November 6, 1860 – Presidential Election in which Republican Abraham Lincoln defeated Three Rivals

The United States presidential election of 1860 was possibly the most seminal in our history. Historian Douglas R. Egerton follows the election with great care in his book Year of Meteors, giving the bulk of his attention to Democratic party politics. He articulates the positions of Stephen Douglas, John Breckenridge, and John Bell, and describes what happened at the various party conventions held to select these candidates.

Egerton posits several theses about the election that I believe he proves quite adequately in his book.

One is that the “fire-eating” Southerners were determined to brook no compromises; they wanted to split the Democratic party vote. Their stated goal was to get a Republican elected, so that the South would have an “excuse” to secede. The two chief engineers of this plan were the rabid secessionists William Yancey of Alabama and Robert Rhett of South Carolina. Both of them had been publicly calling for secession for years.

The second is that, in spite of what later revisionist historians claimed about the motives of Southerners, it was never about “states’ rights”; it was always about slavery. As the Vice President of the Confederate States, Alexander Stephens, declared of the new government:

…its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”

(It should also be noted that southern planters rejected northern offers to free blacks and then colonize them in Liberia or elsewhere so the southerners wouldn’t have to deal with them. Southern “Yanceyites” had no interest in freeing blacks. In fact, they wanted more enslaved workers, not fewer, and even lobbied to get the Atlantic slave trade re-opened to “stock” the western territories.)

At the time of the 1860 election, as Egerton points out:

[white southern planters] saw no reason to disguise their message; it would only be in later years, after the Confederacy had collapsed under northern guns, that statesmen writing their memoirs would think it necessary to point to more morally acceptable causes such as economic grievances.”

Even President Buchanan, trying to diffuse the secession crisis, made a speech in which he admonished that talk of liberty and equality by northerners could cause servile insurrections and terrify plantation mistresses in dread of what could happen to them. [No one of course was concerned about the terrified young black girls in the slave quarters, whose fears were actually based on reality. This best-ever example of projecting your worst characteristics onto your enemies was repeated over and over again in the South in the reconstruction years.] (Buchanan, who wasn’t even our worst or our most racist president, endorsed Breckinridge for president in the 1860 race because Breckinridge was the only one to favor a federal slave code for the territories, as opposed to letting the territories decide based on popular sovereignty, and thereby taking the risk that some of them would be – gasp – free.)

A third theory Egerton advances is that even had the Democratic party stayed united behind Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln still would have won. He includes an analysis of the electoral and popular voting to support his position.

Stephen A. Douglas

Stephen Douglas, no matter what else he might have been, was a staunch unionist, and when Lincoln won the election, he backed him all the way, meeting with him often to consult on the deteriorating national situation. In fact, they got on so well that Secretary of State Seward, who wanted to exert the most influence over Lincoln, was disturbed over “the growing intimacy between the senator and the president.” As it happened, Seward needn’t have worried. At President Lincoln’s request, Douglas undertook a mission to the Border States and to the Northwest to rouse Unionist sentiments among their citizenry, but the non-stop schedule and non-stop drinking wore him down. He died of typhoid fever on June 3, 1861, at the age of forty-eight.

Discussion: This excellent book on the election by Egerton covers only a small slice of antebellum politics, but is rich in detail. It is especially valuable for its focus on Douglas and his southern rivals rather than on Lincoln. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a reader unfamiliar with the broader context, or with the constitutional, territorial, and sectional issues that were roiling the nation.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2010

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Review of “Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire” by Peter Hopkirk

Peter Hopkirk has written extensively on the efforts of the British Empire to maintain its control of the Indian subcontinent from incursions from the north and west. In Like Hidden Fire, he traces the clandestine efforts of Germany and Turkey in the First World War to sabotage Britain’s ability to wage war by fomenting jihad in its Empire.

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The Germans thought that they, aided by the Muslim Turks, could persuade or bribe the Emir of Afghanistan to invade India. They hoped the Afghans would be joined by their numerous co-religionists in India to revolt against British rule. They would thus divert numerous British soldiers from the Western Front in Europe. The British Indian Army at the time drew most of its sepoys [Indians employed as soldiers in the service of the British] from Muslim subjects rather than from the more peaceful Hindus. Indeed, a substantial sepoy revolt had taken place in 1854, and the loyalty of the Muslim soldiers was always a bit suspect, particularly if they were called upon by their infidel (British) officers to fight other Muslims.

