Tag Archives: history

New Chinese emperor, will famine not follow

For most of its 2300 year history, the Chinese empire has rattled between strong leaders who brought famine, and weak leaders who brought temporary reprieve. Mao, a strong leader, killed his associates plus over 100 million by his “great leap forward” famine. Since then, 30+ years, we’ve had some weaker leaders, semi-democracy, and some personal wealth, plus the occasional massacre, e.g. at Tiananmen square, and a growing demographic problem. And now a new strongman is establishing himself with hopes of solving China’s problems. I hope for the best, but fear the repeat of the worse parts of Chinese history.

Two weeks ago, Chairman Xi amended the Chinese constitution to make himself emperor for life, essentially. He’s already in charge of the government, the party, and the military. Yesterday (Tuesday), he consolidated his power further by replacing the head of the banks. The legal system is, in theory, is the last independent part of government, but there is hardly any legal system in the sense of a balance of power. If history is any guide, “Emperor” Xi will weaken the courts further before the year is out. He will also likely remove many or all of his close associates and relatives. It is not for nothing that Nero, Stalin, and Mao killed their relatives and friends — generally for “corruption” following a show trial.

China's Imperial past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

China’s past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

Xi might be different, but he faces a looming demographic problem that makes it likely he will follow the president of the stronger emperors. China’s growth was fueled in part by a one child policy. Left behind is an aging, rural population with no children to take care of the elderly. As top-down societies do not tolerate “useless workers,” I can expect a killing famine within the next 10 years. This would shed the rural burden while providing a warning to potential critics. “Burn the chicken to scare the monkey,” is a Chinese Imperial aphorism. Besides, who needs dirt farmers when we have modern machines.

Lazy beds (feannagan) use only half the soil are for planting. The English experts were sure this was inefficient and land-wasting. Plowing was imposed on Ireland, and famine followed

“Lazy beds” of potatoes were used in Ireland for a century until experts forced their abandonment in the mid 1800s. The experts saw the beds, and the Irish as lazy, inefficient, and land-wasting. Famine followed.

Currently about 40% of the country is rural, about 560 million people spread out over a country the size of Canada or the US. The rest, 60% or 830 million, live concentrated in a few cities. The cities are rich, industrial, and young. The countryside is old, agricultural and poor, salaries are about 1/3 those of the cities. The countryside holds about 2/3 of those over 65, about 100 million elderly with no social safety net. The demographic imbalance is likely to become worse — a lot worse — within the next decade.

What is likely to happen, I fear, is that the party leaders — all of whom live in the cities — will decide that the countryside is full of non-productive, uneducated whiners. They will demand that more food should be produced, and will help them achieve this by misguided science and severe punishments. Mao’s experts, like Stalin’s and Queen Victoria’s, demanded unachievable quotas and academic-based advice that neither the leaders nor the academics had ever tried to make work. Mao’s experts told peasants to kill the birds that were stealing their grain. It worked for a while until the insects multiplied. As for the quotas, the party took grain as if the quotas were being met. If the peasants starved, they starved.

I expect that China’s experts will propose machine-based modern agriculture, perhaps imported from the US or Israel: Whatever is in style at the time. The expert attitude exists everywhere to this day, and the results are always the same. See potato famine picture above. When the famine comes, the old will request food and healthcare, but the city leaders will provide none, or just opioids as they did to ailing Elvis. When the complaining stops the doctor is happy.

China's population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds.

China’s population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds. Note too that there are millions more males (blue) than females (pink).

In single leader societies, newspapers do not report bad news. Rather, they like to show happy, well-fed peasants singing the leaders’ praise. When there’s a riot too big to ignore, rioters are presented as lazy malcontents and counter-revolutionaries. Sympathizers are sent to work in the fields. American academia will sing the praises of the autocratic leader, or will be silent. We never see the peasants, but often see the experts. And we live in a society where newspapers report only the bad, and where we only believe when there pictures. No pictures, no story. As with Stalin’s Gulags, Mao’s famine, or North Korea today, there are likely to be few pictures released to the press. Eventually, a census will reveal that tens of million aged have vanished, and we’ll have to guess where they went.

I can expect China to continue its military buildup over the next decade. The military will be necessary to put down riots, and keep young men occupied, and to protect China from foreign intervention. China will especially need to protect its ill-gotten, new oil-assets. Oil is needed if China is to replace its farmers with machines. It will be a challenge for a wise American leader to avoid being drawn into war with China, while protecting some of our interests: Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. As with Theodore Roosevelt, he should offer support and non-biassed mediation. Is Trump up to this?  Hu Knows?

Robert Buxbaum, March 21, 2018. The above might be Xi-nephobia, Then again, this just in: Chairman Xi announces that Taiwan will face punishment if it attempts to break free. Doesn’t sound good.

Why did Hamilton wear his glasses at the duel?

The musical play “Hamilton” ends with his duel with Burr. A song leading up to it, the world was wide enough tells the audience that Hamilton “wore his glasses” at the duel, and that he “methodically fiddled with the trigger.” It doesn’t say why, but tries to imply a sort of death-wish where Hamilton “threw away his shot” (fired into the air) because he didn’t want to kill his first friend, or because he thought of his son, who died near the spot. The theory is supported by popular myth, though the details of the events are, by necessity, muddy. All the witnesses testified that they looked away before the shooting started –customary in duels at the time.

There are some problems I find with this theory, and I’d like to present another: that Hamilton was so eager to kill Burr that he over-stacked the deck in his favor. The witnesses noted that Hamilton performed some provocative actions that seem out of character for someone who wants to commit suicide: “As they were taking their places, he (Hamilton) asked that the proceedings stop, adjusted his spectacles, and slowly, repeatedly, sighted along his pistol to test his aim”[1]. This seems like a taunt, if anything. As I reading the letters too, I find Hamilton taunting Burr to duel. He could have bowed out in many ways, as Washington always had, or been neutral. Why taunt? Why wear glasses and fiddle with the trigger? Why test your aim and then throw away your shot?

The choice of guns is important too, along with where the shot actually went. First the shot: While Hamilton’s second originally thought Hamilton had shot in the air, when the seconds went back the next day they found the shot in a cedar limb, “at an elevation of about twelve feet and a half, perpendicularly from the ground, between thirteen and fourteen feet from the mark on which General Hamilton stood, and about four feet wide of the direct line between him and Col. Burr, on the right side”.[2] The men stood 10 paces apart (16-18 feet), so apparently the shot hit about 6 feet above Burr’s head on a line reasonably towards him. That’s not quite shooting in the air.

The pair of Wogdon dueling pistols used in the Hamilton - Burr duel.

The Wogdon pistols used in the Hamilton – Burr duel. Currently the property of the JP Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank, in 1976 they were found to have a hidden hair trigger, something Hamilton knew, but Burr would not have known.

