Published in 1915, Cleveland Moffett’s The Conquest of America imagined a German assault on the United States in 1921. Moffett had intended the novel as a warning of the importance of military preparedness, and it was quickly forgotten, but one passage would come to take on an eerie significance — an attack on Manhattan:
‘Ah! So!’ said von Hindenburg, and he glanced at a gun crew who were loading a half-ton projectile into an 11.1-inch siege-gun that stood on the pavement. ‘Which is the Woolworth Building?’ he asked, pointing across the river.
‘The tallest one, Excellency — the one with the Gothic lines and gilded cornices,’ replied one of his officers.
‘Ah, yes, of course. I recognise it from the pictures. It’s beautiful. Gentlemen,’ — he addressed the American officers, — ‘I am offering twenty-dollar gold pieces to this gun crew if they bring down that tower with a single shot. Now, then, careful! …
We covered our ears as the shot crashed forth, and a moment later the most costly and graceful tower in the world seemed to stagger on its base. Then, as the thousand-pound shell, striking at the twenty-seventh story, exploded deep inside, clouds of yellow smoke poured out through the crumbling walls, and the huge length of twenty-four stories above the jagged wound swayed slowly toward the east, and fell as one piece, flinging its thousands of tons of stone and steel straight across the width of Broadway, and down upon the grimy old Post Office Building opposite.
‘Sehr gut!’ nodded von Hindenburg. ‘It’s amusing to see them fall. Suppose we try another? What’s that one on the left?’
‘The Singer Building, Excellency,’ answered the officer.
‘Good! Are you ready?’
Then the tragedy was repeated, and six hundred more were added to the death toll, as the great tower crumbled to earth.
‘Now, gentlemen,’ — von Hindenburg turned again to the American officers with a tiger gleam in his eyes, — ‘you see what we have done with two shots to two of your tallest and finest buildings. At this time to-morrow, with God’s help, we shall have a dozen guns along this bank of the river, ready for whatever may be necessary.’
In the end J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller are held hostage and ordered to raise a billion dollars to indemnify the city. “The Conquest of America is as full of thrills as the most excitable and fearful patriot need ask,” raved the Independent. “If all the prominent Americans named in the tale, as hostages or otherwise, get about the business of preparedness, this invasion will never be.”
In 1763 an anonymous Londoner published The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925, a forecast of the remote 20th century. Among other things, the author predicted that George’s greatest military victory would come before the gates of Vienna in May 1918, the actual date of Germany’s Spring Offensive of World War I:
Peter immediately raised the siege, and, drawing up his forces in the plains of Vienna, prepared to fight the King of England, who was also engaged in the same employment. The Russian army had a superiority of above sixty thousand men, consequently their numbers were two to one; but no dangers could depress the heart of George. Having, with moving batteries, secured the rear and wings of his army from being surrounded, he placed his artillery in the most advantageous manner; and dividing his front into two lines, at the head of the first he began the attack, after his artillery had played on the enemy an hour, with great success. The Russian infantry, animated by the presence of their Czar, under whom they had so often conquered, repulsed him with some loss. The King hereupon made a second and still more furious attack, but yet without success. At that critical moment the Duke of Devonshire, who commanded his left wing, sent for immediate assistance, as he was hard pressed by the superior numbers of the enemy. George flew like lightning to his weakened troops, and placing himself at the head of six regiments of dragoons, made such a furious attack on the eager Russians as threw them into disorder, and following his advantage, pushed them with great success.
Properly speaking this isn’t science fiction, as the author envisions no technological advances: Sail warships still fight naval battles; East Indiamen travel to India and Indonesia; and European nations communicate by roads and trade using river barges.
But here’s an interesting detail: “By the year 1920 there were 11,000,000 of souls in the British-American dominions [of North America]: they were in possession of perhaps the finest country in the world, and yet had never made the least attempt to shake off the authority of Great-Britain.” Writing in 1763, the author had considered the possibility of a revolt in the colonies, but rejected it: “The constitutions of the several divisions of this vast monarchy were admirably designed to keep the whole in continual dependence on the mother country. … The multiplicity of governments which prevailed over the whole country rendered the execution of such a scheme [combined rebellion] absolutely impossible.”