The problem the Germans faced was that there was no easy or obvious way to get to or even communicate with Afghanistan. There was not even a telegraph line between either Turkey or Germany and Afghanistan. The British and the Russians pretty much controlled Persia [modern day Iran], blocking the overland route from eastern Turkey. Only through the stupendous efforts of Captain Oskar von Niedermayer and Captain Werner von Hentig, who rode horseback across the Persian desert, were the Germans able to contact the Emir and enlist his assistance. Throughout their entire trek, the British and Russians (who had been alerted of their mission by spies) were on their heels.

[Note: This map includes Pakistan, but prior to 1947 this area was a part of India. The Hindu Kush mountain range formed a natural barrier between what was then all of India and the country of Afghanistan.]

The Emir of Afghanistan proved to be a wily trader, who apparently prized his annual stipend from the British in India above religious fervor. Nothing came of the German mission, despite its heroics.

The next threat to the British Empire came in the form of a Turkish invasion of the Caucasus with the goal of obtaining the oil of Baku. The first Turkish efforts were turned back by the tsarist armies of Russia, but after the collapse of the tsarist empire in 1917, the Bolsheviks failed to stop the Turks. Hopkirk vividly describes the confusing and complex state of affairs in the region between the Black and Caspian Seas as Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Turkomen, and Bolsheviks tried to sort out their mutual enmities to decide whether they wanted to stop the Turkish onslaught. Meanwhile, the British did their best with meager resources to induce the tribesmen and the Russians (many of whom despised the Bolsheviks) to oppose the Turks.

[Note: This is an inset of the map shown above. Refer to the larger map to get a perspective of where India and Turkey are in relation to the Black and Caspian Seas.]

Although the geographical territory covered in the narrative is immense, the number of protagonists involved in the struggle is remarkably small. The British efforts were conducted by a handful of adventurous intelligence officers and only a few thousand troops. Ultimately, the fate of the area was determined more by events in Europe, involving millions of men, than the few on the scene. By the time the Turks took Baku, the Germans and Ottomans had been defeated in Europe. Even though the Armenians and non-Bolshevik Russians (aided by the British) were able to chase the Bolsheviks from the area in 1918, the Bolsheviks returned in 1920 to stay for 70 years.

Evaluation: An engaging story, well told, about exotic lands.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Kodansha, 1994

November 1, 1879 – Formal Opening of the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania

The Black Hills, the oldest mountain range in the United States, stretches across South Dakota and Wyoming. It was given the name by the Sioux because of the thick dark forest of pine and spruce trees covering the hills.

The Black Hills, South Dakota, United States image from space

Pursuant to the Treaty of Fort Laramie of April 29, 1868, 15 Stat. 635, 636, the United States confirmed in the Sioux Nation the title to all of the present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River, and the government agreed to keep unauthorized persons out.

In 1874, George Armstrong Custer led a large expedition into the Black Hills, in direct violation of the Ft. Laramie Treaty. Even more unfortunately, gold was discovered near what later was Custer City, which led to a mad rush of prospectors and miners to the area.

Custer Expedition into Black Hills, 1874, photo by William H. Illingworth. Custer in light colored clothing to left of center.

President Ulysses S. Grant felt that even the army (not sympathetic to Native Americans in any event) could not hold back the greedy onrush, and he offered the Sioux $6 million if they ceded the Black Hills to the U.S. They declined the offer.

On November 3, 1875, Grant presided over a secret meeting with General Sheridan and others at which they decided that since they could no longer prevent waves of miners invading the Black Hills, therefore Grant would relax the order keeping them out. The group also decided to force Sitting Bull, who had opposed the sale of the Black Hills, to relocate on agency land by January 31, 1876.


Grant authorized a military force to ensure Sitting Bull’s compliance, and after the deadline passed without it, Sheridan had his army march against Sitting Bull and his ally Crazy Horse. The force was led by George Armstrong Custer, who was known for his cruelty toward Native Americans. In the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25-26, 1876, commonly referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand,” Custer and his men were annihilated by the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors along the Little Bighorn River, and Custer’s body was mutilated. But the victory backfired; the backlash by whites against Native Americans, not only by white Americans but also by the government and the army, was fierce and devastating to them.

George Armstrong Custer poses with his Indian scouts during the Black Hills expedition of 1874. The man pointing to the map was named “Bloody Knife,” a member of the Cree tribe. Photograph by William Illingworth.