The choice of pistols is also suggestive. The pistols were the property of John Church, a brother-in-law to Hamilton, and a business partner of both men. Church had fought a duel with Burr some years before and, using Burr’s pistols, shot a button off Burr’s coat. Burr missed completely. Church then bought these new pistols in London — Wogdon pistols, with an extra-large bore and sights. Sights were not considered “sporting” for duels, and not ordinarily allowed. With sights on the pistols, one could not miss if one aimed. As for the bigger bore, this too was unusual. If you hit, you killed; most gentlemen preferred a less-deadly duel. Hamilton chose to use these pistols even though he owned two, “legal” pistols (smaller bore, no sight). As the challenged party, it was his right. Still, why not choose your own, if not to make use of the sight and the large-bore. And, according to his second, he seems to have practiced with the pistols beforehand [4].

Analysis of the guns, done in the late 1970s [3] turned up another illegal feature. While they appear to be normal dueling pistols, these guns have a hidden feature. If you move the trigger a fraction of an inch forward it sets a hidden, hair-trigger. It’s a hidden feature that Hamilton knew about [3] but Burr almost certainly did not. If Hamilton surreptitiously set the hair-trigger, it would give him a tremendous advantage. He would be able to shoot more quickly and more accurately, with a much lighter squeeze on the trigger. The sights ensured it would be a kill. Burr’s gun, unset, would have required the normal, heavy, 10-15 pound pull. His shot would have been slower and less accurate. As it was, it seems Burr fired second.

Ten paces is not very far apart. People missed because of the 10-20 lb pull and lack of sights made it hard to hit. Besides, many people who were hit survived.

Ten paces is not very far apart. People missed because of the 10-20 lb pull and the lack of sights made it hard to hit anyone. Besides, with a small bore, you didn’t kill.

There are a couple of problems with using hair-trigger pistols, though. They can go off prematurely, even if you know the trigger’s been set [4], and it’s worse if you are not quite sure you’ve set the trigger. The Wogdon guns intentionally made it hard to tell if you have set the trigger or not, and made it impossible to unset the trigger without firing. I suspect that Hamilton cleaned his glasses, fiddled with the trigger, and sighted his aim because he was unsure whether he’d set the hair-trigger. My theory is he came to the wrong conclusion. According to the seconds, Burr’s shot was almost simultaneous, but his apparently achieved a lucky/ un-lucky hit. Burr killed his rival, but also killed his own political career, the unhappy end to a beautiful animosity, discussed in the play, and discussed by me from a different angle. [5]


1. Testimony at trial, Centinel of Freedom, November 24, 1807, cited in Winfield, 1874, p. 220.

2.  Nathanial Pendelton’s Amended testimony of Nathaniel Pendleton and William P. Ness’s Statement of July 11, 1804. Amended after the pair revisited the site and found the bullet.

3. “Pistols shed light on famed duel”, Merrill Lindsay, Smithsonian Magazine. 1976.

4. ibid. Hamilton told his second not to set the hair-trigger, and then seems to have set his own. Linsay’s theory is that Hamilton knew he’d set the trigger, but squeezed it too early.

5. Since the witnesses looked away, you might think of another explanation: that Burr fired first and Hamilton’s gun then went off in death throw, in the general direction of Burr. A couple of problems with this theory: for the gun to go off like that, Hamilton would have had to set the hair-trigger. The ordinary 10-15 lb trigger would require a determined squeeze. Also, for the bullet to hit the tree like that, Hamilton would have had to raise his gun past Burr, though not to the side or down as one might if he wished to throw away his shot. And Burr would have to have set the trigger himself to shoot so fast and so well. Randall’s book, “Alexander Hamilton, a life”, claims he did, p. 424, but looking at this video of the hair-trigger mechanism, I find the mechanism is too cleverly hidden for Burr to have noticed. It escaped detection for 170 years. Finally, for Burr to shoot to kill without provocation, would require that he murder in cold blood, and Burr shows no evidence of that. Besides, Burr would have had to worry that the witnesses might turn around and see his dastardly deed. As it was, even with Hamilton’s gun going off, Burr’s reputation was ruined. I reject this theory, and assert as others have: “Hamilton did fire his weapon intentionally, and he fired first.”

Robert E. Buxbaum, May 10, 2017. You may like these other songs from Hamilton, “your obedient servant,” and “the ten duel commandments.” And you may like this essay about Burr, Tammany Hall and the Manhattan bank.

May 1, St. Tammany day

May 1 is St. Tammany day, a day to rejoice in the achievements of Tammany Hall, and of St Tammany, the guardian of crooked politicians everywhere. The Sons of St. Tammany started in 1773 as a charitable club of notable revolutionary-era individuals including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and John Dickenson, but evolved into perhaps the most corrupt, and American, of political organizations. The picture of a US politician – the cartoon version at least — is the Tammany Democrat: a loud, drunken, womanizer, willing to do or promise whatever the people seem to want at the moment. Tammany and its bosses helped form this image. They helped new immigrants, but did so by creating needless government jobs, by filling them often with incompetent loyalists, and by overcharging on government contracts. Today, these Tammany ways rule in every major American city; the other clubs of the day are gone or influence-less.

John Hancock leads a meeting of the St. Tammany (Columbian) society. Note the "Appeal to Heaven flag and the Indian, real or imagined. Indians participated in several, early St. Tammany meetings.

John Hancock leads a meeting of the St. Tammany society. Note the “Appeal to Heaven” flag. While Indians participated in some, early meetings, the one here is, I suspect, a ghost: St. Tammany.

In revolutionary-era America, the Sons of St. Tammany was just one of many social-charitable clubs (Americans like to form clubs), in many ways it was similar to the Masons and the Cincinnati, but those clubs were international and elitist. The sons of Tammany was purely American, and anti-elitist. It was open to anyone born on this side of the Atlantic, and had Indian customs. The Cincinnati society, for comparison, started with members who were as notable (Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Marie, Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Knox, etc.) but was originally open only to high officers of the regular army, including foreigners like Lafayette, but not ordinary soldiers, minutemen (militia), or the general public. The symbols of the Tammanies were American: the liberty-cap and the “Appeal to Heaven” flag, now a popular symbol of the Tea Party; the leader was called by an Indian name: Sachem. By contrast, the Cincinnati society symbol was the Imperial Eagle (Washington’s was gold with diamonds), and the leader was called “general”. The Tammany society began admitting immigrants in 1810 or so, while the Cincinnati society remains closed to this day, except to descendants of Revolutionary officers — an aristocratic affectation in the eyes of some.

