Wold War II; Rhode Island

The authors of this book champion the importance of Rhode Island’s contribution to the war effort. Narragansett Bay with its watery byways was an important supplier of materiel for our naval warfare, though never in any immediate danger from German attack. Hence impressive industrial plants were constructed or revamped to meet the needs of Rhode Island’s war industries. By 1944, 13,000 workers had been assembled in the Bay area to work in these war plants.

Rhode Island’s contributions to the war effort were considerable given its size and population. The Quonset “hut,” a prefabricated metal structure that could be assembled quickly, had multiple uses during the island warfare in the Pacific Theater. It was named after Quonset, Rhode Island. Many were quickly constructed in forward bases along the US East Coast and used as barracks for soldiers that would defend our shores should German U-Boats attack via the North Atlantic.

Both liberty ships and commercial cargo ships were built in the Providence Ship Yard. The navy’s PT (Patrol Torpedo) Boats were tested in the Bay and eventually manufactured at Newport. PTs were a well-armed, fast-attack craft used mostly in the Pacific.

Future Presidents Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush were stationed at the New Port Naval Air Station at different times. The facilities were also used to train navy pilots and other crew members. Many Seabees (Construction Battalions) were trained at the Davisville facility in the Bay area.

With so many men on active duty in the area, there needed to be some entertainment and activities for off-duty hours. One of the first USO (United Service Organization) Centers was located in Newport, Rhode Island.

As the war in Europe came to an end in late 1944, some of the housing at various facilities was used as Prisoner of War camps. We had the idea that German prisoners could be re-educated. Most of them had grown up believing the National Socialist propaganda. Could that process be reversed? There were 380,000 German POWs to be Denazified, some more easily than others. And three POW camps were adapted for that purpose. German soldiers settled into bunks that American GIs had bedded down in just months previously while being trained.

Camp Blanding, east of Stark, Florida, was a POW camp after it had served as a training camp. Most German Prisoners of War were happy to be bunked down in Florida, rather than trudging through snow and mud on the Russian Front. Or awaiting rescue after their ship had been sent to the bottom. The Rhode Island camps were, however, not as peaceful as those in Starke. In fact there was considerable tension amongst the prisoners held in the Narragansett Bay area, with death threats and other unpleasantries. A German language newspaper Der Ruf  “The Call” was published by German POWs in Rhode Island. It became the voice for the not-so-contented.

Back in 1960, just as I was graduating from Iowa State University – with a job – I got an opportunity to take a cheap flight to Amsterdam. Traveling through Germany by myself on a motor bike, I met up with Germans who had been Prisoners of War in the US.  With no exception, they said that they enjoyed their stay and were grateful for the way they had been treated.

At the end of the War there was a famous photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a sailor grabbing what appears to have been a nurse in the midst of New York’s Times Square. He was landing an impromptu kiss on her lips. Many sailors have come forth as that young sailor; the authors of World War II; Rhode Island claim him to have been a Rhode Islander.

By the end of the War, I was a six-year-old kid, growing up in Iowa, a state that is half a continent away from Narragansett Bay. Many Iowans served on both fronts, but more of them in the European front; a first cousin died in a field in Alsace. Iowa was, like Rhode Island, an active part of the home front. Its industries, like Rhode Island’s, quickly converted to the production of war materiel. Many farm boys received exemptions from the draft because they were needed to keep Iowa producing food. We were far from carrier-based German bombers. We nevertheless had air-raid drills right up to the end of the War.

Our community was heavily German-American. However, it seemed not to have mattered when it came to fighting the Nazis.

Lincoln and the Abolitionists

Lincoln and the Abolitionists; John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War by Fred Kaplan. Harper, 2017.

Abraham Lincoln believed that the presence of free blacks in a white society would perpetuate racial conflict. The abolition of slaves, he argued, would create an unworkable biracial democracy. The author, Fred Kaplan, contrasts Lincoln’s views to those of the Adams family. John Quincy Adams had served two terms as President from 1825 to 1833, and that experience had convinced him that abolition was essential to the future of the republic.