A successful concert with mouth-organs, combs, and tissue-paper and penny whistles was given by the [British] Guards in the front-line trenches near Loos. They played old English melodies, harmonized with great emotion and technical skill. It attracted an unexpected audience. The Germans crowded into their front line — not far away — and applauded each number. Presently, in good English, a German voice shouted across:
‘Play “Annie Laurie” and I will sing it.’
The Guards played ‘Annie Laurie,’ and a German officer stood up on the parapet — the evening sun was red behind him — and sang the old song admirably, with great tenderness. There was applause on both sides.
— Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told, 1920
Testimony of Alexander Falconbridge before a select committee of the House of Commons, March 8, 1790:
What is your present situation?
How many voyages have you been to the Coast of Africa?
I have been four voyages to the Coast of Africa.
Do you examine the Slaves previous to purchasing them?
They are always examined by some officers on board; it is generally understood to be the surgeon’s business.
Do they appear dejected when brought on board?
All that I have seen in my voyages did appear so.
Did this dejection continue, or did it soon wear off?
With some it continued the whole voyage, and with others till death put a period to their misery.
Have you known instances of Slaves refusing sustenance?
I have known several instances.
With what design?
With a design to starve themselves, I am persuaded. …
What was the mode used in stowing the Slaves in their night apartments?
They had not so much room as a man has in his coffin, neither in length or breadth, and it was impossible for them to turn or shift with any degree of ease. I have had occasion very often to go from one side of their rooms to the other; before I attempted it I have always taken off my shoes, and notwithstanding I have trod with as much care as I possibly could to prevent pinching them, it has unavoidably happened that I did so; I have often had my feet bit and scratched by them, the marks of which I have now. …
Are the consequences ever extremely noxious and nauseous of great number being ill at once of this latter disorder [dysentery]?
It was the case in the Alexander, as I have said before when I was taken ill — I cannot conceive any situation so dreadful and disgusting, the deck was covered with blood and mucus, and approached nearer to the resemblance of a slaughter-house than anything I can compare it to, the stench and foul air were likewise intolerable. …
To what cause do you describe [instances of insanity among slaves on board ship]?
To their being torn from their nearest connections, and carried away from their country.
On the occasion of the 1893 World’s Fair, the American Press Association asked 74 prominent Americans to imagine the United States of 1993. Some responses:
- “By the 1990s, longevity will be so improved that 150 years will be no unusual age to reach.” — Thomas De Witt Talmage, Presbyterian preacher
- “In the 1990s, the United States will be a government of perhaps 60 states, situated in both North and South America.” — Asa C. Matthews, comptroller of the Treasury
- “Wealth will be more widely and equally distributed. Great corporations and business interests will be conducted harmoniously — on the principle of the employers and workers sharing in the profits.” — Junius Henri Browne, journalist
- “Three hours will constitute a long day’s work.” — Mary E. Lease, activist and lecturer
- “Trousers will be relegated to bookkeepers, barbers, pastry bakers, and cripples.” — Van Buren Denslow, attorney and economist
- “We are going to see a wonderful development in the use of jewels in American churches.” — George F. Kunz, mineralogist
- “By the end of the Twentieth Century, taxation will be reduced to a minimum, the entire world will be open to trade, and there will be no need of a standing army.” — Erastus Wiman, journalist
“Perhaps I am wrong in some of these prophecies,” reflected drama critic John Habberton, who had predicted that all marriages would be happy. “But if that is so, I shall not be here to be twitted with it — now will I?”
Buster Keaton’s 1926 comedy The General is based on a real event. In April 1862 a group of Union volunteers hijacked a Confederate train in Georgia and led the rebels on an 88-mile, six-hour chase through the state, tearing up tracks and cutting telegraph lines as they went and releasing cars behind them to slow their pursuers. The conspirators ran out of fuel just short of Chattanooga, their goal, but the Union awarded a Medal of Honor to most of them for the exploit.