It was Aaron Burr who first saw the opportunity to use the Tammany organization as a for-profit, political machine. In the years 1795-9, New York was suffering from yellow fever and a variety of other diseases that were taken to be caused by a lack of clean water. Burr proposed, with Tammany support, the creation of a corporation to build a new water system to bring fresh, clean water from the Bronx River to lower Manhattan via iron pipes. The Manhattan company was duly chartered, with directors who were primarily Tammany men, Republican-Democrats, and not Federalists. Federalists (Hamilton, primarily) controlled the only NY banks at the time and controlled the directorate of every chartered company in the city. The Manhattan company requested a $2,000,000 perpetual charter, twice as big as the charter of Hamilton’s Bank of New York, and a monopoly on water distribution. These were reasonable requests given the task, but unusual in the lack of Federalist or governmental oversight. But the Manhattan company was a water company, and water was needed. But Burr’s intent, all along, it seems was to build a bank, not a water company. After the charter was approved, but before signing, he amended it to allow any excess funds to be used for any legal purpose. 

In this cartoon by Dr. Seuss, The Tammany Tiger says, "Today is the Big Day Folks. Vote Early and Often."

In this cartoon by Dr. Seuss, The Tammany Tiger says, “Today is the Big Day Folks. Vote Early and Often.”

Money was raised, but only $100,000 used for the water system. The remaining 95% of the charter funds, $1,900,000, went to found “The Bank of The Manhattan company” — later to be known as “The Chase Manhattan Bank” or “The Manhattan Bank of Cholera.” Instead of building the reservoir in upper Manhattan and filling it with clean water as originally proposed, Burr’s Tammany trustees voted to dig wells in lower Manhattan, and placed its reservoir in lower Manhattan too, near Chamber’s St,  next to a cemetery where Cholera victims were buried. New York suffered with Cholera, Typhoid, and leaky, wooden pipes until 1842 when Peter Cooper brought clean water to lower Manhattan from the Groton River via iron pipes. To this day, crooked water contracts are a staple of Tammany politics

The Bank of the Manhattan company opened at 40 Wall St on September 1, 1799, a mere four months after the water company’s incorporation. Hamilton was furious. The company continues today as The JP Morgan, Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the largest banking institutions in the world. Burr used the money and power of his company to reward supporters and to run for vice president with Thomas Jefferson’s tacit support. Except for his Tammany candidacy, John Adams would have won New York and a second term as president. Burr’s career pretty-well died after the Hamilton duel, but Tammany did well without him. By 1812, the Society built its first Tammany Hall, officially called the Wigwam, a $55,000, five-story building with a meeting hall for 2000. New York Democratic politics would center on Tammany Hall for the next century at least.

Following disappointment with John Quincy Adams, “the bitter branch of the bitter tree,” Tammy leaders went national. They recruited Andrew Jackson, a war hero and early recruit of Burr’s. They’d support Jackson if he’d hand over spoils, control of government jobs. He agreed and, as president, fired perfectly good, long-standing government employees He replaced them with Democratic loyalists. When Jackson stepped down in 1833, Tammany elected an equally corrupt New Yorker, Martin van Buren. Though there were periodic Whig and Republican reforms, Tammany learned they could wait those out. They always re-emerged like mushrooms after a rain.

Boss Tweed and other Tammany leaders: who stole the money?

Boss Tweed and other Tammany leaders in a cartoon by Nast, Tammany Ring. “Who stole the money? He did.”  

A key vote-getter in the Tammany system is to provide Thanksgiving dinners and other charitable giveaways for the poor, as well as promises of jobs. By the late 1800s, William J. Brian added promises of soft money and wealth redistribution, cornerstones of the Democratic platform to this day. Tammany also tends to be for low tariffs as opposed to the high tariff ideas of Hamilton and many Whigs and 19th century Republicans. A case can be made for either view.

Tammany helped New York immigrants, particularly the Irish to get citizenship and avoid legal troubles in return for votes and occasional muscle. In other cities, Democratic clubs were less open to Catholics, reflecting the views of the common voter in each state. In the North they were pro-union, in the South anti, electing Klu Kluxers like George Wallace, Sam Ervin, and Robert Byrd. This lead to a famous split in the Democratic party about the 1968 convention. Famous Tammany leaders include William M. “Boss” Tweed, “Big” Tim Sullivan, and “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker. Sullivan famously authored the first anti-gun law, the Sullivan act; it was designed to protect his thugs against private citizens shooting them. It didn’t always work.

Edwin Edwards, Democratic Governor of Louisiana. 1972-1996. Who would not trust this man?

Hon. (?) Edwin Edwards, Governor of Louisiana. 1972-1996. Tammany lives

If you want to see Tammany politics in action, visit almost any large US city, or read its newspaper. In Chicago, the dead vote, and 4 of the last 6 governors have gone to jail. Mayor Daily famously told Kennedy that 90 percent of the registered voters of Cook County would vote for him. They did (sort of); because of this, JFK won Illinois and the presidency. In New York, voters discovered only in the 1960s that Tammany’s leader, Carmine DeSapio had been working for 30 years with known gangland murderer, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. In Detroit, where I live and corruption in the water department is legendary. Race-based job handouts, unemployment is high along with high minimum (living) wages. We’re now in the process of a $70,000,000 project to replace 100 feet of sewer pipe, and we’re building a $140 million, 3.3 mile trolley. Tammany loves all public works.

Then there is Louisiana, home to St Tammany parish. Louisiana Democrats like Huey Long and Edwin Edwards (shown at left) are unusual in that they’re proud to say that their corrupt methods are corrupt. Edwards has had two long runs as governor despite several convictions for doing illegal things he admits to doing. When Edwards was asked why he did favors for his friends. He responded: “Who should I do them for? My enemies?” Or, to quote one of Edwin Edwards campaign ads. Vote Edwin EdwardsPeople seem to love it, or did until the levy broke. There is a particularly American grandeur to all this. As Will Rodgers said, “America has the best politicians money can buy.” Today is the day to be proud of that uniquely American tradition. You too can grow up to buy a president.

Robert Buxbaum, April 28, 2017. I ran for water commissioner, and have written about sewage treatment, flood avoidance, and fluoride, as well as the plusses and minuses of trade unionization, and the difference between Republicans and Conservatives.

Global warming and the president’s Resolute desk

In the summer of 2016, the Crystal Serenity, a cruse ship passed through the Northwest passage, going from the Pacific to the Atlantic above the Canadian arctic circle. It was a first for a cruise ship, but the first time any modern ship made the passage, it was 162 years ago, and the ship was wooden and unmanned. It was the British Resolute; wood from that ship was used to make the President’s main desk — one used by the last four presidents. And thereby hangs a tale of good global warming, IMHO.

President Trump meets with college presidents at the Resolute desk. Originally the front had portraits of Queen Victoria and President Hayes. Those are gone; the eagle on the front is an addition, as is the bottom stand.

President Trump meets with college presidents at the Resolute desk. Originally the front had portraits of Queen Victoria and President Hayes. Those are gone; the eagle on the front is an addition, as is the bottom stand. The desk is now 2″ taller than originally. 

