The Half Has Never Been Told; Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. Basic Books, 2014.

Edward Baptist interesting book is a systematic refutation of the idea that American slavery was a pre-modern, pre-industrial network of institutions, political and economic. That it was destined to fail because of its dissimilarity with the impressive industrial economy in the Northern states in the eight decades after independence, 1780 to 1860. Aux-contraire, Baptist argues that the expansion of slavery drove American economic expansion.

This was largely due to the expanding cotton economy of the “Southwest” – Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and western Tennessee. Eventually east Texas and Louisiana.  These vast, new cotton-growing areas were opened up with the removal of their Indian populations under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Its labor force was unfree, drawn from the exhausted tobacco-growing lands of Chesapeake and coastal Virginia.

While some slaves were transported to the Southwest by ships and later railroads, most were driven across the Appalachian mountain roads in coffles by men on horseback with bull-whips. The male slaves were chained to each other – women and older children, by rope – in closely packed columns. Baptist does not spare the reader the brutality of these coffles. The bull-whip would continue to be a familiar form of terrorizing the slaves once they were sold at auctions and transported to labor camps.

The tourist industry in the present-day South likes to associate the slave economy with graceful, pillared homes and benevolent, thoughtful plantation mistresses. Forget it. Talk, rather, about female “enslavers.” White southern women forced their husbands to sell slave women they had sexually exploited and, if any, his children by those liaisons. Baptist argues that sexual predation stoked both the male and female involvement in the cotton economy.

The movement of slaves to this new cotton kingdom involved an extensive network of short- and long-term credit, most commonly coming from the North and even from Britain and Europe, and a new interstate banking system. Baptist makes bold claims about this slave-driven economy being a significant factor in the remarkable growth of the North American capitalist economy.

In the early nineteenth century raw cotton was the most valuable commodity that entered world trade. Baptist’s description of this economy includes a role for New York, Liverpool, and London as well as the new cotton-producing areas. Connecting to the world of international trade, however, had its disadvantages. It opened the region to the vagaries of the world economy and to a dependence upon financial decisions made in far off places.

Most owners of slaves were in debt to these new financial institutions occasionally, when cotton prices dropped or there was a bad crop. Some were chronically in debt to the banks.  A creditor would then foreclose on the planter’s assets – his land but also his slaves. This was a common reason for the sale of slaves and when slaves were sold in small batches to pay off debts, it inevitably meant the breakup of slave families.

We learned about the invention of the cotton gin in grade-school history. And certainly it removed a major roadblock to the expansion of cotton production. But Baptist maintains that it was the growing productivity of the cotton-picking slave that is most responsible. He has included tables to prove his point.

Part of this growing productivity was the result of what he calls “the whipping machine.” There were several work regimes within the cotton economy. The “task” system assigned various tasks to the individual slaves depending upon their skill set. When the tasks were properly finished so was the day’s work for the slave’s master. But throughout this new region, most slave owners adopted the “pushing” system which was, as it suggests, simply getting the most of a long-days labor out of a slave. Short of that maximum effort, the overseer would administer “measured lashes.” One can see how this regime could get out of hand and result in unwarranted brutality even sadism.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the book is the way that Baptist ties together the career of Southern slavery with such things as the admission of the republic of Texas to the American union as a slave state, California as a free state, the Mexican War, Southern interest in annexing Cuba, the dramatic re-alignment of political parties as the old Democratic party splintered over the issue of slavery’s expansion, and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860.

Both the Northern economy’s industrial sector and the cotton-economy in the Southwest were built on the scared backs of enslaved people. Baptist has written an “angry” economic history of the cotton economy.

Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Jordan. W.W. Norton, 2014.

The men in blue who fought in the Civil War continued to fight that war for years and even decades after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in the spring of 1865. It had been a long a deadly war, mostly fought by conscripts. Those soldiers had accomplished the Union’s objectives, ending both the rebellion and slavery. In May 23 and 24, 1865 elements of the Union Army paraded through the streets of the Capital, receiving the enthusiastic accolades of the crowds and politicians, though Abraham Lincoln’s recent assassination by a Confederate sympathizer had cast a pall over the Grand Review.