Most abolitionists had no certainty about what to do if and when American slavery ended. Lincoln favored returning black slaves to Africa. Or perhaps creating new colonies for them in South America and the Caribbean.  However, it was not clear who would pay for this colonial alternative. And should slave owners receive financial compensation? Would immigration be forced on the freedmen? Neither Abraham Lincoln nor John Quincy Adams suggested how the country would sort out any multi-racial democracy.

The more immediate problem was whether slavery would be extended to the new territories acquired either by the Louisiana Purchase or as the result of the Mexican War, and particularly Texas. The conflict over continuing or ending slavery had become entangled, Kaplan argues, with the incorporation of new states and territories into a lasting, stable democratic republic.

The necessity to settle this growing political issue was heightened by the increasingly violent opposition to abolition, even in the North. Elijah Lovejoy – preacher, journalist, and abolitionist – owned a printing business in Alton, Illinois. Its presses were destroyed by a pro-slavery mob and Lovejoy was shot dead. Lovejoy’s death as the result of mob violence is often considered to be part of the struggle for free-speech, but Kaplan argues it was also part of the anti-slavery movement. The crowd had a number of passions. Illinois was important, Kaplan points out, in the abolitionist movement. It was also Abraham Lincoln’s home state and important to his political career; he was planning to run for a second term. Springfield became the initial home of his aspirations, and the Sangamo Journal his first print forum.

Lincoln took comfort in the widely held assumption that the North had a superiority in almost all measures essential to waging war.

Some advocates of abolition argued that ultimately the issue of slavery would take care of itself; slavery would gradually disappear. In fact agriculture in the South, Kaplan reports, prospered with the introduction of cotton and sugar and the work force was primarily black slaves. Raw cotton from the South fed the cotton spinning and weaving industries in New England, Britain, and elsewhere.

Lincoln proposed using some tempting to encourage secessionist states to rejoin the union, initially targeting the border states — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware – where slavery was never so entrenched. In September 1862, he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves in the remaining states that had rejoined the Union would be freed after a period of time. Lincoln understood that the failure of the Union armies to achieve a battlefield victory was complicating his timing. George McClellan’s victory at Antietam provided that opportunity. Also former bondsmen were showing up everywhere along Union lines and needed to be organized into the fight as freedmen.

The Emancipation Proclamation of the following year was also not a total emancipation, even though it freed three of the four million slaves in those states and territories occupied by Union Armies. Many who had been supporters of what Kaplan calls “anti-slavery moralism,” were disappointed with these several half-measures that Lincoln was taking. Many were also outraged by Lincoln’s declaration of martial rule and his restrictions on speech, which limited the public discussion of emancipation.

But Lincoln, Kaplan argues, was thinking ahead to a post-Civil War America and at least a partial mending of the secession. How to put the country back together again? Healing those divisions was the more important objective of his decision to contest the right of states to secede, and important to the making of the peace.

Kaplan joins virtually all other historians in believing that Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President was a disaster and his attempts at reconstruction left us saddled with the Jim Crow South and decades of racist policies. Had Booth’s bullets missed their target, post-Civil War America might have been a very different place. Would the Ku Klux Klan have launched its campaign of terror? Would there have been a march across the bridge at Selma, Alabama?

 

 

Grant

          Most military historians, Chernow included, agree that Ulysses S. Grant was the most successful of the Civil War generals on both the Confederate and Union sides. Grant’s origins, however, were humble. He started out working as a tanner in  the small Illinois town of Galena, along the Mississippi. The author of this long biography disagrees with most historians in his evaluation of Grant’s two terms as the US President from 1869 to 1877.