The world today is warmer than it was in 1900. But, what is not generally appreciated is that, in 1900 the world was warmer than In 1800; that in 1800 it was warmer than in 1700; and that, in 1640, it was so cold there were regular fairs on the frozen river Themes. By the 1840s there were enough reports of global warming that folks in England thought the northwest passage might have opened at last. In 1845 the British sent two ships, the Erebus and the Terror into the Canadian Arctic looking for the passage. They didn’t make it. They and their crews were lost and not seen again until 2014. In hopes of finding them though, the US and Britain sent other ships, including the Resolute under the command of captain Edward Belcher.

The Resolute was specially made to withstand the pressure of ice. Like the previous ships, and the modern cruise ship, it entered the passage from the Pacific during the peak summer thaw. Like the ships before, the Resolute and a partner ship got stuck in the ice — ice that was not quite stationary, but nearly so, The ships continued to move with the ice, but at an unbearably slow pace. After a year and a half captain Belcher had moved a few hundred miles, but had had enough. He abandoned his ships and walked out of Canada to face courts martial in England (English captains were supposed to “go down with the ship”). Belcher was acquitted; the ice continued to move, and the ships moved with it. One ship sank, but the Resolute, apparently unscathed, passed through to the Atlantic. Without captain or crew, she was the first ship in recorded history to make the passage, something that would not happen again till the Nautilus nuclear submarine did it under the ice, 100 years later.


The ghost ship Resolute was found in September 1855, five years after she set sail, by captain Buddington of the American whaler, George Henry. She was floating, unmanned, 1200 miles from where captain Belcher had left her. And according to the law of the sea, she belonged to Buddington and his crew to use as they saw fit. But the US was inching to war with Britain, an outgrowth of the Crimean war and seized Russo-American property. Franklin Pierce thought it would help to return the ship as a sign of friendship — to break the ice, as it were. A proposal for funds was presented to congress and passed; the ship was bought, towed to the Brooklyn Navy yard for refitting, and returned to Britain as a gift. The gift may have worked: war with Britain was averted, and the seized property was returned. Then again, Britain went on to supply the confederacy early in the Civil War. None-the-less, it was a notable ship, and a notable gift, and when it was broken up, Parliament decided to have two “friendship desks” made of its timbers. One desk was presented to President Hayes, the other to Queen Victoria. One of these desks sits the British Naval museum at Portsmouth; its American cousin serves Donald Trump in the Oval office as it has served many president before him. It has been used by Coolidge, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama before him — a reminder that global warming can be good, in both senses. If you are interested in the other presidents’ desks, I wrote a review of them here.

As for the reason for the global warming of the mid 1800s, It seems that climate is chaotic. ON a related note, I have proposed that we make a more-permanent northwest passage by cutting thorough one of the islands in northern Canada. If you want to travel the Northwest passage in 2017, there is another cruise scheduled, but passage is sold out.

Robert Buxbaum, March 16, 2017.

You are Cornwallis, Dec 29, 1776. What should you do?

Here’s a military thought question: what would you do? It is Dec 29, 1776, and you are General Howe and/or Cornwallis. You command 32,000 troops, a big chunk of the largest and finest expeditionary force that England has ever mustered. Washington’s rag-tag army has shrunk from 25,000 at the beginning of the year to 3335 now. They’re arrayed outside of Trenton NJ following their one victory of the year. Their Christmas raid on Trenton killed 100 Hessians and captured 900. In that raid Washington lost only 6 (two to frostbite), but otherwise his year has been nothing but defeats, and you’d like to make sure his string of bad luck continues.

Washington at Trenton with captured regimental flag. December 25, 1776. Peale.

Washington at Trenton with a captured British flag. Dec. 25, 1776. Peale. What should Cornwallis do now?

You’ve retaken the city and have 4000 or so at Trenton and another 10,000 at Princeton, 12 miles to the north. You can march or stay. In favor of staying: the enlistment of 3000 or so of Washington’s army is up Dec. 31, and they’ve not been fed or paid. They will almost certainly quit. You can thus wait and attack Jan. 1, or attack now and give the rabble another reason to quit. Two other options: hole up and let the weather do the job, or bypass Washington, cross the Delaware, and attack Philadelphia, the colonial capital. Philadelphia is completely undefended. What would you do? What should you do? Making the decision somewhat pressing, Washington’s men keep making skirmish raids in and around Trenton. Shooting cannon or rifles in, killing here and there.

Please post your opinion of what Cornwallis should have done, and in a week or so, I’ll post an account of what Cornwallis actually did and how it played out (not well for Cornwallis).

Robert E. Buxbaum, December 8, 2016, roughly 240 years after the events described. I’ve written about other great revolutionary mistakes, and about the battle of Bunker hill.

Everett, the better reviewed Gettysburg speaker

Lincoln’s election was greeted with horror by the educated classes who considered him a western rube. “Honest Ape” he was called in the press. Horace Greeley couldn’t stand him, and blamed the civil war on his reckless speech. Continuing their view that the press is never wrong, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, November 17, 1863 was given very poor reviews, see my essay on why.

But the press wasn’t all bitterness and gall. A two-hour speech earlier that day by Edward Everett, was a hit with those who’d travelled, some hundreds of miles to hear it. Everett’s showed he was educated and understood the dire situation and causes of the battle. And he presents the conflict in a classical context, as a continuation of Roman and Greek conflicts. Here follows the beginning and end of his two hour address.

Edward Everett on the Fifty dollar silver certificate.

For nearly fifty years, Edward Everett’s face graced the Fifty dollar silver certificate. Now the world little notes, nor long remembers him. So passes glory.

[1] STANDING beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;–grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.

[2] It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner. Their bones were carefully gathered up from the funeral pyre where their bodies were consumed, and brought home to the city. There, for three days before the interment, they lay in state, beneath tents of honor, to receive the votive offerings of friends and relatives,–flowers, weapons, precious ornaments, painted vases (wonders of art, which after two thousand years adorn the museums of modern Europe),–the last tributes of surviving affection. Ten coffins of funereal cypress received the honorable deposit, one for each of the tribes of the city, and an eleventh in memory of the unrecognized, but not therefore unhonored, dead, and of those whose remains could not be recovered. On the fourth day the mournful procession was formed: mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, led the way, and to them it was permitted by the simplicity of ancient manners to utter aloud their lamentations for the beloved and the lost; the male relatives and friends of the deceased followed; citizens and strangers closed the train. Thus marshalled, they moved to the place of interment in that famous Ceramicus, the most beautiful suburb of Athens, which had been adorned by Cimon, the son of Miltiades, with walks and fountains and columns,–whose groves were filled with altars, shrines, and temples,–whose gardens were kept forever green by the streams from the neighboring hills, and shaded with the trees sacred to Minerva and coeval with the foundation of the city,–whose circuit enclosed

“the olive grove of Academe,
Plato’s retirement, where the Attic bird
Trilled his thick-warbled note the summer long,”–

whose pathways gleamed with the monuments of the illustrious dead, the work of the most consummate masters that ever gave life to marble. There, beneath the overarching plane-trees, upon a lofty stage erected for the purpose, it was ordained that a funeral oration should be pronounced by some citizen of Athens, in the presence of the assembled multitude.