Had the Rebels been defeated? The men in blue were hearing unsettling stories of race riots and lynching of blacks in Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere.

Returning Union soldiers sensed that the civilian population in the North wished to bury the sectional rivalries that had caused the war, and move beyond flag-waving parades.  What, then, would be their hometown reception? This is where the author of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Jordan begins his story of their – and the reader’s – journey back to post-Civil War America.

In the century since 1865 we have come to understand the psychological injury of warfare on its participants. It has been called by different names in different wars, “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” in more recently “post-traumatic stress disorder.” It had yet to be given a name in 1865.

Almost immediately the former men in blue organized. The Grand Army of the Republic began pressing for pensions for those who had served in the war and the creation of a national holiday (Memorial Day) to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Their demands were mixed with their impatience, even anger. The demobilization process had left many veterans sitting around, waiting, and without the adrenalin rush of battle. They had time to worry about their reintegration into their families. Would they be able to find work? Moreover, on the edges of these postwar encampments, there were shysters around to offer them bogus services.  And others offering a plentiful supply of whiskey. Many veterans had taken up the War Department’s offer and bought their weapons. They were impatient, angry, and armed. This ominous mix produced an “epidemic of misdeeds.” Civilians, Jordon suggests, were puzzled by this anger, and frightened.

The wounded had received better medical attention in the newly organized base hospitals during the Civil War than was true of other wars of that era. The most common treatment for the many shattered arms and legs was, however, still amputation. Jordon relates the story of a left-handed penmanship competition for amputees who had lost their right arm. The essays, usually about their war experiences, were not judged, only the penmanship. A common theme: their wounds (empty sleeves) were ‘living monuments’ to the sacrifices which they had made for the Union. And they were unsure about how much those empty sleeves were unappreciated.

Jordan devotes a chapter to veterans who spent time in Confederate Prisoner of War camps. (A journey to the Andersonville Prison near Americus, Georgia gives the visitor some idea of the horrors of imprisonment in the last years of the war.) POWs returning to civilian life had all of the same anxieties of other veterans, but they were also in terrible physical shape. Plus they had to face the stigma of having surrendered.

The federal government established a network of ‘asylums’ (subsequently called ‘homes’) for those veterans who couldn’t make it in the civilian life to which they had returned. As the numbers of aging veterans with health and mental problems grew, the states began establishing homes as well. The Iowa Veterans Home was in Marshalltown, seventeen miles from my home town of Garwin. It opened in 1887.

Residents in these homes were subject to Army rules and regulations and military discipline for infractions. Those admitted were required to wear uniforms, march in formation, and stand at attention for inspection. They rose and retired to the bugle call. Residents needed passes to get by the sentry at the gate. Despite much political grumbling about the “extravagant” government expenditure involved, Civil War soldiers were eventually awarded $8.00 a month. (Roughly $180.00 in current dollars.) They had to sign their pension over to any facility they entered.

As an example of the insensibility to Union veterans, Jordan tells the story of President Grover Cleveland’s first term of office, 1885 to 1889. (Cleveland had hired a young Polish immigrant as his substitute, allowed by the 1863 Conscription Act.)  A Democrat, he wished to bring the South back into the national Democratic Party and condemned the “wicked traffic… in sectional hatred.” He was referring to the Union veterans who opposed his ‘Southern strategy.’

In a gesture to end this sectional hatred, he proposed the return of Southern battle flags captured by Union soldiers and over the years entrusted to the government. There was much sentiment attached to these “relics” of the good fight, so returning them was an affront. Cleveland apologized and withdrew his proposal.  The incident, however, gives testimony to Brian Jordan’s “unending Civil War.”

Killing Patton; The Strange Death of World War II”s Most Audacious General by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard. Henry Holt, 2014.

Killing Patton is one of several books by these two authors which have made The New York Times Bestseller Lists. Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy were both about assassinations. This suggests the possibility that the authors may be presupposing that George Patton’s death in December 1945 was also an assassination. He died several days after being involved in a road accident. His staff car collided with a US army truck.

