Wednesday, May 13, 2015

MAY 13 = Robert Smalls Takes a Ship to Freedom

"I am delivering this war materiel including these cannons, and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use."

With these words, said to have been spoken to an astonished Union Naval Officer, Robert Smalls (left), then 23 years old delivered the C.S.S. Planter and her slave crew and their families to freedom on this day, May 13, 1862.  Smalls thus completed on of the most daring escapes - right under the nose of the enemy guns - in all the history of warfare, and struck a powerful blow for the freedom of his people.

Robert Smalls: Born But Not Destined to Be a Slave

Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 5, 1839
in a house behind his Master's house.  His mother, who was taken from him when he was nine, was concerned that the favor shown to Robert over the other slave children would lead her son to a soft view of slavery. So she arranged for him to do field work, and to witness the whippings of his fellow slaves first hand. He learned the lesson well, developing a defiant streak that would frequently land him in trouble. By age 19, Smalls had been rented out to work in Charleston and had learned various jobs including how to pilot a boat around the shallows of Charleston harbor.  He was allowed to marry his wife Hannah with whom he would have two children.  But he was keenly aware that his slave status granted nothing permanent to his marriage. So he always kept his eyes open for a way out.

Robert Smalls and the C.S.S. Planter

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Smalls with his know- ledge of Charleston harbor was assigned to serve as the pilot aboard the C.S.S. Planter (above). A sidewheel steamer built in 1860 to service the southern cotton trade, the Planter had been armed with a pair of cannons, one of which had been taken from Fort Sumter. That fort in Charleston harbor of course had been the scene of the start of the war when South Carolina had seceded from the Union in 1861. Planter had since the war begun been used by the Confederates as an armed dispatch boat and transport; part of the engineer department at Charleston, under General Ripley. For nearly a year Smalls had closely observed the movements of the ship and of her officers, lead by Captain C.J. Rylea as well as the other two white officers under whose orders he and the eight member slave crew of the Planter served.  He had made plans to take the ship at the right moment, travel to another point to pick up his and the crew's families and then make a dash for the Union ships which were blockading Charleston harbor.  On the evening of May 12, when Captain Rylea and the officers elected to spend that night ashore, Smalls put his plan into action.

Smalls Takes the Planter on May 13

At about 3:00 in the morning Smalls and the eight other slave crewmen weighed anchor and carefully eased the Planter out of her moorings. They then took her a short distance to pick up Smalls' and the rest of their families and then traveled back down the inlet into Charleston harbor for an extremely hazardous journey out to the Union blockade. Their route would take them past three armed confederate batteries to start with.  As Planter was flying the Confederate flag, this was accomplished without incident.  But then she had to go right by Fort Sumter, a huge fort bristling with guns.  A single shot from one of these guns could have easily destroyed the Planter.  When she got near Sumter, Smalls ignored advice to take a wide berth around it, as this would cause suspicion.  Instead, Smalls donned a straw hat just like Captain Rylea wore, and cooly pacing the Planter's deck using the Captain's gait he took the Planter right under Sumter's guns.  He passed any visual inspection as he gave the correct signal to pass.  The signal was accepted and Planter was allowed to pass. There remained now the approach to the Union blockade in an armed Confederate-flagged ship without them opening fire to be accomplished. So the Southern banner was removed, and replaced with a white sheet as a flag of surrender.

The C.S.S. Planter Arrives 

The following eyewitness account comes from a man aboard one of the Union ships, the U.S.S. Onward, after they saw the white flag:

"As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it, and ‘de heart of de Souf,’ generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward, one of the Colored men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’ ”

In addition to her crew of newly freed men and their families, Smalls had also delivered the guns aboard the Planter as well as quite a large amount of ammunition.  In 1863, Smalls was given command of the newly re-christened U.S.S. Planter, which he held until 1866.  He was present at the RE-raising of the U.S flag over Fort Sumter after the end of the war, and went on to serve three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (above). He died on February 22, 1915 at the same house behind which he had been born in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Sources =

Sunday, May 10, 2015

MAY 10 = Bass Reeves is Sworn In

"Among the numerous deputy marshals that have ridden for the ....Indian Territory courts none have met with more hairbreadth escapes or have effected more hazardous arrests than Bass Reeves, of Muskogee.  Bass is a stalwart negro, fifty years of age, weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, stands six feet two inches in his stockings, and fears nothing that moves and breathes.  His long muscular arms have attached to them a pair of hands that would do credit to a giant and they handle a revolver with the ease and grace acquired after only years of practice.  Several 'bad' men have gone to their long homes for refusing to halt when commanded by Bass....." 