          Grant was as professionally trained as any military commander could be in nineteenth-century America. Appointed to West Point in 1839, he served with distinction in the Mexican War and in 1863 won one of the most important battles of the Civil War, the siege and surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Grant’s contacts at West Point were later important to his rise within the Union Army. He claimed that he knew how Confederate generals – also West Point graduates – would respond to situations as they arose on the battlefield.   

Much has been made of his drinking problem, and Chernow acknowledges that at times Ulysses drank whiskey to the point of inebriation (got dead drunk). Chernow even allows that at times his drinking may have adversely affected his generalship. Though there were commanding qualities that out-weighed this infrequent condition.

The Confederate states believed the Civil War to be a testing of the right to secede from the Union.  And, yes, secession was the issue when the war began, at least for Abraham Lincoln and others in the Lincoln Administration. But by 1863 both Lincoln and Grant thought the War to be the opportunity to end slavery adding, emancipation to secession. General Grant argued for the incorporation of blacks into the Union Army, especially after the draft riots in New York showed that there would be resistance to conscription.

Grant believed the War would be won, not by occupying cities but by defeating Confederate armies and then pursuing them as they retreated. Lincoln was relieved to have found a general who agreed with his war strategy.

Grant found that these black volunteers made good soldiers. They should be recruited to share in the battle for their freedom. The South, on the other hand, looked upon black soldiers as runaway slaves (most of them were) and should suffer the fate that absconding slaves had always suffered.

Later when Grant began the negotiations with General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, one of his concerns was the protection of the Negro from white racism. In the early negotiations Lee insisted that, as part of any agreement to end the war, the North should agree to return freedman to their former masters. Would this be for an appropriate punishment? Grant did not consent to this condition.

In December 1862 Grant made what he considers to have been his greatest mistake during his command of the Army of Tennessee. He issued General Order # 11 expelling all Jews in his military district. As a commander of the Army, Grant was responsible for the licensing of traders. His order was intended to deal with the ‘Israelite profiteers’ who were obtaining contracts to supply Southern cotton to the New England and European mill industry through “corruption” – a black market. The order was immediately rescinded.

Perhaps Chernow spends too much time on Grant’s wife, Julia. She and Mary Lincoln did not get along. When Lincoln invited General and Mrs. Grant to attend a play at Ford Theater, it was politely declined. The afternoon before the performance Mrs. Grant noticed that a horseman was peering into their carriage. It turned out to have been John Wilkes Booth. There is some evidence that Booth was “stalking” both President and General. Was Grant slated to be assassinated as well?  

Grant is praised for his generosity to the defeated foe at Appomattox. Both he and Lee wished to prevent the Confederate army from breaking up into bands of raiders, waging guerrilla warfare. Ulysses S. Grant was also positioning himself to run for the presidency against Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice-President.

          Chernow hopes to persuade us that much injustice is done to Grant’s two Presidential terms. They were besmeared by the corruption of the post-Civil War administrations, Andrew Johnson’s and then his own as well.

          Almost immediately with the surrender, race riots broke out in Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups began their intimidation of the black voters and jurists. Lynching, burning black churches and homes, intimidation of witnesses when perpetrators were brought to trial, and other acts of violence against the new freedmen were common throughout the old Confederacy. A caste system evolved with its black codes which we collectively call Jim Crow. President Johnson was criticized for doing nothing about the violence. His impeachment was defeated by a single vote.

A two-term presidency was an easy win for Grant. He considered a third, unprecedented term at his wife’s urging. But he was ready to go home.

          Grant inherited the violence and dealt with it as he could – with opposition from states’ rights advocates. He turned to weaving the three Post-War amendments into the fabric of our constitutional structure. And he never forgot what the author calls the spirit of Appomattox.

 A Civil Rights Act passed in 1875 was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883. And not passed until 1957 and 1964.

Ulysses Grant was also a strong supporter of Native Americans and white-settler resistance to encroachment in Dakota Territory. Were he around today Grant would be a strong supporter of the new Crazy Horse Monument being carved near Mount Rushmore. Grant would also probably have agreed to the four presidents to be carved on Mount Rushmore. Perhaps we should add a second team to the Rushmore first team. Certainly Woodrow Wilson would be included. Would Ulysses S. Grant?