Keaton turned this into the story of Johnnie Gray, a hapless Georgia engineer who proves his mettle by chasing a stolen Confederate locomotive across Tennessee in order to rescue his beloved. The film’s central train chase is a masterpiece of mechanical slapstick, essentially a live-action cartoon showcasing the actor’s hair-raising stunts with locomotives, cannon, fire, and dynamite as the trains roll through the Southern countryside.
“I was more proud of that picture than any I ever made,” Keaton said in 1963. “Because I took an actual happening out of the … history books, and I told the story in detail, too.”
In 1848, Ellen and William Craft resolved to flee slavery, but they needed a way to get from Macon, Ga., to the free states in the north. William could never travel such a distance alone, but Ellen’s skin was fair enough that she could pass for white. So she disguised herself as a white male cotton planter attended by William, her slave. (She had to pose as a man because a white woman would not have traveled alone with a male slave.) The two asked leave to be away for the holidays, the illiterate Ellen bound her arm in a sling to escape being asked to write, and they departed on Dec. 21. Over the next four days:
- Ellen found herself sitting next to a friend of her master on the train to Savannah. She feigned deafness to discourage his attempts to engage her in conversation.
- The captain of a steamer to Charleston complimented Ellen on her “very attentive boy” and warned him to shun the “cutthroat abolitionists” in the north.
- During the voyage a slave trader offered to buy William, and a military officer scolded Ellen for saying “thank you” to her slave.
- In South Carolina a ticket seller insisted on seeing proof that Ellen owned William. A passing captain intervened and sent them on their way.
- In a Virginia railway station a white woman confronted William, mistaking him for her own runaway slave.
- An officer in Baltimore threatened again to detain them without proof of ownership, but relented, telling a clerk, “He is not well, it is a pity to stop him.”
On Dec. 25, after a journey of more than 800 miles, they arrived in Philadelphia:
On leaving the station, my master — or rather my wife, as I may now say — who had from the commencement of the journey borne up in a manner that much surprised us both, grasped me by the hand, and said, ‘Thank God, William, we are safe!’ then burst into tears, leant upon me, and wept like a child. The reaction was fearful. So when we reached the house, she was in reality so weak and faint that she could scarcely stand alone. However, I got her into the apartments that were pointed out, and there we knelt down, on this Sabbath, and Christmas-day, — a day that will ever be memorable to us, — and poured out our heartfelt gratitude to God, for his goodness in enabling us to overcome so many perilous difficulties, in escaping out of the jaws of the wicked.
The Crafts went on a speaking tour of New England to share their story with abolitionists, then moved to England to evade recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act. They returned only in 1868, when they established a school in Georgia for newly freed slaves.
Kindergartners recount Rosa Parks’ story, from Vivian Paley’s 1981 collection Wally’s Stories:
Wally: My mom said Martin Luther King was smart and he decided about having white people to sit in the front and black people in the back. Wait! That was what they decided. And then he decided to throw off that sign and so you could sit anywhere.
Eddie: You forgot to say about Rosa Parks. See, she came on the bus and gave the bus driver some money and she sat in the chair and the bus driver said, “No, you’re not white.” And she said, “I don’t care. I want to sit because I’m tired and also I gave you a dime.” Was it a dime or a nickel?
Tanya: Maybe a quarter.
Eddie: Maybe a dime. So she said, “I’m not going to leave.” So they put her in jail.
Wally: Now you can sit wherever you want. Also Martin wasn’t allowed to go to any water fountain or any bathroom and he also had to have only a black grocery-store man to pay. He was separated. My mom knows all about that. She even used to be separated. …
Jill: That reminds me. Why do we have to always sit at the same lunch table?
Teacher: What would you rather do?
Jill: Sit anywhere we want. That’s more fair.
Teacher: That might become confusing. Most people would rather know exactly where they sit, Jill.