“Audacious” is one of many words used by the authors to describe George Patton’s generalship. He was commander of the Seventh Army in North Africa and Sicily plus the Third Army in France. The Third Army is given credit for the relief of Bastogne in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.

Patton was an advocate of armored (tank) warfare. Always on the move, he believed that slowing an army down for any reason was a waste of the lives of the soldiers under his command. He felt keenly any slight, believed in himself, and wondered why others in the American high command did not share that same level of confidence. He was not a team player; hard to like. The authors talk about his fierce determination to “speak the truth,” which usually doesn’t garner good colleagues.

Dugard and O’Reilly argue that Patton was right about his distrust of any continuing relationship with our Russian Allies after the war. While he admired the Russian armies as massive fighting machines, he, like many other Americans and Brits, was beginning to worry about the Russian dominance of Eastern Europe after the War.  The Russians, on the other hand, believed that Patton was sheltering some of the SS leadership, in anticipation of a post-war conflict with the Soviet Union.

Patton was a strong advocate for an American capture of Berlin, a city of little strategic value and now largely in ruins. The agreement had been that the Russians would have that honor, and General Eisenhower intended to abide by that agreement. Besides the Russian armies were nearing the German capital. Any American thrust toward Berlin, on the other hand, would have resulted in huge American casualties.

On two different occasions while visiting military hospitals in Sicily, Patton slapped soldiers who were suffering from “battle fatigue.” In World War I their condition was called shell-shock; in our more recent wars post-traumatic stress disorder. Patton viewed it as cowardice. Eisenhower found out about Patton’s conduct and tried to suppress mention of the two incidents. But Drew Pearson, popular columnist and radio commentator, ran the story. Patton was immensely popular with the U.S. media (two-time cover of Time Magazine.) so the matter blew over. Just as well! Eisenhower needed Patton and his aggressive campaigning.

But then there was a more serious transgression: the Hammelburg Mission. Patton found out that his son-in-law, John Waters, was incarcerated in Stalag XIII-B, a POW camp near the German town of Hammelburg. Patton sent Captain Abraham Baum and a task force of 300 U.S. soldiers with Sherman tanks and armored vehicles behind German lines to liberate Waters and his fellow prisoners. He claimed that this was not a rescue mission but rather a diversionary tactic to draw off Wehrmacht troops from the front. Patton was impressed by how much public esteem Douglas MacArthur had recently garnished for his liberation of American POWs in the Philippines.

Things went badly. There were many more POWs than the 300. There was a fire fight.  Waters and other POWs were wounded. There were not enough vehicles to transport all of those in the camp, and they were not in good shape for a sixty-mile hike back to the American lines. The column was spotted by German aircraft and an ensuing attack killed thirty-two men. Most of the POWs and the task force were captured. Only thirty-five made it back to safety.

Nine days later Stalag XIII-B was liberated by another American armored division. The prisoners were probably never in much danger. Except for a massacre during the Battle of the Bulge, Germans generally honored the Geneva Convention regarding Prisoners of War.

The authors of Killing Patton suggest that the facts surrounding the death of Patton are troubling. Though the authors stop short of accusations, they hint at conspiracy and suggest the possible motives of several individuals who might have wanted Patton out of the way. For example, William Donovan. He was the head of the Office of Strategic Services (which became the CIA), and hence had command of the wherewithal for just such an assassination. Possible motive: Donovan was one of those advocates for continuing our alliance with Russia after the war.

My cousin Hollis Rider was killed in Alsace-Lorraine on 27 November 1944, shortly after his arrival in France.  He was in the 315th Infantry, part of Patton’s Seventh Army. Had he not been killed by German machine gun fire, he would have participated in the crossing of the Rhine.

Chaucer’s Tale; 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm. Viking Press, 2014.

It must be difficult to find a topic about Geoffrey Chaucer that hasn’t been exhausted. Paul Strohm has picked a pivotal year in Chaucer’s life. In 1386 Chaucer lost his appointment as Controller of Customs of the wool trade. He was also more-or-less booted out of his lodgings of many years above Aldgate, London.