[3] Such were the tokens of respect required to be paid at Athens to the memory of those who had fallen in the cause of their country. For those alone who fell at Marathon a peculiar honor was reserved. As the battle fought upon that immortal field was distinguished from all others in Grecian history for its influence over the fortunes of Hellas,–as it depended upon the event of that day whether Greece should live, a glory and a light to all coming time, or should expire, like the meteor of a moment; so the honors awarded to its martyr-heroes were such as were bestowed by Athens on no other occasion. They alone of all her sons were entombed upon the spot which they had forever rendered famous. Their names were inscribed upon ten pillars erected upon the monumental tumulus which covered their ashes (where, after six hundred years, they were read by the traveller Pausanias), and although the columns, beneath the hand of time and barbaric violence, have long since disappeared, the venerable mound still marks the spot where they fought and fell,–

“That battle-field where Persia’s victim-horde
First bowed beneath the brunt of Hellas’ sword.”

[4] And shall I, fellow-citizens, who, after an interval of twenty-three centuries, a youthful pilgrim from the world unknown to ancient Greece, have wandered over that illustrious plain, ready to put off the shoes from off my feet, as one that stands on holy ground,–who have gazed with respectful emotion on the mound which still protects the dust of those who rolled back the tide of Persian invasion, and rescued the land of popular liberty, of letters, and of arts, from the ruthless foe,–stand unmoved over the graves of our dear brethren, who so lately, on three of those all-important days which decide a nation’s history,–days on whose issue it depended whether this august republican Union, founded by some of the wisest statesmen that ever lived, cemented with the blood of some of the purest patriots that ever died, should perish or endure,–rolled back the tide of an invasion, not less unprovoked, not less ruthless, than that which came to plant the dark banner of Asiatic despotism and slavery on the free soil of Greece? Heaven forbid! And could I prove so insensible to every prompting of patriotic duty and affection, not only would you, fellow-citizens, gathered many of you from distant States, who have come to take part in these pious offices of gratitude,–you, respected fathers, brethren, matrons, sisters, who surround me,–cry out for shame, but the forms of brave and patriotic men who fill these honored graves would heave with indignation beneath the sod.

[5] We have assembled, friends, fellow-citizens, at the invitation of the Executive of the great central State of Pennsylvania, seconded by the Governors of seventeen other loyal States of the Union, to pay the last tribute of respect to the brave men who, in the hard-fought battles of the first, second, and third days of July last, laid down their lives for the country on these hillsides and the plains before us, and whose remains have been gathered into the cemetery which we consecrate this day. As my eye ranges over the fields whose sods were so lately moistened by the blood of gallant and loyal men, I feel, as never before, how truly it was said of old that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country. I feel, as never before, how justly, from the dawn of history to the present time, men have paid the homage of their gratitude and admiration to the memory of those who nobly sacrifice their lives, that their fellow-men may live in safety and in honor. And if this tribute were ever due, to whom could it be more justly paid than to those whose last resting-place we this day commend to the blessing of Heaven and of men?

………………………………….. The speech went on for 58 sections of more-or-less this size and ends by mentioning the achievements of the other union armies and navy saying, “But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates THE BATTLES OF GETTYSBURG.”


I find it long-winded and boring, but the crowd thought this speech wonderful. As grand as Lincoln’s 2 minute coda was plain. Part of the draw of Edward Everett was his cultured demeanor and his wide classical knowledge —  a big contrast to Lincoln. Everett had been president of Harvard, and had been a senator, a congressman, governor of Massachusetts, Secretary of State, and US Ambassador to Great Britain. Lincoln had been a country lawyer and one-term congressman. When states started succeeding, Everett had been the one called on to negotiate a compromise that delayed war until the firing on fort Sumter. All impressive in the day, now mostly forgotten glories. Today, many of his lines ring hollow today, e.g.  ” … that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country.” It just sounds weird to my ears. And the classic allusions sound pointless. By the early 20th century, most public pinion had changed; people decided that Lincoln’s was the better presentation, a monument to the spirit of man. The world remembers Lincoln fondly, but little notes, nor long remembers Everett, nor what he said there. The lesson: do not judge hastily. All things exist only in the context of time.

Robert E. Buxbaum, November 14, 2016. A week ago, Tuesday, our nation elected Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States, an individual as disliked and divisive as any since Lincoln. I do not know if he will prove to be honored or hated. There are demonstrations daily to remove him or overthrow the election. There are calls for succession, as when Lincoln took office. At Hampshire college, the flag was lowered in mourning. It’s possible that Trump is as offensive and unqualified as they say– but it is also possible that history will judge him otherwise in time. They did Lincoln.

Celebrating the Eids of March

March 15, the eids of March. On this date in 44 BC (2060 years ago) 5 centuries of republican rule in Rome came to an end to be followed by chaos, civil war, and then Empire. Augustus, Claudius, Nero. That was not the aim of the senators and colleagues of Julius Caesar when they took to assassinate Julius Caesar, first citizen of Rome. They acted out of excessive republican purity, and excessive fear. Their aim was for a pure republicanism where there would be no first citizen, and their fear was that Julius might become the emperor – the emperor that Augustus, Claudius, and Nero became.

Brutus on the face side of an Eids March coin, with two daggers and the legend "Eid Mar" on the obverse. Clearly the conspirators were proud of their act

Brutus on the face side of this Roman coin and two daggers and the legend “Eid Mar” on the obverse. The conspirators were proud of their act.

Shakespeare considers Brutus to be the noblest Roman of them all, but Dante considers him among the worst of the worst. Dante’s Devine Comedy consigns Brutus to the very center of Hell along with Cassius and Judas. What do you think? BTW, why it’s this a comedy?

The difference between a republican government and a democracy is that a democracy can elect a dictator (as Germany did and Iran has) or can choose to execute a citizen for being annoying to the majority, as democratic Athens did to Socrates. In a republic, even the majority is bound by a set of constitutional limitation providing some-measure of inviolable rights, generally that life, liberty, and property can not be taken without due process or the violation of a more-or-less clear law. All other systems are, to a greater or less extent a rule of whim. When the founders of the US picked a model for government, they picked republican Rome, not democratic Athens nor a limited monarchy as existed in England. Their motivation was the observation that power corrupts, and that inequality under the law attracts the worst elements to the position of least check on their power.

Mark Anthony and his wife, Octavia, Octavius's sister.

Mark Anthony and his wife, Octavia, Octavius’s sister.

The death of Caesar set forces in motion that would install Octavius (Augustus) Caesar and Anthony to take over as co-emperors. Here is a coin showing Mark Anthony with his wife, Octavius’s sister. already, neither look as lean as Brutus or Julius Caesar. Shortly thereafter, Octavius would have Mark Anthony killed to cement his power and republican rule would be over until 1776.