The Vanishing Stepwells of India

I have traveled through India on three occasions. And these stepwells have never been called to my attention. What fascinating structures they are!  There are hundreds of them, found mostly in the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi dating from the sixth century up to the eighteenth.

They are neglected, not getting the attention they deserve. But that may change. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage is carefully restoring many of them and Victoria Lautman’s book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India, will also help to correct that inattention. Lautman has visited more than two hundred of them.

The stepwells are part of the Indian architectural heritage that includes the many Hindu and Jain temples and Moslem mosques. They are subsurface wells that have borrowed decorative elements from the various craft traditions of local guilds to decorate the long flights of stairs.

They commonly descend one or two levels below the surface, depending on how high the water table is in the area. Some descend five to seven flights of steps to gain access to cisterns filled with drinking water (dubious), but also water for irrigation, laundering, bathing, and ablutions. The cool subterranean spaces created are also used for socializing as surface wells have for millennia.

They are well-named – stepwells. The descent is by somewhat dubious stone stairs with no railing. They are made even more precarious by their being slippery when wet. And for part of the year they are quite wet.

Most often Hindu temples and Islamic mosques were built on a plinth, accessed by a flight of stairs. Hence climbing (in the case of stepwells, descending) is associated with acquiring holiness. In some ways these stepwells represent a reversion back to even older rock-cut spaces, the Buddhist temples at Ellora and Ajanta.

Most of these stepwells were acts of devotion and charity on the part of Hindu nobility. Muslim rulers, Lautman contends, did not disrupt the culture of these stepwells, including the human representations, which Moslems normally avoid.

The stepwells contain an amazing array of stone statuary, Hindu gods and goddesses that are often placed in richly carved niches, elaborately decorated door frames, and carved interior chambers. Much of the statuary and other carved material that can be found at each level of these subterranean spaces have been reused from existing Hindu temples. India’s goddesses are better represented than the gods, although images of Shiva and Ganesh can be found. Most of the stories told are drawn from the Ramayana and are meant primarily for a female audience. This religious architecture – temples, mosques and stepwells- attests to the wealth present in the medieval sub-continent of India

Lautman describes several stepwell prototypes. Some involve a direct descent to underground chambers, four to five stories below, in one or two instances as many as nine. Others are L-shaped stairwells, leading to an octagonal, or cylindrical, or square drum. In some cases the stepwells take the form of an inverted pyramid with multitudinous steps arranged in such a way as to become decorative elements in themselves. Galleries, somewhat like side chapels in a medieval church, radiate off of the primary shaft, often with balconies. And like medieval churches, these side chapels have pavilion-like structures, called chhatris.

Some of the architectural features were carved in situ. More often they were carved elsewhere and installed. Red sandstone is used sparingly, mostly to add color. It usually indicates later additions.

Most of the stepwells were constructed for the purpose of providing cool, refreshing spaces in a hot land. Imagine how appealing these wells were to participants in caravansaries. They were a part of a system that regulated water uses. If the stepwells had a dependable supply of water, they often became a shrine. If that were their destiny, they were better kept.

From Lautman’s extraordinary photographs you can hope that some of the careful reconstruction will involve a good weeding.  Lots of pigeons, and an occasional monkey or two have taken up permanent residence.  Indians enjoy the presence of their fauna.

I am indebted to a two-volumned study of Hindu and Moslem architecture by Percy Brown, Indian Architecture; Buddhist & Hindu Periods and India Architecture; Islamic Period (Taraporevala Sons & Company, 1964). More recent scholarly works like Lautman’s have not, however, made Percy Brown obsolete, mainly because of the many, many plates of photographs and restorations that he has incorporated into this third edition.