Deana: I don’t would rather know.
Eddie: Me neither.
Teacher: How does everyone else feel about this? [There is unanimous approval.] Well, then, it’s okay with me.
Jill: Free at last!
When I was about seven years old I witnessed, for the first time, the sale of a human being. We were living at Prince Edward, in Virginia, and master had just purchased his hogs for the winter, for which he was unable to pay in full. To escape from his embarrassment it was necessary to sell one of the slaves. Little Joe, the son of the cook, was selected as the victim. His mother was ordered to dress him up in his Sunday clothes, and send him to the house. He came in with a bright face, was placed in the scales, and was sold, like the hogs, at so much per pound. His mother was kept in ignorance of the transaction, but her suspicions were aroused. When her son started for Petersburgh in the wagon, the truth began to dawn upon her mind, and she pleaded piteously that her boy should not be taken from her; but master quieted her by telling her that he was simply going to town with the wagon, and would be back in the morning. Morning came, but little Joe did not return to his mother. Morning after morning passed, and the mother went down to the grave without ever seeing her child again. One day she was whipped for grieving for her lost boy. Colonel Burwell never liked to see one of his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this particular way were always punished. Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart.
— Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, 1868
Everyone in Lyndon Johnson’s family had the same initials: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Lynda Bird Johnson, and Luci Baines Johnson. His dog was named Little Beagle Johnson.
Stonewall Jackson’s precepts for good conversation, from a book of maxims he collected in the 1850s:
- Ascertain in your conversation as well as you can wherein the skill & excellence of the individual lies & put him upon his favorite subject. Every person will of his own accord fall to talking on his favorite subject or topic if you will follow and not attempt to lead him.
- If you seek to improve in the greatest degree from the conversation of another, allow him to take his own course. If called upon, converse in turn upon your favorite topic.
- Never interrupt another but hear him out. There are certain individuals from whom little information is to be desired such as use wanton, obscene or profane language.
- If you speak in company, speak late.
- Let your words be as few as will express the sense you wish to convey & above all let what you say be true.
- Do not suffer your feelings to betray you into too much vehemence or earnestness or to being overbearing.
- Avoid triumphing over an antagonist.
- Never engross the whole conversation to yourself.
- Sit or stand still while another is speaking to you. [Do]not dig in the earth with your foot nor take your knife from your pocket & pare your nales nor other such action.
- Never anticipate for another to help him out. It is time enough for you to make corrections after he has concluded, if any are necessary. It is impolite to interrupt another in his remarks.
- Say as little of yourself & friends as possible.
- Make it a rule never to accuse without due consideration any body or association of men.
- Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company. Not that you should affect ignorance, but endeavor to remain within your own proper sphere.
- Let ease & gracefulness be the standard by which you form your estimation (taken from etiquett).
“Good breeding, or true politeness, is the art of showing men by external signs the internal regard we have for them,” he wrote. “It arises from good sense, improved by good company. It must be acquired by practice and not by books.”
In October 1864, a score of young men drifted into St. Albans, a little Vermont town just south of the Canadian border. They arrived in small groups by train and coach, took rooms in local hotels, and began to pass time around town, observing the daily routines of the citizens.
On October 19, they simultaneously held up three local banks. There they revealed themselves to be Confederate soldiers, and as they collected the money they required the bank officers to take an oath of fealty to the South. Then they made off across the border. “They must have either had a guide who was acquainted with the road or had made a personal examination,” wrote one investigator, “because there were places in the road where strangers would have gone the wrong way, but they made no mistake.”
In all, the raiders made off with $208,000, about $3.2 million in today’s dollars. They were apprehended, but the Canadian authorities refused to extradite them, and their leader, Bennett Young, traveled in Europe until it was safe to return to Kentucky after the war. His exploit became the northernmost land action in the Civil War.
Confederate officer Tod Carter had been away from home for three years when he found himself crossing into his beloved Tennessee in late 1864 with Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood. As they approached his hometown of Franklin, Carter received permission to pass ahead and visit his family, but he found that Federal forces had commandeered the house to serve as headquarters in the coming battle. Miserably he returned to camp.