Chaucer is often called the father of English literature. He wrote in the vernacular (Middle English), French and Latin being the two dominant literary languages of the English realm at this time. Much is known about his official life, less about his literary life.

Strohm describes literary works of the fourteenth century as aural (heard) rather than read. The printing press would not be introduced into England until 1476; and even then paper was always in short supply. Parchment, made from animal skins, was expensive, and difficult to conserve. Each parchment copy would have been ordered individually, rather like the books-on-demand arrangement in our century that for a time seemed a solution to keeping books in print.

These readings given to his London audience were interactive, perhaps like that of present-day performance artists. A literary work would be introduced with a prologue, like the introductory remarks that precede a poetry recital by a member of the Creative Writing Program, UF.

Strohm describes in much detail Chaucer’s lodgings above Aldgate, The gate has disappeared, but one can imagine what these “digs” were like from the nearby surviving structures. They consisted of two rooms in a turret, “Spartan” and cramped certainly, though well situated in terms of Chaucer’s place of work, the wool wharf and warehouse, on the Thames.  Apparently the rent was affordable.

Chaucer’s neighborhood would have been a noisy and smelly place with considerable wheeled traffic during the day. The Gate was closed at sunset whereupon the street-life changed to “pub crawlers” and all of the nuisances associated with their inebriation. Chaucer was apparently a good Catholic; Would he have enjoyed the ‘holy racket’ of church bells summoning worshipers to the various masses performed in both Holy Trinity Priory, nearby, and St. Botolph’s without Aldgate?.

Revenue from the export of English wool to the Flanders and Italian textile industry was important to the royal revenues. Richard II and Edward III were fighting the Hundred Year’s War in France, suppressing the Scots, and defending the crown against domestic opposition to its prodigality.

That revenue stream from wool exports was being much diverted into a number of pockets, legitimate in some cases, but part of what historians dismissively call “corruption.” Chaucer had opportunities to enrich himself and definitely important patrons of his were profiting from that corruption. Nicholas Brembre, four-time mayor of London and a patron of Chaucer’s, cornered the wool market for a time. Eventually he slipped on that slippery slope of “corruption” and was hanged in 1388 for ‘treason,’ which generally meant that he either threatened the powers-that-be, or stole from them, or both.

Strohm calls Chaucer “complicitous,”   a “fellow traveler,” or as we would say these days, keep himself “under the radar.” But Strohm contends that Chaucer was probably not on the take. At least judging from his fortune, or lack thereof, as of 1386 his years in the royal service had not made him a rich man.  Not a social reformer, he may, nevertheless, have provided some constraint against the less scrupulous. By 1386 his writing career was flourishing, though also not a source of income.

That year Geoffrey Chaucer retired (was retired) and got elected as a Member of Parliament from the county of Kent (His wife had property there.) Hence he continued in the King’s service but with the title of “esquire” and below the status of “knight.” That lowly ranking suggests to Paul Strohm that Chaucer’s career as a parliamentarian was not that glorious either.

This was a pivotal time for the evolution of the English Parliament, with the burgesses joining the knights for purposes of deliberating on the business of the Crown. These “commoners” gradually separated themselves from the great magnates of the realm and thus the “house of commoners” and “house of lords.” Chaucer returned to court service and London briefly in the 1790s, but then settled into completing his great masterpiece.

That never happened, and most of the assembling of the various tales and their prologues only came about after his death in 1400. The Canterbury Tales, as it has come down to us, was largely the work of a professional scrivener, Adam Pinkhurst. Geoffrey Chaucer probably never quite understood how- or even desired – to become a writer-celebrity. In northern Italy Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and others were fashioning that persona, not yet possible in Chaucer’s England.

Nazism and German Society, 1933 to 1945 by David Crew, ed. Routledge. 1994, paper.

 

Nazism and German Society was required reading for a course that I recently audited at the University of Florida: ‘Germany in the Twentieth Century,’ taught by Professor Michael Schuering. The book’s editor, David Crew, has included articles and book chapters that illuminate key historical debates about the nature of National Socialist Germany and written introductions to each. Published two decades ago, the book, nevertheless, raises issues of continuing interest.