Robert E. (beware), March 14, 2016. I suspect this same drive for purity and fear is driving the Republican party today. Don’t fear the Rino, just make sure there is a balance of power.

A day of thanksgiving during the civil war

At the height of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November, 1863. It’s the first time Thanksgiving was proclaimed for the date we now keep every year. The war was not going well. The Union defeat at Chickamauga, Sept. 19-20 1863, left 35,000 dead, the bloodiest two days in US history. Most citizens would have called for a day of fasting and prayer, but in Lincoln’s view, things were good, and there was a need for joy and thanksgiving:

“to thank the Almighty God” …for.. “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies… “for peace that…. “has been preserved with all nations.” [That] “harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict….  “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”…. and for … “the care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.”  (see the whole proclamation here.)

A Civil War Thanksgiving. It's fellowship that makes peace possible.

A Civil War Thanksgiving. It’s fellowship that makes peace possible.

His was an interesting view, as important then as now. There is a need to remember that the good we have is more than the bad, and that there is a source of the good. As of today (2015) the economy is good in Michigan and the US. We are at peace with our neighbors and have civil obedience in our streets; we have food on our tables and clothes on our backs. We have cleaner air and cleaner water than in decades, blue skies, and plentiful rain. The ozone hole has shrunk, and global warming seems to have stopped. We have so much food that hardly anyone in our country suffers starvation, but only the hunger for finer, fancy things. We have roads without bandits, lighting at the flip of a switch, water at the turn of a tap, indoor heat, and (for most) indoor cooling in the summer. We have telephone communication, and radio, and television, and music at our fingertips. We have libraries with books, and free childhood education. We have a voice in our government, and information from the far ends of the earth. All these call for joy and thanksgiving.

And we can even find a cause for thanks in the things we don’t have: space travel and the diseases we can’t cure, for example. The things we don’t have provide a reason to wake up in the morning, and a motivation to do great things. We live in a country where we can change things, and it’s nice to know there are things worth changing. For ideas that lack expression, we can provide it. For diseases, we can still search for a cure. For those who lack happiness and friendship, we can help provide both (a joyful celebration is a good occasion to do so). For those who lack a job, we can help. And to those who feel a lack of meaning in life, perhaps the best answer is a celebration to explore the source of all blessings. Let us reach out to “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers.” A lesson Scrooge learned from the ghosts is that joy and generous celebration are self-sustaining and attractive. Let joy and good fellowship extend to all. God Bless us each and every one.

Robert Buxbaum, Detroit, November 18, 2015, The anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is tomorrow, Nov. 19th (it wasn’t well received). As for Black Friday shopping, lets not get up from the table of thanks to jostle each other for some useless trinket.

What happened to Jack Kelly of Newsies

As my daughters are fans of the Disney play and movie, “Newsies,” and as I’ve taken interest in the early 20th century, they’ve asked me to find out what happened to Jack Kelly, the main character of the play/movie. If you’ve never seen it, Newsies is a musical about the New York newsboy strike of 1899. According to the play/ movie, as soon as the strike ends (the newsboys win), the strike leader, “cowboy” Jack Kelly goes off with Theodore Roosevelt, presumably headed to Santa Fé, New Mexico to become a real cowboy. But a simple search did not reveal what actually happened to the real Jack Kelly; here’s what I found. Noosies NYT

Without looking, I told my daughters that, if Jack Kelly had gone to Santa Fé in 1899, he would have found something very interesting: a cowboy school for young men. As it happened one of Roosevelt’s rough riders from the battle of San Juan Hill, retired to Santa Fé and set up a cowboy school for boys in the mountains above the town. He built a very outdoorsy operation in an area called “Los Alamos”. It ran until 1942 when the location was taken over to become “Site Y” of the Manhattan Project. This is where J. Robert Oppenheimer and co designed and built the first Atom Bombs. That Jack would have gone there would make for a nice, tidy story, but the truth appears to have been more messy, and more interesting. Jack got involved with William Hearst and George M. Cohan, the Titanic, a famous murder, and eventually with the fall of Tammany Hall. Here’s a picture.

Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan, head Newsie. He isn’t ugly, but isn’t Christian Bale either.

First, there was an actual newsboy strike in 1899; it was about raising the price the newsboys paid per paper, but the problem was that the price had been raised earlier, for the Spanish-American War, and not decreased after the war ended. The newsboys did win, and there was a leader named Jack, but according to the papers, the name of the leader was “Jack Sullivan”, not Jack Kelly or Francis Sullivan. The New York Tribune, July 22, 1899, lists Jack Sullivan as the leader of the strike Arbitration Committee and a leader of “the first group of newsboys to declare and demand their rights.” There are other leaders too: Louis “Kid Blink” Baletti, and David “Dave/ Yaller” Simmons. “Kid Blink” (he wore an eye patch and appears in the movie) got an award from the newsboys for making the best speech. I’ll guess that the Dave “the mouth” character is based on David “Yaller” Simmons, but it is not clear that he had any close relationship with Sullivan.

As for the movie showing Jack leaving with T. Roosevelt. it might have suited Roosevelt, but the real Jack appears to have stayed in New York, and appears to have taken a job as a bodyguard for William Randolph Hearst, one of the newspaper moguls who’d raised his rates and precipitated the strike. But it doesn’t end there. In 1904, Jack Sullivan, “the Boss Noosie” has gotten a charter for a Newsies Club to be set-up on 4th street in lower New York (the Bowery). A New York Times article (at left) includes an interview with Jack that fans should find pleasing, if only for his grammar. He uses the word, “papes” instead of papers or newspapers. I suspect this is a put-on affect for benefit of Times-readers, but who knows? It is sometimes the height of wisdom to appear stupid.

By 1909, Jack has lost control of his newsboy’s club. He appears to have used the club to teach boxing (how crude) and on at least one occasion used club assets to post bail for women accused of “loitering,” a jail-able offense in corrupt, Tammany-era New York. The club closed 2 years later. And then Jack gets married (November 27, 1910), and it appears that Jack’s real name was not Sullivan at all, but Reich. He marries Sarah Siegel at the Ohav Tzedek synagogue as “Jacob Reich”. The name Jacob Reich appears on his marriage license, on his death certificate, and on various court records, though he still appears as Jack Sullivan in other activities. Jack/ Jacob appears to have chosen the Irish-sounding name “Sullivan” as an homage to the leader of the Tammany (Democratic) machine, “Big Tim” Sullivan, shown in the photo below.

Turn of the century Tammany boss, "Big Tim" Sullivan, shown at right.

Turn of the century Tammany boss, “Big Tim” Sullivan, shown at right.