This is the way which in 1901, the historian D.C. Gideon described Bass Reeves, who was sworn in as a Deputy U.S. Marshal on today's date in 1875. Reeves is one of the toughest, yet least known figures in the "Old West" histories, mainly because he was black; one of the first black deputy marshals ever sworn in west of Fort Smith, Arkansas,   But happily some of that long overdue recognition is coming to this remarkable and very brave man, and I will attempt here in these few paragraphs to tell you a little about him.  He deserves credit in our history of the West!!

Bass Reeves  - Born a Slave

Records of slave births were sketchy at best, so there is a good deal about the early years of this man's life on which we're not clear.  But he was born as a slave probably in 1838 at a cotton plantation near Paris, in Lamar County, Texas.  His mother was named Pearlalee, and an older sister was named Jane. Bass was an energetic youth, always working hard, but a little too restless to suit his mother, who tried to pass along the teachings of Jesus (which she had secretly learned), to her son in hope that these would calm his restless spirit.  In time, young Bass became very good with the horses and other animals.  He became the
black- smith's helper and eventually the "com- panion" to his master. This was a prestigious position for Bass, but it also put him in very close contact with his master, one George Reeves. This contact got a bit too close with Reeves because the two men had an argument one night over a game of cards, and Bass apparently knocked the man out and fled to the Indian Territory (above, now the state of Oklahoma). Bass may have been with Reeves during a portion of the Civil War, but the available information is unclear on this point,  What is clear in that Bass spent a good number of years in this Indian Territory, and got to know these Indigenous Americans very well, becoming friends with many of the tribes, even becoming fluent in several of their languages.

Judge Parker, Bass Reeves, and the Indian Territory

This Indian Territory was so called because that is where the U.S. government forced the various Indian tribes to relocate after they were forced off of their native lands.  The end of the Civil War made Bass Reeves a free man.  But in it's upheaval and its end it made an evil mess of the legal situation in the Indian Territory. This was because it attracted every sort of desperado imaginable as it was a huge chunk of land with little law and order at all. As historian Glenn Shirley has said: "The Civil War wrecked the peace of the Five Tribes. Its aftermath was a maelstrom of racial hatred, and unbridled vice. Rape, robbery, and 
pillage became common offenses.  Killers traveled in gangs." Into this mess, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed in March, 1875 a very tough, no-nonsense Federal Judge, Issac C. Parker (left) to bring law and order to this territory.  Parker soon became known as the "Hanging Judge", from whose jurisdiction there was no appeal, save to President Grant himself. One of Parker's first orders of business was to appoint men to be Deputy U.S. Marshals to administer his decrees and serve his warrants.  Bass Reeves was one such man who was sworn in on this date. Reeves was an excellent choice for this sort of work, as he was an extremely good shot, and was known to be on good terms with the Indians who lived there, and could deal with the freed blacks in the territory with ease. But his main qualification was that he was known to be incorruptible, as tough as the trails he rode, and very reliable.  

Reeves Reputation for Getting His Man - Alive

Bass Reeves was a giant of a man, described by one as "... a very big man, told jokes, was boastful and lusty, full of life and wore a large black hat." Art T. Burton has said based on descriptions by those who knew him, "He had a deep and resonant voice that could be very authoritative when it had to be but assuring just the same." But he quickly developed a reputation as a man who whenever he served a warrant, followed the letter of the law, bringing his men in alive most of
the time. As he had been born a slave, he could neither read nor write, so he would memorize the names and text of a warrant before serving it so he could always deliver it properly.  He would always travel with a cook, and a man to serve on his posse, and would ride the huge distances he needed in order to bring his men in, sometimes bringing in six to thirteen men at a time, all chained to his wagon to their judgement in Judge Parker's Fort Smith (above, circa 1867). He would then collect the reward, spend time with his wife (Jennie) and children (he had ten) before going out to search for criminals again.