Rebels and Runaways; Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Florida

 

            In 1821 Florida was ceded by Spain to the US; in 1845 it entered the Union as a state. Nineteenth-Century Florida played a unique role in the evolution of the institution of slavery and its expanding cotton economy in the American South. The expansion of raw cotton production meant a larger work force and hence more slaves. Rivers focuses on what he terms Middle Florida, which includes Leon, Jackson, Jefferson, Gadsden and Madison counties (the Florida panhandle region that abuts southwest Georgia).     Some historians claim the series of wars that we call the Seminole Wars involved this expanding cotton economy.

Florida also played an important role in the resistance to slavery. It’s long seashore and orientation to the North Atlantic economy meant that slaves fleeing Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and the West Indies often ended up in Florida. Florida’s largest towns – St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Pensacola – were havens for runaways.

            Rivers argues that contrary to the common perception, there was considerable resistance to African bondage. That resistance took a variety of forms. It included, of course, the slave who absconded to distant places, perhaps with the help of the “underground Railway.” Most often, however, the slave hid out in his locality, wanting not to be separated from his family and community. He had to eat and his master was the most likely source of a stolen hog, the most common food item, or chickens, or a raid on the plantation’s larder. If the slave had been involved in the maritime trade, he begged food off of his fellow sailors.

Slave owners liked to think that runaway slaves were motivated by Northern abolitionists and that their flight was itself a form of thievery on the part of those abolitionists. Ultimately Northern opponents of slavery could provide little help to the bondsmen wishing to flee his bondage. Northerners understood that a disruption of the Southern slave economy resulting from slave flight would seriously injure the cotton economy, which was feeding the New England cotton mills. 

            These runaways were out-and-out thieves, or so the slave owner contended. When caught (or when he returned to his home plantation), the slave was usually severely punished, many lashes with a whip.

The crimes involved in his flight could be more serious: The murder of the overseer who had administered the lashes? The most common way of doing in a hard master was poison, and a suspicious purchase of a poison was often a tip-off to the slave’s intentions.

Rivers describes other forms of slave resistance short of running away. Work slowdowns and faking illnesses were far more common. Often the punishment for the household servant was fieldwork, and stoop labor.

Generally the slave’s flight was not a spur-of-the-moment act. Most of the runaway slaves had planned their flight well in advance, storing up food and clothing for what might be weeks of tenuous existence.

Were these absconding slaves ‘rebels?’ Mostly they were individual slaves planning their own flight from this harsh world of Southern slavery. However, the slaves’ knowledge of Florida’s waterways was a significant assistance to the Union cause during the Civil War.

The Haitian Revolution colored Southern attitudes toward this flight of slaves. Beginning in 1791, Haitian slaves rioted, killed Haitian slave owners, and conducted guerilla warfare for years after that initial rebellion.

Plantation owners knew who, amongst their community, were a source of the brutal treatment of their slaves and hence slave flight. Perhaps to ameliorate the worst practices, they often agreed to help enforce the various codes that regulated the business of capture. The reward for returning a slave was substantial, in the thousands of dollars in today’s dollar.  

Generally speaking, there would be a notice in a local paper with a detailed description of the runaway’s appearance, often flattering. The list of their skills is remarkable: blacksmiths, carpenters, and pilots were the most common crafts listed. Hence their flight meant a significant loss of skilled labor to the Southern economy.

Rivers contends, however, that despite this dependency on slave labor and the economic losses involved in flight, slave owners did little to ameliorate the harness of slavery in the American south. One reads accounts of slaves who fled because their infants and children had been sold to distant plantation owners. Southern slave owners often sold slaves to satisfy their debts, or to finance the purchase of new plantations. Many slaves were leased out, and their owner ceased to have any control over their well-being.

Thus Rivers believes that there were many causes of slave resistance in nineteenth-century Florida and that resistance was not uncommon. He has proven his point that slaves in Middle Florida often took it upon themselves to resist their slavery by Larry Rivers. University of Illinois Press, 2013 paper.