On Nov. 30, while Carter’s family and friends cowered in the house’s stone basement, Hood’s forces collided with those of Union general John Schofield. The battle produced 10,000 casualties in five hours; around the house men fought viciously with bayonets, rifle butts, axes, and picks. Carter’s older brother Moscow later wrote, “While the terrible din of the battle lasted it seemed to the adults that they must die of terror if it did not cease, but when there was a lull the suspense of fearful expectation seemed worse than the sound of battle.”
As a quartermaster, Tod might have been spared the danger; his duties did not involve combat. But, wrote Ralph Neal in a company history, “It was on the first charge and when nearest the enemy’s works that Capt. Todd Carter dashed through our lines on his horse with drawn sword, made straight for his father’s house, and met his death as it were, on the very threshold of his parental home. He was perhaps not more than fifty feet from us when he fell; his horse was seen to plunge and we knew he was struck. Captain Carter was thrown straight over the horse’s head, his sword reached as far as his arm would allow toward the enemy, and when he struck the ground he laid still, and his brave young life went out almost at the door of his home.”
“The sight of home and all that makes home dear, and that home in possession of the enemy caused him to forget himself, and under the impulse of the moment he rushed to certain death.”
As Columbus approached the New World he was sailing west, but the captain of the Pinta spotted birds flying southwest and convinced him to follow them. He arrived in the Bahamas.
Had he continued west he would have landed on the continent, probably in Florida, establishing a destiny for North America that was Spanish and Catholic rather than English and Protestant.
“Never had the flight of birds more important consequences,” wrote Alexander von Humboldt. “It may be said to have determined the first settlements on the new continent, and its distribution between the Latin and Germanic races.”
On the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, an old man in a swallowtail coat and a high black silk hat presented himself to a Union officer, volunteering to fight. When asked if he could shoot, he said, “If you knew that you had before you a soldier of the War of 1812 who fought at Lundy’s Lane, you would not ask such a question.”
It was the town constable, John L. Burns, born in 1793 and now nearly 70. He exchanged his ancient musket for a modern rifle and joined the 7th Wisconsin volunteers, with whom he distinguished himself as a sharpshooter throughout the battle. “He was as calm and collected as as any veteran on the ground,” remembered Sgt. George Eustice. “He was true blue and grit to the backbone, and fought until he was three times wounded.”
After the war he was hailed as the “hero of Gettysburg” and visited by tourists, veterans, and dignitaries, and he even met Lincoln at the dedication of the National Cemetery. He died in 1872 at age 78.
An infantryman’s view of World War I combat, from veteran Henry Williamson’s 1930 novel Patriot’s Progress:
… Half the sky leapt alight behind them, there were shouts and cries, a cascade of sound slipped solidly upon them, seeming to John Bullock to swell and converge upon the place where his now very trembling body was large and alone. He saw a long pale shadow before him an instant before it vagged and vanished in the shock of the earth rushing up in fire before him. He was aware of men going forward, himself with them, of the unreality of all movement, of the barrage which was all-weight and all-sound, so that he was carried forward effortlessly over a land freed from the force of gravity and matter. As in a nightmare of rising green and white showers of light about the rending fire he shouted without sound in a silent world, and his senses fused into a glassy delirium which lasted until he realized that of the figures on either side of him some were slowly going down on their knees, their chins on their box-respirators, their rifles loosening from their hands. He was hot and swearing, and his throat was dried up. That sissing noise and far-away racketting must be emma-gees. Now the fire wall was going down under his nose and streaking sparks were over and he was lying on his back watching a great torn umbrella of mud, while his head was drawn down into his belly …
(The vacuum of a dud shell falling just behind him.) He retched for breath. His ears screamed in his head. He crawled to his knees and looked to see what had happened. Chaps going on forward. He was on his feet in the sissing criss-cross and stinking of smoking earth gaping — hullo, hullo, new shell-holes, this must be near the first objective. They had come three hundred yards already! Cushy! Nothing in going over the top! Then his heart instead of finishing its beat and pausing to beat again swelled out its beat into an ear-bursting agony and great lurid light that leapt out of his broken-apart body with a spinning shriek
and the earth was in his eyes and up his nostrils and going away smaller and smaller
and tiny far away
Rough and smooth. Rough was wide and large and tilting with sickness. He struggled and struggled to clutch smooth, and it slid away. Rough came back and washed harshly over him. He cried out between the receding of rough and the coming of smooth white, then rough and smooth receded …
Shell-shocked at the Somme, Williamson was invalided back to England in 1917, where he wrote seven novels about his wartime experiences. He died in 1977.