Bass Reeves Guns Down Jim Webb

There are just too many stories about this man to tell even a small portion of them in my limited space here. But here is one which sums up the man well as any:

Bass had pursued Jim Webb for murder and had brought him in. But after a year in jail, the man got out on bail, which Webb skipped. Reeves pursued him again, tracing him to Jim Bywater's store in the Chickasaw nation.  Webb saw Bass coming and crashed through the window of Bywater's store, and tuned and fired at Reeves who pursued on his horse.  He shot with his first bullet grazing the horn of Reeve's saddle, the second cutting a button off of his coat, and the third
severing the reins of his horse. Webb hit the ground, and rolled to his feet firing and grazing the brim of Reeve's hat. But Bass was so quick and accurate in his response that he hit Webb three times.  Webb went down and with his dying words said to Reeves: "Give my your hand, Bass," said Webb, as he extended his own with an effort to grasp it. "You are a brave man. I want you to accept my revolver and scabbard as a present and you must accept them. Take it, for with it I have killed eleven men, four of them in Indian Territory, and I expected you to make the twelfth." Bass accepted the revolver, helped bury Webb, and then presented his gun belt and boots as proof that he had gotten his man.

Bass Reeve's Obituary... Another Story of His Devotion to Duty

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bass joined the Muskogee Police Department (below, far left), but only served there for two years before his health began to fail.  In 1909 he retired, and he died on January 12, 1910 of the effects of Bright's Disease, an inflammation of the kidneys.  In an obituary for him published in the Muskogee Phoenix the next day came another story which was typical of the man:

"Undoubtedly the act which best typifies the man and which at least shows his devotion to duty, was the arrest of his son. A warrant for the arrest of the younger Reeves, who was charged with murder of his wife, had been issued. Marshal Bennett said that perhaps another deputy had better be sent to arrest him. The old negro was in the room at the time, and with a devotion of duty equaling that of the old Roman, Brutus, whose greatest claim on fame has been that the love for his son could not sway him from justice, he said, "Give me the writ," and went out and arrested his son, brought him into court and upon trial and conviction he was sentenced to imprisonment and is still serving his sentence."

Reeve's son later was released after serving his time, and lived an exemplary life ever after.  Bass Reeves deserves to be mentioned in the front ranks of the lawmen of America's Old West.  He was the equal of Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hicock, and Wyatt Earp.  And like Wyatt Earp, he was never once, in his long career wounded.

Sources =

"A Certain Blindness; A Black Family's Quest for the Promise of America"
by Paul L. Brady, ALP Publishing, Atlanta, 1990

"Black Gun Silver Star - the Life and Legend of Marshal Bass Reeves"
by Art T. Burton, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2006

"Law West of Fort Smith" by Glenn Shirley, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1957

"Indian Territory" by D.C. Gideon, New York, Lewis Pub. Co., 1901, found online at:;view=1up;seq=141

Friday, May 8, 2015

MAY 8 = V.E. Day

I was originally going to let this go and get it next year... I was working on something else.  But this is afterall the 70th Anniversary of V.E. Day (that's Victory in Europe Day to those of you who are new to this Blog), and I just couldn't let it go.  So here is a compilation of records of how this truly momentous day went from a couple of different vantage points:

In Washington D.C., President Harry Truman..

"...broke the news in his office to reporters in his office at 8:30 (a.m.).  At 9:00 from the Diplomatic Reception Room where Roosevelt had so often broadcast to the country, he spoke to the largest radio audience yet recorded: 'This is a solemn but glorious hour.  I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day... We must work to finish the war.  Our victory is but half-won..." 1.

In New York, the Times published General Eisenhower's Victory Order of the Day to his troops :

"May 8, 1945

The crusade on which we embarked in the early summer of 1944 has reached its glorious conclusion. It is my especial privilege, in the name of all nations represented in this theatre of war, to commend each of you for the valiant performance of duty.

Though these words are feeble, they come from the bottom of a heart overflowing with pride in your loyal service and admiration for you as warriors. Your accomplishments at sea, in the air, on the ground and in the field of supply have astonished the world.

As we celebrate victory in Europe let us remind ourselves that our common problems of the immediate and distant future can be best solved in the same conceptions of cooperation and devotion to the cause of human freedom as have made this Expeditionary Force such a mighty engine of righteous destruction. Let us have no part in the profitless quarrels in which other men will inevitably engage as to what country and what service won the European war." 2.