            In 1821 Florida was ceded by Spain to the US; in 1845 it entered the Union as a state. Nineteenth-Century Florida played a unique role in the evolution of the institution of slavery and its expanding cotton economy in the American South. The expansion of raw cotton production meant a larger work force and hence more slaves. Rivers focuses on what he terms Middle Florida, which includes Leon, Jackson, Jefferson, Gadsden and Madison counties (the Florida panhandle region that abuts southwest Georgia).     Some historians claim the series of wars that we call the Seminole Wars involved this expanding cotton economy.

Florida also played an important role in the resistance to slavery. It’s long seashore and orientation to the North Atlantic economy meant that slaves fleeing Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and the West Indies often ended up in Florida. Florida’s largest towns – St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Pensacola – were havens for runaways.

            Rivers argues that contrary to the common perception, there was considerable resistance to African bondage. That resistance took a variety of forms. It included, of course, the slave who absconded to distant places, perhaps with the help of the “underground Railway.” Most often, however, the slave hid out in his locality, wanting not to be separated from his family and community. He had to eat and his master was the most likely source of a stolen hog, the most common food item, or chickens, or a raid on the plantation’s larder. If the slave had been involved in the maritime trade, he begged food off of his fellow sailors.

Slave owners liked to think that runaway slaves were motivated by Northern abolitionists and that their flight was itself a form of thievery on the part of those abolitionists. Ultimately Northern opponents of slavery could provide little help to the bondsmen wishing to flee his bondage. Northerners understood that a disruption of the Southern slave economy resulting from slave flight would seriously injure the cotton economy, which was feeding the New England cotton mills. 

            These runaways were out-and-out thieves, or so the slave owner contended. When caught (or when he returned to his home plantation), the slave was usually severely punished, many lashes with a whip.

The crimes involved in his flight could be more serious: The murder of the overseer who had administered the lashes? The most common way of doing in a hard master was poison, and a suspicious purchase of a poison was often a tip-off to the slave’s intentions.

Rivers describes other forms of slave resistance short of running away. Work slowdowns and faking illnesses were far more common. Often the punishment for the household servant was fieldwork, and stoop labor.

Generally the slave’s flight was not a spur-of-the-moment act. Most of the runaway slaves had planned their flight well in advance, storing up food and clothing for what might be weeks of tenuous existence.

Were these absconding slaves ‘rebels?’ Mostly they were individual slaves planning their own flight from this harsh world of Southern slavery. However, the slaves’ knowledge of Florida’s waterways was a significant assistance to the Union cause during the Civil War.

The Haitian Revolution colored Southern attitudes toward this flight of slaves. Beginning in 1791, Haitian slaves rioted, killed Haitian slave owners, and conducted guerilla warfare for years after that initial rebellion.

Plantation owners knew who, amongst their community, were a source of the brutal treatment of their slaves and hence slave flight. Perhaps to ameliorate the worst practices, they often agreed to help enforce the various codes that regulated the business of capture. The reward for returning a slave was substantial, in the thousands of dollars in today’s dollar.  

Generally speaking, there would be a notice in a local paper with a detailed description of the runaway’s appearance, often flattering. The list of their skills is remarkable: blacksmiths, carpenters, and pilots were the most common crafts listed. Hence their flight meant a significant loss of skilled labor to the Southern economy.

Rivers contends, however, that despite this dependency on slave labor and the economic losses involved in flight, slave owners did little to ameliorate the harness of slavery in the American south. One reads accounts of slaves who fled because their infants and children had been sold to distant plantation owners. Southern slave owners often sold slaves to satisfy their debts, or to finance the purchase of new plantations. Many slaves were leased out, and their owner ceased to have any control over their well-being.

Thus Rivers believes that there were many causes of slave resistance in nineteenth-century Florida and that resistance was not uncommon. He has proven his point that slaves in Middle Florida often took it upon themselves to resist their slavery