Letter from escaped slave Jackson Whitney to his former master, March 18, 1859:
Mr. Wm. Riley, Springfield, Ky. — Sir: I take this opportunity to dictate a few lines to you, supposing you might be curious to know my whereabouts. I am happy to inform you that I am in Canada, in good health, and that robbing a woman of her husband, and children of their father does not pay, at least in your case; and I thought, while lying in jail by your direction, that if you had no remorse of conscience that would make you feel for a poor, broken-hearted man, and his worse-than-murdered wife and child, and could not be made to feel for others as you would have them feel for you, and could not by any entreaty or permission be induced to do as you promised you would, which was to let me go with my family for $800 — but contended for $1,000, when you had promised to take the same you gave for me (which was $660.) at the time you bought me, and let me go with my dear wife and children! but instead would render me miserable, and lie to me, and to your neighbors (how if words mean anything, what I say is so.) and when you was at Louisville trying to sell me! then I thought it was time for me to make my feet feel for Canada, and let your conscience feel in your pocket. — Now you cannot say but that I did all that was honorable and right while I was with you, although I was a slave. I pretended all the time that I thought you, or some one else had a better right to me than I had to myself, which you know is rather hard thinking. — You know, too, that you proved a traitor to me in the time of need, and when in the most bitter distress that the human soul is capable of experiencing: and could you have carried out your purposes there would have been no relief. But I rejoice to say that an unseen, kind spirit appeared for the oppressed, and bade me take up my bed and walk — the result of which is that I am victorious and you are defeated.
I am comfortably situated in Canada, working for George Harris, one of the persons that act a part in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ He was a slave a few years ago in Kentucky, and now owns a farm so level that there is not hills enough on it to hide a dog, yet so large that I got lost in it the other day. He says that I may be the means of helping poor fugitives and doing them as much good as he does, in time.
This country is not what it has been represented to me and others to be. In place of its being cold and barren, it has beautiful, comfortable climate, and fertile soil. It is much more desirable in those respects than any part of Kentucky that I ever saw. There is only one thing to prevent me being entirely happy here, and that is the want of my dear wife and children, and you to see us enjoying ourselves together here. I wish you could realize the contrast between Freedom and Slavery; but it is not likely that we shall ever meet again on this earth. But if you want to go to the next world and meet a God of love, mercy, and justice, in peace; who says, ‘Inasmuch as you did it to the least of them my little ones, you did it unto me’ — making the professions that you do, pretending to be a follower of Christ, and tormenting me and my little ones as you have done — had better repair the breaches you have made among us in this world, by sending my wife and children to me; thus preparing to meet your God in peace; for, if God don’t punish you for inflicting such distress on the poorest of His poor, then there is no use of having any God, or talking about one. But, in this letter, I have said enough to cause you to do all that is necessary for you to do, providing you are any part of the man you pretend to be. So I will close by saying that, if you see proper to reply to my letter, either condemning or justifying the course you have taken with me, I will again write you.
I hope you will consider candidly and see if the case does not justify every word I have said, and ten times as much. You must not consider that it is a slave talking to ‘massa’ now, but one as free as yourself.
I subscribe myself one of the abused of America, but one of the justified and honored of Canada.