In London:

"When the day finally came, it was like no other day that anyone can remember. It had a flavor of its own, an extemporaneousness which gave it something of the quality of a vast, happy village fete as people wandered about, sat, sang, and slept against a slimmer background of trees, grass, flowers, and water...Apparently the desire to assist in London's celebration combusted spontaneously in the bosom of every member of every family, from the smallest babies, with their hair done up in red-white-and-blue ribbons, to beaming elderly couples who, utterly without self-consciousness, strolled up and down the streets arm in arm in red-white-and-blue paper hats."  - Mollie Panter-Downes

In Moscow:

"The announce- ment came long before dawn, and thousands of people poured into the streets wearing everything from pajamas to fur coats. The crowd stayed on and on and grew ever larger.  There had been no such demonstration in Moscow since the Revolution's earliest wild days.  Hordes gathered in front of the British and American embassies, and whenever a foreigner was spotted, he was gently plucked up by hundreds of hands and passed along with cheers.  George Kennan, U.S. charge d'affaires, made a speech from the embassy balcony where the Red banner hung beside the Stars and Stripes.  Roars went up: 'Long live Truman!' 'Long live Roosevelt's memory!' 'Long live the great Americans!'" 4.

In Ulm, Germany:

"When the war ended, I was in Germany, in a town called Ulm. Out of the clear blue sky over the loud- speaker they say, 'The war has ended! The war has ended!' Here I am in a foxhole talking to one of my buddies. 'What did they say?'

'Pat! The war has ended!' You'd see there were some of them out there going crazy. Guys were shooting each other by mistake! GIs, yes, they were shooting themselves, from the excitement. They tried to tell everybody, 'Calm down! Be careful!'

And I was in a foxhole down there. 'The war is over! The war is over!' I was crying in the foxhole from joy, I couldn't believe it. The following morning they called formation outside, they said, 'The following names, please step forward.' Finally, 'Pfc. Patsy Giacchi!' I step forward.

'Okay,' the captain says, 'you guys are all going home.' Boom. One guy passes out from the excitement. I couldn't believe it. I think I was 21 years old then." 5.

- Patsy Giacchi of New Jersey, 94th Quartermaster Co.

Notes =

1. - "Truman" by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992

2. -

3. -

4. - "The American Heritage Picture History of World War II" by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1966

5. -

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

MAY 5 = Cinco de Mayo - the Battle of Puebla

"And yet, ever more terrible, the battle waged on. As our columns approached the fort, the defence intensified and [the defenders] redoubled their fire. The air is filled with nothing but the uninterrupted hissing of cannonballs and bullets." - Prince Georges Bibesco

"The national arms have been covered with glory" - General Ignacio Zaragoza

The Battle of Puebla took place on today's date in 1862 (above).  The battle was won by a rag-tag group of Mexican soldiers over the much better equipped and more numerous forces of the French Army. While militarily the battle amounted to but a temporary victory in Mexico's struggle to throw off foreign domination, it was a huge morale boost to the Mexican people and gave them confidence that their patriotism would win out in the end. The two quotes above are both reactions to the battle. First from the French side describing the battle and the second is the famous reaction of the Mexican commander to his nation's victory. The day is known as Cinco de Mayo, and while it is not Mexico's Independence Day, and it is celebrated more among Mexican Americans that it is in Mexico herself, it is an important moment in history, and should be remembered as a true mark of Mexican Independence.

What Was Napoleon III Doing in Mexico?

Napoleon III, also known as Louis Napoleon (right) was but a pale, stuffed shirt imitation of Napoleon I, who was his Uncle. Napoleon I was something of a stuffed shirt himself in my opinion, but he was a genius on the battle field; he knew how to build and run an army. By 1852 his nephew had had taken dictatorial power in France and declared himself Emperor.  But Louis Napoleon lacked his uncle's military, as would soon become apparent. Meanwhile, in Mexico a bitter civil war had left that country nearly bankrupt. The President of Mexico, Benito Juarez announced in 1861 that Mexico would suspend payments on her foreign debt for two years.  This led Great Britain, Spain and France to send military forces to the region to take the port of Vera Cruz in December of 1861.  The Brits and the Spanish were able to negotiate a solution and in April, 1862, they pulled out.  But Louis Napoleon smelled an opportunity to make Mexico a vassal state to France, as America was then caught up in her own civil war, and was thus unable to enforce the tenets of the Monroe Doctrine.  This was  a policy developed under U. S. President James Monroe in 1823, which precluded any foreign powers from setting up colonies in North or South America.