By March, 1912, Jack appears again in the news, this time suing two film companies for use of his story and likeness without payment to him. It’s a film called “the Gangsters.” It would be interesting to see if a copy still exists.

A month later, April 15, 1912, The unsinkable Titanic goes down, and six days after that, April 21, 1912, Jack is selling papers at a charity baseball game to benefit the survivors. The game takes place on a Sunday, normally prohibited by New York blue laws, between The New York Giants and The New York Yankees (the Yankees are still called the Highlanders in those days, but are already wearing pinstripes). In the picture below, Jack is under the red arrow with lots of “papes” under his arm, just behind famous song-writer, playwright, George M. Cohan. Both are dressed as newsies. George M. Cohan, known for the WWI song “Over there”, had four plays on Broadway at the time. He is one of the very few successful New Yorkers to have avoided major attachment to the crooked, New York political machine.

Jack Sullivan with George M Cohan, April 1912 selling a special newspaper to help survivors of the Titanic.

Jack Sullivan (arrow) with George M Cohan, April 1912 selling a special newspaper to help survivors of the Titanic.

New York Refuge

The New York house of refuge

And now Jack Kelly / Sullivan/ Reich enters history as a tragic bystander. When he got married, Jack borrowed $1000, from a Jewish gambler and gambling hall owner, Herman (Beansy) Rosenthal. Rosenthal was a good friend of his, and of “Big Tim” Sullivan, but he (and Sullivan) had enemies. Among them, the crooked police Lieutenant, Charles Becker, who headed the city vice squad and delighted in shaking down the gamblers, pimps, etc for protection money. Becker wanted Rosenthal dead, in part to keep him from going to the newspapers with stories of police corruption.

By 1912, “Big Tim” lost control of the Tammany organization and was put in seclusion under Tammany guard. Within a year he’d be dead. Someone (Becker?) then hired four hit men to kill Rosenthal (1:30 AM, July 16, 1912 in front of The Metropole Hotel). It’s an event recounted in “The Great Gatsby.” Several beat-policemen were there to see the shooting, but every one looked away. Not one shot back or took the license of the car. In fact, the police did nothing to catch the murderers except to lock up the only honest witness to keep him from testifying. Before the shooting, Becker took Jack Sullivan out for an evening at Madison Square Garden; he then dropped Jack at the Metropole just before the 1:30 shooting. Becker and the police then blamed Jack and four others for the murder based on testimony that they had concocted. In the end, Jack was acquitted, but not the other four, or Becker. All five went to the electric chair; all five protested their innocence.

Becker was the first US police lieutenant to be put to death for murder. It seems unlikely that he was innocent, but was he a murderer, or just an accomplice. As for the other four, perhaps they were guilty, perhaps not; it’s hard to tell from Tammany-era records. The judge was crooked; Police chief Devery was at least as crooked as Becker in terms of shaking down hoodlums. And Devery had as much motive as Becker to want Rosenthal dead. The witnesses were lying from a script they’d been given — that’s what justice was like in those days. Within a year of the murder, Big Tim was dead and Charles Francis Murphy had gained firm control of Tammany Hall. The police spent the next decade in criminal activities while trying to pin something on Jack, now a cigar store owner. He was busted for gambling and related offenses, but nothing much came of it. Jack cleared his name from the charge of murder only in 1936, two years before his death — three years after Fiorello La Guardia was elected mayor. Republican/ Fusion candidate, La Guardia ran against Tammany and did much to end their police corruption.

As for The Refuge, The New York House of Refuge is a real place. It sat on Randal’s Island between Manhattan, The Bronx, and Queens. The Island is now famous as the center of The Triborough Bridge. There is now a park where The Refuge was. Was The Refuge run honestly? If it was, it would have been virtually the only public institutions to run that way. Tammany was corrupt to the core.

Robert E. Buxbaum, October 25, 2015. Much of the information here comes from a tumbler exchange called, “newsies historical research.” I organized it and added some background about Baseball, Tammany, etc. If you like Newsies, or the era, I can recommend the novel (and movie), The Great Gatsby, or Fiorello!, a musical version of La Guardia’s unlikely rise to power. Hearst is treated somewhat positively in Newsies, but less-so as “Citizen Kane.” If someone’s seen, or has a link to “The Gangsters” please tell me.

Hill-o-beans. Winning at Bunker Hill lost America for Britain.

The greatest single victory of the American Revolution in terms of British soldiers killed or wounded was the battle of Bunker Hill. It was won without leaders or strategy, or any real sense of victory: the British held the hill when the battle was over. Still, one can easily echo the comment of General George Clinton: “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” How this came to be is a real lesson in how group-think can lead to the destruction of an army of the finest soldiers on earth by a bunch of untrained rabble.

By May 1775, Boston was a valuable port, British-controlled, but much smaller than it is today. It was a knob-hill peninsula cut off from the rest of the colonies except for one narrow road, called “The Neck,” or The Roxbury Neck to distinguish it from a similar neck road leading to nearby Charlestown peninsula. Following the rumpus battles of Lexington and Concord, Boston was surrounded by 15,000 ill-clad, undisciplined colonials who ate, drank, and shot at stuff in plain view of the 6000 trained soldiers and 4 Generals in Boston. The Neck road was blocked by Continental militia and cannon making it difficult, but not impossible for the British army to leave by that route to demonstrate control of the colonies. The British had sea-power though and could use it to attack anywhere they liked on the American coast. For their attack on Lexington, April ’75, they left Boston by a naval landing at Charlestown, at the foot of Breed’s hill, and marched out to Lexington by its neck road. The British generals in Boston: Gage, Burgoyne, Howe, and Clinton, realized that, if they were to quash the revolt/revolution, they needed to break out of Boston permanently. They needed to take hold of some easily defended ground — preferably high ground –with a good connection to the rest of coast, and that the obvious spot to attack and hold was the heights of Dorchester, heights that would eventually be held by George Washington. Instead, by incredible ignorance, they changed goals on June 17, and attacked at Charlestown, leaving them with control of another isolated peninsula-community barely attached to the mainland.

What lead four trained Generals to change targets and attack at this worthless spot was the American genius of war: our amazing ability for disarray — plus a good dose of group-think with each General trying to outshine his fellows (too many cooks spoil the broth). The defense of Charlestown and Breeds hill was done incredibly poorly, with only 1200 Colonials participating originally, and even the location was poorly chosen. We’d meant to defend at Bunker hill, with perhaps a secondary foxhole on Breeds hill, but screwed up. We built at night with confused leadership (or no leadership), and a healthy fuel of rum for the diggers. We found when the sun rose that we’d built a bare fox-hole on Bunker hill, and as our main defensive position square trench (redoubt), on Breed’s hill that was open at bak and too deep for people to shoot easily over the side edge. Looking with spyglasses from Boston, the British could see that the trench was a mess: too big, undermanned, and unguarded from the sides. Clearly, the Continentals had no idea what they were doing, and Gage thought to show them the consequences of that. The thought of a quick, decisive victory clouded his mind and the minds of his co-generals to the bigger issue that, even if they won without a single loss, they’d be in a worse position for breaking out of Boston and attacking elsewhere. They’d now have a divided army, and two neck-roads to get through simultaneously. It would be a logistic nightmare.