John Clem was only 10 years old when he ran away to win the Civil War. (“It was necessary that the Union should be preserved,” he later wrote, “and my help was obviously needed.”) Rejected by Michigan’s 22nd infantry regiment, he tagged along anyway as a drummer boy and rode into Chickamauga seated on a caisson and carrying a musket sawed off to match his size. When a Confederate colonel rode up and yelled “Surrender, you damned little Yankee!” Clem shot him, winning instant fame as “the drummer boy of Chickamauga.”
He went on to fight at Perrysville, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, and Atlanta. After the war Ulysses Grant, now president, appointed him second lieutenant; when he retired as a brigadier general in 1915 he was the only Civil War veteran still on duty. “There is no more popular officer in the army,” wrote the New York Times. “Colonel Clem is the son-in-law of a Confederate veteran, and this fact he often cites in conversation with friends as proof of the fact that he is the most ‘united American’ extant.” He died in San Antonio in 1937.
From an 1863 interview with blacksmith Solomon Bradley regarding the punishment of slaves in South Carolina:
Q. Can you speak of any particular cases of cruelty that you have seen?
A. Yes, sir; the most shocking thing that I have seen was on the plantation of Mr. Farrarby, on the line of the railroad. I went up to his house one morning from my work for drinking water, and heard a woman screaming awfully in the door-yard. On going up to the fence and looking over I saw a woman stretched out, face downwards, on the ground her hands and feet being fastened to stakes. Mr. Farrarby was standing over and striking her with a leather trace belonging to his carriage-harness. As he struck her the flesh of her back and legs was raised in welts and ridges by the force of the blows. Sometimes when the poor thing cried too loud from the pain Farrarby would kick her in the mouth. After he had exhausted himself whipping her he sent to his house for sealing wax and lighted candle and, melting the wax, dropped it upon the woman’s lacerated back. He then got a riding whip and, standing over the woman, picked off the hardened wax by switching at it. Mr. Farrarby’s grown daughters were looking at all this from a window of the house through the blinds. This punishment was so terrible that I was induced to ask what offence the woman had committed and was told by her fellow servants that her only crime was in burning the edges of the waffles that she had cooked for breakfast. The sight of this thing made me wild almost that day. I could not work right and I prayed the Lord to help my people out of their bondage. I felt I could not stand it much longer.
From John W. Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 1977.
On Sept. 9, 1942, a lookout on Mount Emily in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest reported a plume of smoke near the town of Brookings. The Forest Service contained the fire easily, but investigators turned up something odd at the site: fragments of an incendiary bomb of Japanese origin.
It turned out that a Japanese submarine had surfaced off the Oregon/California border and 31-year-old navy officer Nobuo Fujita had piloted a seaplane into the forest, hoping to start a fire that would divert U.S. military resources from the Pacific. Recent rains had wet the forest, so the plan failed, but it marked the first time the continental United States had been bombed by enemy aircraft.
Fujita returned safely to Japan, where he opened a hardware store after the war, and he became an agent of amity with the United States. In 1962 he accepted an invitation to return to Oregon, where he donated his family’s samurai sword to Brookings, and he invited three local students to visit Japan in 1985. The city made him an honorary citizen shortly before his death in 1997, and his daughter spread his ashes at the site of the bombing.
In 1896 the U.S. Treasury introduced some beautifully high-minded currency — instead of American presidents, the “educational series” of silver certificates bear neoclassical allegories:
On the $1 note, the Goddess of History instructs a youth, pointing to the U.S. Constitution, a panorama of Washington D.C., and a roster of famous Americans, including Franklin, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Emerson.
On the $2 note, Science presents Steam and Electricity (as children) to Commerce and Manufacture. The back bears portraits of Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse.
The almost impossibly glorious $5 note depicts Electricity Presenting Light to the World. She is flanked by Strength, Fame, and Peace. The New York Times wrote, “The arrangement of this composition, the grace of pose in each figure, and the idea connected with the designs of this artist entitle it to a place beside the finest allegorical designs in the world.”