The Battle of Puebla

On March 5, 1862, a French forces, commanded by Major General Charles de Lorencez began marching inland against the Mexican forces which were commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza, which retreated to the fortified city of Puebla (below). Lorencez had about 6500 men to
command, and these were considered some of the best soldiers in the world who were well equipped. But they were not the troops of Napoleon I. Arrayed against this were about 3500 to 4500 Mexican troops, many of them irregular forces. These were well dug in into trenches and covered positions linking the two forts defending the city, forts L'oreto and Guadelupe'. So the French with little regard for the fighting ability of the Mexicans launched a full frontal assault of the Mexican positions. This attack was met by heavy fire from the Mexican line, and from the two forts and was beaten back. A second such assault got further but as still beaten back. Lorencez's artillery was nearly out of ammunition so a third assault was tried unsupported,  The French forces surged forward but were unable to break the line of the tenacious Mexican defenders, French Captain P. Ginard described some of this fighting:

"And now the Zouaves have begun to approach the fort; the cannonade firing at us has not stopped, but other cannons firing grapeshot have now been met by our column. Our troops continue to advance, taking cover where they can in the dips in terrain (pictured above).

The French began to fall back from this third assault, so General Zaragosa sent his cavalry to attack them, supported by troops firing from flanking positions on the roads.  But by 3:00 p.m. the rains began falling, making a muddy mess of the battlefield. Lorencez withdrew to defensive positions, waiting for a counter-attack. This did not come, but after a couple of days he withdrew from the filed entirely. The failed assaults by Lorencez had cost him 462 men killed and over 300 wounded. The Mexicans, firing mostly from their covered positions in the trenches and behind walls had only 83 killed and 131 wounded.

The Aftermath of  Puebla

In a famous one-line report of his victory to Mexican President Benito Juarez, the young (33 year old) General Zaragoza exclaimed "The national arms have been covered with glory.” Juarez ordered that the day of May 5 be celebrated ever after. The world, which had expected a quick French victory by the forces of the mighty Napoleon III was astonished that the French could afterall be beaten by these Mexicans! The French Emperor would withdraw, sack Lorencez and replace him and pump in 30,000 more troops.  With these men he was able to retake Puebla, and the rest of Mexico, installing a relative, Maximilian von Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico (below), just as his Uncle
attempted to do in Spain in 1808 with Dos de Mayo.  But this ham-handed attempt to set up a puppet ruler was no more successful this time than it had been before. By 1867, with the American Civil War having ended, U.S. support for the forces of Juarez became more pronounced, and the French were obliged to withdraw. Maximilian was deposed and executed.

But Mexican-Americans were so impressed with the victory at Puebla that they continued to sing and celebrate on Cinco de Mayo.  Meanwhile, Juarez became the President of an independent Mexico. Napoleon III whose army was clearly not his Uncle's was beaten by the Prussians and captured after the Battle Sedan on September 1 of 1870. He was thereafter deposed as the French Emperor, and France never again returned to monarchy. And Cinco de Mayo continues as a celebration of Mexican patriotism, primarily in the U.S., but also in the Mexican state of Puebla.

Sources =

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

APRIL 28 = Billy the Kid II : "Billy" Escapes

"I often urged him, while he was free and going good, to leave the country, settle in Mexico or South America, and begin all over again.  He spoke Spanish like a native, and although only a beardless boy, he was nevertheless a natural leader of men.  With his poise, iron nerve, and all-around efficiency properly applied, the Kid could have been a success anywhere." - Dr. Henry F. Hoyt

“If mob law is going to rule, better dismiss judge, sheriff, etc., and let all take chances alike. I expected to be lynched in going to Lincoln. Advise persons never to engage in killing.”
- Billy the Kid, (above) the Mesilla News, April 15, 1881

Billy the Kid slipped his handcuffs, killed two men and rode out of town singing on this date in 1881. The first comment was made by a friend of Billy the Kid years after his death.  It reflects what a lot of people who actually knew the Kid had to say about him.  Poised and efficient.  A natural leader. The second comment was made by the Kid himself just a few days before his daring escape from custody on this date and contained a subtle warning: "...let all take chances alike." His captors would have been well advised to listen to him; given the chance he would escape. 

This is the second of three posts on Billy the Kid

The Kid and the Lincoln County War

When we last left the Kid (alias William Bonney, alias "Billy the Kid") he had just fled the Army Post at Fort Grant, Arizona, after having killed a bully named "Windy" Cahill during a bar room fight on August 17, 1877.  Billy was actually a fairly mild-mannered young man who wanted to go straight, but seemingly found the system rigged against him. Nevertheless, he mingled easily with the local Hispanic community as he always had, smiled easily, and made friends quickly.  And once he made friends he was very loyal.  