Specifically, Congress responded with The Agreement of 1877, also known as the Act of February 28, 1877 (19 Stat. 254). This Act officially took away Sioux land, ceding the Black Hills to the United States. This change flagrantly violated the 1868 treaty, which stipulated that its terms could not be changed unless three-fourths of the adult male Sioux population agreed. It also attached what the Sioux call the “sell or starve” rider (19 Stat. 192) to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876 (19 Stat. 176, enacted August 15, 1876), cutting off all rations for the Sioux until they terminated hostilities.

Article 5 of the Act was particularly egregious. It delineated specifics of a food allowance, but added “or in lieu of said articles the equivalent thereof, in the discretion of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.” This opened the door to outrageous abuse and graft in the Indian Department. Already in 1875, Grant had received a report of pervasive corruption at the Red Cloud Agency that furnished Sioux supplies in northwest Nebraska, near the Black Hills, with tales of putrid pork, inferior flour, rotten tobacco, and other shoddy goods foisted upon the tribe. (Ron Chernow, Grant, p. 831)

The new 1877 Act also provided that “whenever schools shall have been provided by the Government for said Indians [mostly boarding schools off reservation and having the intent to strip the children of their culture], no rations shall be issued for children between the ages of six and fourteen years (the sick and infirm excepted) unless such children shall regularly attend school.”

3 Lakota boys before and after assimilation at a mandated school

The government operated as many as 100 boarding schools for Native Americans, both on and off reservations. Children were sometimes taken forcibly, by armed police. If parents wanted their children to have food, or even an education, federal schools were the only option; public schools were closed to Indians because of racism.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened on November 1, 1879, with an enrollment of 147 students. The youngest was six and the eldest twenty-five, but the majority were teenagers. Two-thirds were the children of Plains Indian tribal leaders. The first class was made up of eighty-four Lakota, fifty-two Cheyenne, Kiowa and Pawnee, and eleven Apache.

Richard H. Pratt, the school founder, was a former Union Calvary officer who served in the west after the Civil War. He was assigned to work closely with Native Americans and African Americans when he commanded Buffalo Soldiers and Indian Scouts in Oklahoma. He developed an interest in educating Indians, convinced that he could transform the ‘savages’ in his care into model citizens.

Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, Founder and Superintendent of Carlisle Indian School, in Military Uniform and With Sword 1879

In 1879, Pratt successfully submitted a petition for an Indian School to the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz, who authorized the opening of a boarding school at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, the site of a closed military post.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first off-reservation boarding school and had the primary goal of eradicating tribal culture and indoctrinating Indian children in Anglo-American ways.

3 Lakota boys before and after assimilation at a mandated school

Barbara Landis, in an online history of the school, writes:

In September 1879 – Pratt, accompanied by Miss Mather, a former teacher and interpreter from St. Augustine, headed to Dakota Territory to recruit the students he had been instructed to enroll in his new Carlisle school. These were to be children from Spotted Tail’s Rosebud reservation and Red Cloud’s Pine Ridge Agency. Pratt’s instructions were to recruit 36 students from each reservation.”

As Anita Satterlee reports in her account of the school and its founder:

For almost 40 years, from 1879 to 1918, the school sought to civilize ‘savage’ Indian children. Richard H. Pratt, founder of the school, believed that the school was the solution to the ‘Indian problem.’ To successfully carry out the mission to assimilate and rehabilitate, Pratt believed that the school must ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.’ To achieve this goal, totalitarian methods were employed, and all aspects of life were controlled. All traces of Indian culture were removed from the view and memory of students. Students were given new Anglo names, and they were forbidden to speak their native language. Boys’ hair was cut in the Anglo fashion, and Indian dress was replaced with military uniforms. Girls were given Victorian-style uniform dresses and shoes. During summers, students were placed with Anglo families instead of returning home. Students spent half the day at scholastic study, primarily learning English, and the other half pursuing vocational training. By total immersion in Anglo-American culture, students internalized the belief that Whites were culturally superior.”

One of the “inferior” Indians attending in 1912: All-America Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indian School football team in Pennsylvania. Credit: Panworld Sports/Icon SMI

Between 8-12,000 students representing 139 tribes attended the school during its 39 years of operation.

Saterlee notes that Pratt encouraged his pupils never to return to reservations. He had no understanding of Native American culture, only believing that it was uncivilized. She observes: “The prevalent belief of the times was that there was something wrong with a people and culture that was so unlike the typical American culture.”

Most horrifically, because of the totalitarian methods Pratt employed, “Students began to internalize the racism that they were taught through books and teachings, that whites were culturally superior.”