Unfortunately, the Treasury got a new secretary the following year, one who favored simple, clear designs, and he canceled more than $54 million in certificates as they came into the Treasury. “It can be said authoritatively … that no more of the so-called ‘new certificates’ will be printed,” the Times reported sadly in May 1897. “Neither will fresco painters be called in to make designs for the substitutes.”
Benjamin West undertook this painting of the Treaty of Paris at the end of the American Revolution. The British delegation refused to pose, so he had to abandon it.
As its colonies and dominions won independence, Britain faced a curious legal problem: How can a sovereign release a subject from subjection? If it passes a law, then implicitly the law might someday be repealed, “revoking” the new state’s freedom. And if Parliament promises never to do this, then it’s denying the power of the British people to change their own laws. The 1931 Statute of Westminster solemnized Britain’s intent never again to legislate for the colonies, but in 1935 Parliament ruled that the statute could in principle be repealed. “This was a world-class cartoon of the child with flypaper on its fingers trying to shake it off,” writes Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment. “England was learning that it is paradoxical to command another to be free or even to offer another their freedom as a gift.”
In the Philippine Independence Act of 1934, the United States promised that, when a suitable Philippine constitution was ratified, “the United States shall by proclamation withdraw and surrender all right of possession, supervision, jurisdiction, control, or sovereignty then existing and exercised by the United States in and over the territory and people of the Philippine Islands …” But, like Westminster, this is only a statute, and unless Congress can bind itself irrevocably, it might be repealed at any time. Suber writes, “If after a certain time repeal would have no effect on the independence of the former dependent, which is almost certainly the case, then legal formalism cannot explain the source of the independence.”
That’s not a gun, it’s a log painted black. Both sides in the Civil War used “Quaker guns” to frighten the enemy in order to buy time. “We were confronted by a mammoth gun that threatened to blow the Union clear over the north pole,” remembered one Indiana volunteer in 1894. “The mammoth gun proved afterward to be a log that had been mounted and painted to resemble a columbiad.”
Two further Civil War oddities:
Each side, improbably, had a general named Henry H. Sibley. Henry Hastings Sibley (left) spent most of the war protecting settlements from the Sioux on the western frontier. He went on to become the first governor of Minnesota. His counterpart, Henry Hopkins Sibley, also served in the west, leading the Confederate States Army in the New Mexico Territory. The two never faced one another.
In July 1863 Union general Edward H. Hobson captured most of Confederate general John Hunt Morgan’s forces at the Battle of Buffington Island in Ohio. Undaunted, Morgan tunneled out of prison and returned the favor, capturing Hobson and about 750 men one year later near Cynthiana, Ky.
Helen Thomas’ husband departs for war, 1917:
After breakfast, while he showed me where his account books were and what each was for, I listened calmly, and unbelievingly he kissed me when I said I, too, would keep accounts. ‘And here are my poems. I’ve copied them all out in this book for you, and the last of all is for you. I wrote it last night, but don’t read it now … It’s still freezing. The ground is like iron, and more snow has fallen. The children will come to the station with me; and now I must be off.’
We were alone in my room. He took me in his arms, holding me tightly to him, his face white, his eyes full of a fear I had never seen before. My arms were round his neck. ‘Beloved, I love you,’ was all I could say. ‘Jenny, Jenny, Jenny,’ he said, ‘remember that, whatever happens, all is well between us for ever and ever.’ And hand in hand we went downstairs and out to the children, who were playing in the snow.
A thick mist hung everywhere, and there was no sound except, far away in the valley, a train shunting. I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard his old call coming up to me: ‘Coo-ee!’ he called. ‘Coo-ee!’ I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his ‘Coo-ee’. And again went my answer like an echo. ‘Coo-ee’ came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my ‘Coo-ee’ went out of my lungs strong to pierce to him as he strode away from me. ‘Coo-ee!’ So faint now, it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.
Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.
He was killed shortly after arriving in France. From her memoir World Without End, 1931.