franklin while serving as envoy from the American Congress to
the French Court

More specifically, as explained by Holger Hoock in his book Scars of Independence:

The two countries granted each other most-favored-nation status in trade and guaranteed each other’s possessions in North America forever. Most importantly, France promised to support America’s war until independence was secured. America would, in return, give France free rein in the West Indies, the lucrative sugar islands perennially subject to Anglo-French rivalry.”

Simeon Deane, brother of Silas Deane, delivered the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France to Congress on May 2, 1778. Congress ratified both treaties on May 4, 1778.

Over the course of the war, France contributed an estimated 12,000 soldiers and 32,000 sailors to the American war effort.

You can read the text of the Treaty of Alliance here, and the text of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce here.

February 5, 1858 – Brawl on the Floor of Congress Over Slavery

Galusha Aaron Grow, born in 1822, was a prominent U.S. politician, lawyer, writer and businessman, and was a Pennsylvania representative and Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1861 to 1863.

Galusha Aaron Grow

Galusha Aaron Grow

Grow was a Radical Republican, and vehemently anti-secessionist. Grow biographer Robert D. Ilisevich wrote:

His scorn for the Confederacy and the fiery patriotism that laced his inaugural remarks [as speaker] surprised no one who knew him. His friends supported him for his strong antislavery convictions, his leadership on the floor, and the recognized skills demanded by the office he now held. His opponents, however, interpreted his attitude of righteous indignation toward the South as a battle cry.” (Robert D. Ilisevich, Galusha A. Grow, p. 205.)

On this date in history, during the 35th U.S. Congress, Grow was physically attacked by Democrat Laurence M. Keitt in the House chambers, resulting in a brawl between northerners and southerners.

Keitt was apparently offended by Grow’s having stepped over to his side of the House chamber. He demanded that Grow sit down, calling him a “black Republican puppy”. Grow responded by telling Keitt that “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” Keitt became enraged and attacked Grow, shouting that he would “choke [him] for that”. A large fight involving approximately fifty representatives broke out on the House floor, ending only when a missed punch from Rep. Cadwallader Washburn of Wisconsin upended the hairpiece of Rep. William Barksdale of Mississippi. The embarrassed Barksdale accidentally replaced the wig backwards, causing both sides to erupt in spontaneous laughter. [Barksdale eventually became a Confederate general in the American Civil War, and was mortally wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg.]

Rep. William Barksdale of Mississippi

Rep. William Barksdale of Mississippi

By 1861, there were sixty fewer members than in the previous year, due to the secession of much of the South. Grow was nominated by Thaddeus Stevens to be the Speaker of the House, winning the job over the only other nominee, Francis Preston Blair, Jr.. But Grow, a member of the Radical Republicans, was defeated in his reelection bid in 1862 back home in Pennsylvania. He remained the last sitting House Speaker to be defeated until Tom Foley of Washington lost his seat in the Republican Revolution of 1994.

Grow continued to be active in politics and law and returned to the United States Congress as a member at-large from Pennsylvania from 1894 to 1903. He died in 1907 at age 84.