June 2007


Today in 1864, plans for an underground tunnel were approved. Not to clear up congestion during rush hour. Not to add another train line, or to expand public trasnportation. It was going to be built to put a bomb under enemy lines…

…In Virginia.

History.com said this:
“On this day, Pennsylvania troops begin digging a tunnel toward the Rebels at Petersburg, Virginia, in order to blow a hole in the Confederate lines and break the stalemate.
The great campaign between Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac ground to a halt in mid-June. Having battered each other for a month and a half, the armies came to a standstill at Petersburg, just south of Richmond. Here, they settled into trenches for a long siege of the Confederate rail center.
The men of the 48th Pennsylvania sought to break the stalemate with an ambitious project. The brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, the plan called for the men of his regiment—mostly miners from Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region—to construct a tunnel to the Confederate line, fill it with powder, and blow a gap in the fortifications.
On June 24, the plan received the approval of the regiment’s corps commander, Ambrose Burnside, and the digging commenced the following day. Burnside’s superiors, Generals Grant and George Meade, expressed little enthusiasm for the project but allowed it to proceed. For five weeks the miners dug the 500-foot long shaft, completing about 40 feet per day.
On July 30, a huge cache of gunpowder was ignited. The plan worked, and a huge gap was blown in the Rebel line. But poor planning by Union officers squandered the opportunity, and the Confederates closed the gap before the Federals could exploit the opening. The Battle of the Crater, as it became known, was an unusual event in an otherwise uneventful summer along the Petersburg line.”

This is a watered down version of the truth. What actually happened was that George Meade, who disapproved of the plan before being vetoed by Grant, wanted his White, poorly rested troops to go into battle, instead of the black regiments who were not battle tested, but where well supplied and well rested. The plan failed for two main reasons. the first being that instead of going around the gigantic crater in the middle of the line, they went right down into it. And two, they waited an hour before sending those very tired troops across the field.

Within the crater, the fighting turned to hand to hand combat. The federals and confederates shook off the guns and bullets and went to clubs and fists. The fighting was so bloody because of the sheer hatred of the situation. The war had been raging since 1861, and the feelings between the two sides had been boiling over since 1776.

The issue of slavery, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “was the snake under the table that the constitution was written.” And at this point in time (1864) the issue of slavery was not what was driving the armies. The issue of pure and absolute hatred of the enemy was driving them towards oblivion. The confederates had no food, very little supplies, and even fewer men. The union was trying desperately to break their lines and couldn’t. Not even with a bomb. After creating a huge gap in the line, the confederates re-routed and held them off. And that pure rage and frustration met in a crater in a battlefield in Virginia.

Less than a year later, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered, effectively ending the war. The slaves were emancipated. The union persevered. And the south was beaten and bruised.

The Crater is still there at Petersburg. Only now, the hole is less prominent, and covered in grass. Nature has continued and even covered up that horrifically violent moment. And if that’s not a metaphor for something, I don’t know what is.

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What with Senator Clinton, Mayor Giuliani, DA Branch (…oh, I mean Fred Thompson), and now maybe Mayor Bloomberg, a whole lot of people with residences in New York are running for president. There are rumors of anti-New York bias in the heartland.

But consider this. The following presidents were from New York. I leave it up to you to debate their relative merits:

* Martin Van Buren
* Millard Fillmore
* Theodore Roosevelt
* Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I don’t know much about Van Buren. He was short (nicknamed “Little Magician”) and was elected on the promise that he’d keep the Jacksonian good times going, but the nation fell into Depression on his watch. (See more here.)

My 10th grade American history teacher had Millard Fillmore on his list of the top 5 Americans because Fillmore was the first to put flushable toilets in the White House. He may also be indirectly responsible for bad political satire. Here it says that he was anti-Jacksonian. It’s nice to have contrast. It also says that the Compromise of 1850, regarding the admittance of the new states won from Mexico and their relative free or slave status, was implemented by Fillmore. California was admitted as a free state.

The two Roosevelts I imagine you know a little bit about, but here’s more on Teddu>a? and on FDR.

It could be worse, I guess. I would argue that FDR was one of our greatest presidents, though, so New York doesn’t have such a bad legacy. And FDR co-existed with Al Smith, also from New York, although they didn’t run for president in the same year (Smith ran in ’28, Roosevelt in ’32). Both had governed New York, though. Maybe Smith’s loss was our gain, because he went on to promote the building of the Empire State Building instead of running the country, and that building is one of the top destinations for out-of-towners now. So there, anti-New Yorkers!

But I digress. It looks like New York presidents are a mixed bag. So the lesson may be that where you come from has little to do with how you’d do as president, and maybe that’s something those anti-New York folk should consider when going to the ballot box. Not that this is an endorsement, just saying. New York ain’t so bad.

A skull was found in Peru that is the oldest skull of a native killed by a European bullet found to date. It comes from the early part of a period in which 80% of the Inca died; this skull specifically dates to a few years after the arrival of Francisco Pizarro.

The skull may also be significant as part of a movement to write this history from the perspective of the losers. History is, after all, written by the victors. This skull, however, may belong to a victim who was part of the Siege of Lima, an Inca uprising.

A group called Creative Time is erecting 33 plaques around New York City to commemorate the city’s “creative history.” Places earning plaques include things like the recently departed CBGB’s, the Filmore East, Max’s Kansas City, and the Mudd Club. The link above has commentaries on these places by artists and “notable New Yorkers.”

Last night’s Final Jeopardy category was “19th Century Royalty” and wanted to know which ruler was known as “the last emperor” and “the king of cactus.” My roommate and I both thought that “the last emperor” referred to the emperor of China, but I guess we were mistaken. We were closer than the contestants, though, who guessed things like “the Shah of Iran.” Um, no.

Actual answer: Maximilian of Mexico. Who was, coincidentally, executed on this day in 1867. Maximilian was installed as emperor by France in 1864 and went about wreaking all kinds of havoc and, after France pulled out of Mexico, was ultimately deposed by Benito Juarez, the president of the Mexican Republic, and summarily executed.

Other things that happened on this date:
1885: The Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor.
1953: The Rosenbergs were executed.

On this day in 1812, the War of 1812 began.

Other major events of note:
1798: John Adams passed the first of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
1815: Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.
1942: Paul McCartney was born. Happy birthday, Sir Paul!
1979: Carter and Brezhnev signed SALT-II.

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