In 2017, The Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections acquired a collection of 39 glass plate negatives from the studio of John Nicholas Choate, the famed photographer who frequently captured images of Carlisle Indian School students and activities. The digital archive includes individual and group portraits, most of which were not commercially sold. As the website notes, “Through these resources, we seek to increase knowledge and understanding of the school and its complex legacy, while also facilitating efforts to tell the stories of the many thousands of students who were sent there.”

Two unidentified male students at Carlisle from the Dickinson Collection

October 31, 1786 – George Washington Opines “Mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government”

On October 17, 1786, Henry Lee wrote a letter to George Washington apprising Washington of a report from Henry Knox that “a majority of the people of Massachusetts are in opposition to the government, some of their leaders avow the subversion of it to be their object together with the abolition of debts, the division of property and re-union with G. Britain.”

“Light Horse Harry” Lee, by William Edward West, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Washington received a letter from Henry Knox himself on October 23, 1786 about the same situation. Knox wrote:

Our political machine constituted of thirteen independent sovereignties, have been constantly operating against each other, and against the federal head, ever since the peace— The powers of Congress are utterly inadequate to preserve the balance between the respective States, and oblige them to do those things which are essential to their own welfare, and for the general good.”

Henry Knox by Gilbert Stuart, 1806

Washington did not write back to Knox right away, explaining in a letter that December that he had thought Knox would be coming out to Mount Vernon so he didn’t need to write back.

But on October 31, 1786, Washington did respond to Lee, first making the observation:

… the commotions & temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States … exhibit a melancholy proof of what our trans atlantic foe have predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable; that mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government.”

He explained to Lee:

You talk, my good Sir, of employing influence to appease the tumults in Massachusetts—I know not where that influence is to be found; and if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”

You can read the entire letter here.

President George Washington here seen as Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army

Review of “The War Lovers” by Evan Thomas

At the end of the 19th Century, men came of age who were too young to have fought in the Civil War, but not too young to have forgotten the excitement and bravado of the soldiers who did go. And they wanted their own war. The quest for independence from Spain by Cuban nationals provided the perfect opportunity for these “war lovers.”

This story of the Spanish American War of 1898 is told from the perspective of five men: Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst, Thomas Brackett Reed, and William James. Teddy Roosevelt looms larger than the rest, just as he did in life.

The end of the 19th Century was a time when racial theories were all the rage in Europe and in America, and wholly subscribed to by young men like Roosevelt, who thought dark-skinned peoples were inferior, and had no business holding land that Aryan stock could populate. Furthermore, like the racial movements sweeping Germany, Roosevelt saw an inherent value in proving one’s “manliness” by conquering such people, as well as by staying in the wilderness and hunting and risking one’s life for one’s country. It all helped make the race strong. Taking charge of Cuba seemed like the perfect exercise.

Henry Cabot Lodge

Congressman, later Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge was Roosevelt’s best friend. And while he was not quite the “bull moose” that Roosevelt was, he too was an adherent of the concept of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was rightfully destined to expand across America, and across the world. He wanted a war against Spain because it would help America become one of the big powers.

William Randolph Hearst was another of the “warmongers.” He longed to be the brave and tough man he perceived Roosevelt to be, but it wasn’t in him. What he could do, though, was stir up public opinion like nobody else could, and he wanted that war in Cuba. His incitement and coverage of the war would translate into thousands of subscribers, thousands of dollars, and with luck, thousands of votes for his own bids for political power.

Two players resisted the war fever. Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed comes off as a lonely hero, as he, virtually alone, tried to resist pulling the United States into a war with Spain on phony, trumped up charges. He saw “manifest destiny” and “imperialism” as racist and presumptuous, but he was far too ahead of his time. Roosevelt and Lodge, once good friends, broke off with him, and other House members started treating him as anathema. He finally gave up and resigned. Disheartened and friendless, he died not long after.

House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed

William James was a psychologist and philosopher who studied the war urge among men (criticizing it even while feeling its appeal). His inclusion in this story is a bit forced – he is not really connected to the others, and it seems that the author can’t decide what to do with him.

The first part of the book is mainly biographical. In the second part, the author goes into some detail about the fighting in Cuba of the Spanish-American War (allegedly for Cubans, although the white Americans disparaged them as fighters and eschewed contact with them as much as possible). This was the setting for Roosevelt’s self-described “crowded hour” when he charged Kettle Hill with his Rough Riders. After the short war in Cuba, the U.S. then moved to take the Philippines. (President McKinley, not really a war monger like the others but pressured into it, justified the battle in Southeast Asia as benevolently inspired by the desire to “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them.” The Filipinos had long since been converted to Catholicism but nobody seemed much interested in that detail.) And of course, when it looked like the U.S. would win both battles against the crumbling Spanish Empire, second thoughts came rolling in as these Aryan Crusaders contemplated the possible burdens of dealing with all these dark people.

Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in Cuba

Discussion: Thomas has two stories to tell: one is the surge of war lust and imperialist yearnings at the end of the 19th Century, and the other is a portrait of the men who were the biggest prime movers of the Era and how they supported, or strove against, the seemingly inexorable drive toward war. If your primary interest is either with Teddy Roosevelt or the Spanish-American War, you won’t be disappointed; they dominate the story. It’s a tale that’s interesting and sobering, and will give you a new perspective on who were actually the heroes and who were actually the villains at that time in American history.

Evaluation: Entertaining history.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2010

October 27, 1951 – National Negro Labor Council Founded in Cincinnati, Ohio

African-American workers had made significant gains in the American workforce during World War II, but after the war ended, the momentum for change ended as well and in some cases reversed. In June, 1950, 900 African-American delegates met in Chicago for a “National Labor Conference for Negro Rights” and decided to form a new organization focused on black employment.

Speakers at the Chicago conference included Paul Robeson, second from left

By the next year twenty-three chapters of the new National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) had been established throughout the country.  More than 1,000 white and black labor activists attended the first convention In Cincinnati.   The NNLC conference called for full citizenship rights for African Americans and an end to Jim Crow, both legally and by custom.

It also launched a national campaign to have a model Fair Employment Practices Clause inserted into union contracts. The ‘model FEPC clause’ adopted by the NLC read:

The Company agrees that it will not discriminate against any applicant for employment or any of the employees in their wages, training, upgrading, promotion, transfer, layoff, discipline, discharge, or otherwise because of race, creed, color, national original, political affiliation, sex or marital status.”

Unfortunately, as a history of the NNLC on the website Political Affairs reports:

Instead of addressing the concerns raised by the NNLC, trade union leaders in the AFL and the CIO chose to attack the NNLC as a tool of the Soviet Union, sparking investigations by the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities congressional committee. Coleman Young, who was forced to testify before HUAC, stated, ‘I am fighting against un-American activities such as lynching and denial of the vote. I am dedicated to that fight, and I don’t think I have to apologize or explain to anybody my position on that.'”

[Coleman Young, who fought in World War II as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, was one of the organization leaders. He refused to give testimony against his fellow NNLC members. Young would eventually go on to become the first black Mayor of Detroit.]

Coleman Young

In the end, the NNLC was forced to disband in 1956 because of mounting legal costs defending itself against charges of communist activities.

October 25, 1944 – First Kamikaze Strikes Launched by Japanese in WWII

During the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific Ocean near the Philippines in World War II (the largest naval battle in history), the Japanese launched kamikaze (“divine wind”) suicide bombers for the first time. Kamikaze attacks were intended to destroy Allied warships by virtue of the pilots crashing their planes directly into them.

John Dower, in his history War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (1986) writes (p. 52):

Although the kamikaze pilots . . . were immediately hailed in Japan as pure and selfless martyrs who would ensure the country’s victory, for military reasons the news of their appearance and accomplishments was withheld in the West for almost half a year. Reports of the kamikaze were not released in the United States until April, 12945, coincident with the death of President Roosevelt and a month after the incendiary bombing of Japanese cities had commenced.”

Japanese Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka (“cherry blossom”), a specially built rocket-powered kamikaze aircraft used towards the end of the war.

The kamikaze was divided into four groups whose names all derived from this seventeenth-century poem: ‘The Japanese spirit is like the mountain cherry blossoms, radiant in the morning sun.’ Thus their symbol was the falling cherry blossom. The pilots wore white Rising Sun headbands and white scarfs, as well as white senninbari or ‘thousand-stitch belts,’ long strips of cloth in which one thousand women had each sewn a stitch – and thus, symbolically, joined the men as they sacrificed themselves.” (Dower, p. 232)

About 3,800 kamikaze pilots died during the war, and more than 7,000 allied naval personnel were killed by kamikaze attacks. However, the tide of war was not turned. Japan lost the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and was forced to accept an unconditional surrender less than a year later. 

USS Bunker Hill was hit by kamikazes piloted by Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa (photo above) and Lieutenant Junior Grade Seizō Yasunori on 11 May 1945. 389 personnel were killed or missing and 264 wounded from a crew of 2,600.