So it was that he made friends with John Tunstall (right), a British aristocrat who was setting up a ranch in Lincoln County in the New Mexico Territory.  This put Mr. Tunstall squarely at odds with James J. Dolan, and Lawrence Murphy (below, L & R ), Irish immigrants who had already come from the famine of Ireland and set up their own very powerful ranch, pushing aside the local Hispanic farmers. They had long enjoyed the power of having their ranch (called "the House") and their beef reign supreme in
Lincoln County. To them, Tunstall was an intolerable British interloper. Billy and a lot of young men like him had been hired by Tunstall to watch over his cattle and to run his ranch. Billy said that "Tunstall was the only man who treated me like I was decent." He gave Billy and his other men hope for a future within the law.  But of course Murphy and Dolan had no intention of allowing their mercantile monopoly over Lincoln County be challenged by Tunstall. So they arranged to have Tunstall killed by their man, Sheriff William Brady on Feb. 18, 1878.  This was an act of war against the benefactor of the fiercely loyal Kid and his fellow Tunstall men,  so on April 1, 1878, the Kid and his cohorts shot Sheriff Brady.  This unleashed several months of violence and lawlessness between the men of the House and the Kid and his cohorts called "the Regulators."  The Kid, who had tried to go straight and found the whole system corrupt, developed during this time a reputation as a fearsome fighter.  But he could always find refuge among the Hispanic community who saw him as an avenger for their greedy persecutors in the House who had stolen their land. 

Governor Lew Wallace Seeks to Restore Order

Word of all of this lawlessness and fighting in New Mexico got back to Washington D.C. where President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Lew Wallace, a Civil War General as Governor of the Territory, and sent him there to restore order. Wallace (below) arrived and offered an amnesty to anyone who would testify before a grand jury. On March 13, 1879 the
Kid wrote a letter to Wallace offering to so testify: "I have no wish to fight anymore. Indeed I have not raised an arm since your proclamation." As a result of the Kid's testimony 200 indictments were brought against members of the House,  But once these indictments were secured Wallace left for Santa Fe and publishing his novel "Ben Hur - A Tale of the Christ." He left the whole prosecution with a local prosecutor who returned almost no indictments against the House men, and forgot Wallace's offer of amnesty.  So the Kid left town. Meeting with the other Regulators in August of 1880, most of them decided to leave New Mexico. But the Kid decided to stay and "Steal myself a living." So he began rustling cattle, and being a rebel again.  This put him back in the news. On Dec. 3, 1880 an editorial in the Las Vegas (New Mexico) Gazette referred to him for the first time in public as "Billy the Kid." On Dec. 23, 1880 he was captured by a posse under the command of Sheriff Pat Garret.

Billy the Kid's Daring and Deadly Escape

On April 13, 1881, the now notorious "Billy the Kid" was sentenced to hang for the murder of Sheriff Brady. At that time he gave the newspapers the interview at the top of this posting. He was taken to Lincoln and was looking for a chance to escape. It came on today's date, April 28, 1881. Sheriff Garret was out of town, so he assigned two heavily armed men, Bob Ollinger and James W. Bell to guard the Kid.  Nobody knows for sure how he managed it, but after taking Billy to the privy Bell was taking Billy back to the Lincoln County Courthouse (below).  Billy dashed ahead of Bell and somehow slipped his
handcuffs. He then turned on Bell and struggled with him hitting him in the head with the cuffs. Bell fell down the stairs and Billy, using either the gun he had wrested from Bell, or one that had been planted for him in the privy and which he had subsequently hidden on his person, shot him as he tried to exit the courthouse.  Ollinger, who was having dinner at a bar across the street came running at the sound of the gunfire, but Billy was waiting for him.  Now free of his handcuffs, he had grabbed Ollinger's loaded double-barrel shotgun and posted himself in a second floor window where he watched as Ollinger strode across the street. "Hello Bob" he said.  And when Ollinger looked up Billy emptied both barrels of the shotgun into him, killing him instantly.

Billy the Kid Rides Off Into Legend

Over the next hour, Billy - unmolested by other townspeople who were too frightened to intervene - freed himself from his leg irons, and from
the balcony on the second floor of the courthouse addressed the crowd which had formed below.  He had not wanted to kill Bell, but had to. According to one witness: "He declared he was 'standing pat' against the world; and, while he did not wish to kill anybody, if anybody interfered with his attempt to escape he would kill him." He then commandeered a horse and rode out of town singing a song according to some witnesses. And with this, in the view of many historians, he rode into legendary fame.