The attack was supposed to work this way: a sea landing at Moulton's hill. two side actions, SA, at the fronts of the Colonial defenses, and a sweeping main attack, MA, at the edge.

The attack was supposed to work this way: a sea landing at Moulton’s hill. two side actions, SA, at the fronts of the Colonial defenses, and a sweeping main attack, MA, at the edge.

By all rights, any one of the four should have remembered their military goals, ignored the Breed’s hill redoubt, and just taken Dorchester Heights. I guess the incompetence of the rebels at Breeds Hill made attacking there too tempting to ignore. All they would have to do was to get a superior force of trained men on the island and march them forward — or better yet march them around the side of the trench. They wouldn’t even need to fire their weapons, but could have just used bayonets — spears. The Continentals had too few men, no training, and no bayonets. It was expected that even if the Continentals all massed well (unlikely), and shot together (even more unlikely), they would likely miss with half the targets on their first and only shot. If the British marched well, they would arrive at the trench before the Continentals could reload their guns. Even with a frontal attack, a superior force of British would be on the rebels, shooting them at close range and spearing them with their bayonets. The Americans had bought a cannon to the hill, but little powder no idea where to put the cannon. The British plan was to form a line, fake an attack at the front of the redoubt and then wheel: everyone turns right and attacks at the trench’s right side (or left if you look as a Colonial). It should have been a piece of cake.

Unfortunately, the attack was bungled somewhat: landing the troops and forming them up took longer than expected. The British discovered they’d  brought the wrong size balls for their cannon, and had trouble mustering into an appropriate line for attack. In the meantime more Continentals moved over to from the mainland until they outnumbered the British. The Continentals built up the vulnerable, left side of their fort, and built triangular sub forts (Friches) to further defend the sides of the trench. They also built a rough rail fence from the hill to the sea to slow frontal attacks. Some snipers snuck into Charlestown to shoot at British officers from the rear while they were assembling. None of this was critical, but it was annoying. The British wasted more time getting the right cannon-shot, and used cannon fire from ships in the harbor to soften up the Continental position. But shooting up-hill is tricky, and they only managed to killed one this way (decapitated by a cannon-ball). It mostly wasted more time, allowing more digging, and more sniper shooting from town. An enterprising Continental, Col. Stark, put up shot markers at 100 feet and passed the classic instruction: don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes, or at least not until your target passes this marker.

The second attack at Breeds Hill

The second attack at Breeds Hill

A first British attack went poorly; a front line of Hessians were used, dressed in bright red coats, topped with the classic, heavy bear-skin hats (Busby hats) to make them look more formidable. They attacked as a line, but the hats kept them from looking down at the muck, bramble and rocks they were stumbling over; they moved slower than was hoped, and never quite managed to wheel. The main attack, at the side, never quite passed the rail fence. A colonial fired early by mistake, and they fired back (bigger mistake). More colonials showed up at the last minute and used the fence to steady their aim. The few British who passed the fence got shot by the retreating Americans as they straggled over. The attack was then called off, allowing the British to re-muster for a second attack, and allowing the Americans to reload (always a mistake). The second British attack used three ranks and was directed more fully towards the fort, but it was similarly unproductive. Charlestown was burnt to stop the snipers, but more colonial soldiers with more ammunition wandered by to help; some from the Bunker Hill group, others from the surrounding mob. Some Colonial soldiers wandered off, too. A platform was built so the Colonials could see to shoot out the side of the Fort (the direction of the last attack). Eventually, the British got enough men together, including some 400 marines shipped over from Boston and some 200 wounded who were ordered to re-muster. They attacked the fort directly as several, well-spaced columns up the middle. This worked in part because it was good strategy, and because the Colonials there were now out of ammunition.

The second attack: Three ranks and no Busby hats this time, with Charlestown burning in the background. Their's not to question why, their's but to do and die.

The second attack: Three ranks and no Busby hats this time, with the dead strewn around and Charlestown burning in the background. Their’s not to question why; their’s but to do and die. Painting by Pyle.

Perhaps, if more Colonials joined the fight they would have beaten back the British a 3rd time, or perhaps thousands would have been captured. As it was most of those on the peninsula were able to retreat before the British completed their assault. The British captured or killed some 400 defenders, mostly during the retreat, and took the peninsula, but lost 1,054 men (226 killed in the battle, the most in the war) plus most of the junior officers. More importantly, the British forces were now divided between two, isolated peninsulas that could only be held with officers and men who would be better used elsewhere. Essentially, the hill they’d takes wasn’t worth a hill-o-beans. They were now too spread out to attack at Dorchester heights, the place they really wanted. By January 1776 they gave up the city and the hill. A main lesson, here and in life: only fight for something that you really want, otherwise you may be disappointed with your win.

There was a remarkable loss of officers, in particular British officers. These were particular targets as they dressed better than the rest. The British lost 1 lieutenant colonel (killed), 5 majors (3 killed), 34 captains (7 killed) 41 lieutenants (9 killed), 57 sergeants (15 killed), and 13 drummers (1 killed). A lesson I learn — don’t dress fancier than you must. Another issue and lesson: after the battle, General Burgoyne blamed Generals Clinton, Howe, and Gage. As a result, Clinton didn’t come to Burgoyne’s aid in June 1777. Instead, stung by Burgoyne’s blame, Clinton ignored the agreed plan, and authorized Howe to attack Philadelphia. Burgoyne’s defeat led to the French joining in on our side, and didn’t do Burgoyne’s reputation any good either. Lesson: be willing to take some blame.

It strikes me that the chaos brought the victory. The choice to defend this peninsula was a mistake, and building a bad fort in the wrong place made it worse. Had Washington been in command, he would have defended the area better, perhaps fortifying Bunker hill instead of Breed’s hill, or fortifying Dorchester. If so, the British would have attacked elsewhere and won with fewer casualties, it seems. That was the result with Fort Washington and Fort Lee in 1776: two proper defensive positions and two solid British victories. But on June 16-17, George Washington was on his way to Boston, and the clowns were still running the circus. There is remarkable comedy to history, particularly concerning the American military. As Bismarck tried to explain to his Kaiser: “God protects children, fools, and the United States of America.”

Robert Buxbaum, August 16, 2015. There are several other howler mistakes of the American Revolution, I’ve dealt with three in a post last month, here. Another lesson: at Lexington and Concord the British unsuccessfully tried to capture Adams and Hancock. By missing them, they sent the two rebels fleeing to the Continental congress in Philadelphia where they were to committed to more mischief than they could have in Boston. Lesson: don’t attack readily, but if you do, make sure you win.