Why did Germans respond so favorably to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSGWP)? It is often argued that the initial support for the Nazi Party was petit bourgeoisie: shopkeepers, artisans, prosperous farmers, and professionals. By 1939, however, Adolf Hitler had won over much of the working class. He had brought full employment with his program of rearmament. The Nazi party was given credit for better working conditions in German industry. It promised better things to come, consumer goods and the “Volkswagen.”

On the other hand Hitler also promised to factory owners, industrial peace. They were given greater control over the industrial floor and hence opportunity to “rationalize” production. The factory would be a place where the working man performed “national labor,” did his part for the greater good of the work force and the larger German Volksgemeinschaft or people’s community. German workers could experience the honor of quality work but within the existing capitalist economy and well short of socialism. During the war they would also enjoy a defacto position of privilege over foreign workers. (See Alf Lüdtke)

Foreign workers had long been important to the German economy. They became essential as Germans were drafted into the expanding Wehrmacht. Hitler’s aggressive dismantling of the “dictat”, the Treaty of Versailles which followed World War I, was broadly popular. To purse his objectives in the East, he would need an army and that made necessary the greater use of foreign workers. Had it not been for foreign workers, the Nazi war machine might have collapsed in 1943.

German science had participated in the remarkable effort to eradicate human diseases. Could there be an analogous triumph over the ills afflicting human society as a whole? The science of eugenics promised some insights into how that might occur. The positive process would involve institutions that selected for the “fittest.” But that process would take generations before beginning to make a difference.

The negative process was more easily implemented. At first that involved the separation and confinement of populations that were not considered “worthy of life,” with limited resources devoted to their care. By the late 1930s, those measures had morphed into euthanasia, racial hygiene: the destruction of those deemed unworthy of life. Early targeted were feeble-minded and handicapped children and the mentally ill. Then social undesirables: vagrants and the homeless, homosexuals. Then racial inferiors: blacks, gypsies, and Jews. There were forced abortions and sterilizations. Children who looked sufficiently Aryan were taken from their non-German mothers and placed in Aryan households. (See Detlav Peukert)

There was considerable bureaucratic infighting in National Socialist Germany. This is no better illustrated than the case of the Gestapo or secret police. Various Nazi bigwigs fought over the control of its operations. The Gestapo never was the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent organization that it claimed for itself and many historians of the period have claimed for it. Woefully short of staff, it had to rely on the German public to ferret out the disloyal and disobedient. Its ‘eyes’ were the many individuals who denounced their relatives, friends, and neighbors. Their acknowledged motive – patriotism – but more commonly greed, hate, and prejudice. (See Klaus-Michael Mallmann & Gerhard Paul)

The Gestapo found municipal police forces cooperative. Recent historians have pointed out that these regular police did much of the killing, particularly of Jews and Poles, in the last years of the war. A bullet in the head was more efficient than transporting to concentration camps. “One Day in Jozefow; Initiation to Mass Murder” is a specific case of a brutal killing of 1500 Jews, mostly women, children, and old people by policemen from Hamburg. (See Christopher Browning)

Finally the “Hitler Myth.” (See Ian Kershaw) There was much grumbling, but seldom did the German public voice any open opposition to Nazi rule. And Adolf Hitler’s aura of invincibility was not something that Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda machine did for him. Hitler ‘had a good track record’ with the German public. He seemed moderate in comparison with groups that had helped him gain political power. For example, storm troopers – members of the SA – and their leader, Ernst Röhm. Röhm continued to complain about an “unfulfilled socialist revolution.” The German public was impatient with the storm troopers’ continuing street violence. Military officialdom feared and despised them. Thus there was tacit support for the violence of the ‘Night of Long Knives’ in July 1934 when the Nazis executed the SA’s leadership, including Röhm. Hitler had acted in Germany’s best interest, protecting them against extremism.

Whether one believes Hitler to have been a charismatic leader or not, his ubiquitous presence was reassuring. Particularly that was true after the German defeat before Stalingrad and the Allied bombing of German cities had begun. But charismatic?