The third and final posting of this series, "Billy the Kid III - Billy is Killed" will be made on July 14, 2015.

Sources =

"Billy the Kid - the Endless Ride" by Michael Wallis, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2007

"Billy the Kid - A Short and Violent Life" by Robert M. Utley, Univ. of Nebraska Press,
Lincoln, 1989

"The West of Billy the Kid" by Frederick Nolan, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1998

"Billy the Kid - the American Experience" Dir. by John Maggio, WGBH Boston, Public Broadcasting Stations, 2012

Friday, April 24, 2015

APRIL 24 = The Library of Congress is Born

"If Adams found any relief or pleasure to his duties, it was approving, on April 24, legislation that appropriated $5,900 to 'purchase such books as may be necessary' for a new Library of Congress.  It was one of the few measures upon which he and the Vice President could have heartily agreed."

In this excerpt from his biography of John Adams, author David McCullough notes the strained circumstances both of the Adams presidency, and of our second president's relationship with out soon-to-be third president. But in this one area they found agreement.  And although this library would go through many misfortunes in its life, this would prove to be an area on which all of the citizens of the new republic could agree.  For the Library of Congress (pictured above, circa 1900) has grown to be a repository of knowledge that is unique in the world. But it all burned waaaay back near the beginning.....

The Origins of the Library of Congress

When the seat of our new national government was moved from Philadelphia to the Washington D.C., in 1800, a specialized collection of books for use by members of Congress was deemed a necessity.  So on April 24 John Adams did indeed approve legislation which provided for "such books as may necessary for the use of Congress -- and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein."  As noted, the price tag for this in those days came to $5,900,  and some three thousand books were purchased over the next several years.  The
Library was at this time kept as a reference Library which was intended for the use of members of Congress only.  In 1801, Thomas Jefferson became President, and, as a man who possessed a large library himself, he naturally took an active interest in the Library of Congress, often recommending books that should be purchased.  An Act of Congress in 1802 gave the president the authority to name a Librarian of Congress.  John J. Beckley was so named and earned a salary of two dollars per day and in addition was to serve as Clerk of the House of Representatives. By 1814, the Library was housed in a timber framed room in the North wing of the Capitol building (above, circa 1800) with a double row of windows.

The Brits Burn the Library of Congress in 1814

The United States got wrapped up into the War of 1812 with Great Britain, and in 1814 the Brits swept into Maryland, and after quickly blowing away the disorganized defenses, marched into Washington on August 24.  And they decided to sack the town and burnt it and all of our public buildings, including the White House, and the Capitol
Building including the Library of Congress which was housed therein.  In fact, legend says that the marauders used the books in the library to light the Capitol building ablaze. While one American watched helplessly and expressed despair as the "elegant library" was being torched, the British commander, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn spoke regretfully, commenting "I do not make war against Letters nor Ladies." But burn it he did. Almost everything was lost... one of the few book to survive was a Government Account Book for 1810, which Cockburn took with him as a souvenir (his family returned it in 1940).

Jefferson Comes to the Rescue

Into this breech stepped Thomas Jefferson.  Living in retirement (below, circa 1821) he offered to sell his entire Library to the U.S. government to replace all of what was lost in the fire. Besides, he needed the money to pay debts.  He wanted a library of broader appeal
than just law: "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." he remarked.  There was some opposition among Federalist lawmakers. Many of Jefferson's volumes were considered radical; the works of Rousseau and Voltaire in particular. A writer to one Boston newspaper summed up some of this feeling: "The grand library of Mr. Jefferson will undoubtedly be purchased with all its finery and philosophical nonsense." Eventually a price of $23,950 was settled on and the library of Jefferson was packed up in ten wagons and became the Library of Congress. Jefferson's friend John Adams (for they had patched up their quarrel) remarked "...I envy you this immortal honour; but I cannot enter into competition with you for my books are not half the number of yours..."  The addition of Jefferson's volume became the nucleus for the new library.

The Library of Congress Since Then

The Library of Congress (pictured below as it looks today) since those early days has grown into the foremost collection of knowledge in the world. In the words of the website, "Jefferson's Legacy":

"The diversity of the Library of Congress is startling. Simultaneously it serves as: a legislative library and the major research arm of the U.S. Congress; the copyright agency of the United States; a center for scholarship that collects research materials in many media and in... (more than) 450 languages; a public institution that is open to everyone over high school age and serves readers in twenty-two reading rooms; a government library that is heavily used by the executive branch and the judiciary; a national library for the blind and physically handicapped; an outstanding law library; one of the world's largest providers of bibliographic data and products; a center for the commissioning and performance of chamber music; the home of the nation's poet laureate; the sponsor of exhibitions and of musical, literary, and cultural programs that reach across the nation and the world; a research center for the preservation and conservation of library materials; and the world's largest repository of maps, atlases, printed and recorded music, motion pictures and television programs."

Sources =

"The Library, An Illustrated History" by Stuart P. Murray, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2009.

"John Adams" by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001

"The Sage of Monticello" by Dumas Malone, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1981

"The Adams - Jefferson Letters" ed. by Lee Cappon, Univ. of N.C. Press, Chapel Hill, 1988

"A Picture History of the U.S. Navy" by Theodore Roscoe and Fred Freeman, Bonanza Books,
New York, 1956

Monday, April 13, 2015

APRIL 13 = Handel's "Messiah" Premieres

“There were some parts that were affecting, but I doubt it has staying power” -  John Wesley

“I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God”.  - George Frideric Handel  

On today's date, April 13 in 1742, George Frideric Handel's classic Oratorio "The Messiah" had it's premiere performance in Dublin, Ireland. The two comments above are two very different reactions to the piece.  The first, by the founder of the Methodist Church was one that was shared by some of those who heard it.  But the second, by the composer himself during the writing of the work, is a better reflection of the general reaction to this piece as it has come down to us over the years.

Handel, the Oratorio, and "The Messiah"

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) was a German born composer who had become well known outside of his native land. He had spent most of his career in England writing music to appeal to the noble caste of that country. Italian Opera was the favorite form of entertainment for the British aristocracy, and at this Handel had been quite successful.  But by 1740, Handel had had a medical setback (apparently
a stroke) which left him unable to perform. This left him in dire financial straights.  So he took to composing oratorios.  These were much like operas in that they usually told a story, and involved dramatic solos alternating with chorus.  But unlike operas, they were done in concert presentation; meaning no elaborate sets or costumes, or dramatic productions. Thus they were much cheaper and easier to produce. In July of 1741, Charles Jennens (above) sent a libretto (the text to be sung) to Handel for an oratorio. He wrote to a friend:  "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah".

"The Messiah" is Written and Performed

And in two very busy months, Handel wrote a masterpiece. Like all of Handel's oratorios although it is on sacred subject matter, it is much closer to theater than it is to a church service. The text is entirely scriptural, and unlike the rest of Handel's oratorios, it doesn't tell a story, although it does follow the biblical telling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is actually a series of moments from the life of Jesus, contemplating the Christian ideal of sin and redemption, and going
through until Christ's final triumph. It is divided into three parts: Part One covering Christ's birth, Part Two covering his passion, his death and his resurrection, and Part Three covering judgement day and ending with Christ's acclamation. The first performance was given at the Great Music Hall in Dublin (above), Ireland as a part of a series of concerts.  But all of the proceeds of the performance of the Messiah were given to charity.  The name of Handel as the composer was still a draw and the audience grew to 700, as ladies heard requests by management to wear dresses "without Hoops" in order to make "Room for more company." The performance was a great success in Ireland. one clergyman was moved to shout "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" on hearing the aria "He Was Despised".


One can find many, many accounts online covering the story behind the Messiah, and it's writing. And these accounts tend to differ on points of detail.  There are various versions available online to be found on the reasons why King George II stood up for the "Hallelujah" Chorus which concludes Part Two during a performance in the 1750's.  One says that His Majesty's foot had simply fallen asleep, and he was simply trying to awaken it.  Another version has it that His Majesty was standing to honor the chorus's declaration of Christ as "King of Kings".  During the 1970's, my then private double bass teacher, Alex Cirin told me a version that he had heard that George II had himself fallen asleep, and that when the chorus made its forte' entrance, the King was awakened and startled into standing up.  Whatever the case, the audience of the day dutifully followed the tradition that when the King stands, everyone else must also stand.  And hence the tradition has stood right down to the present - whenever the Hallelujah Chorus is played, the entire audience stands. "The Messiah" did well in its Dublin premiere, but was less successful in its London premiere about a year later. Nevertheless, it has proven to be one of the most popular pieces ever written, and has long since become a staple of Christmas and Easter traditions all over the world.

Sources =

"A History of Western Music" by Donald Jay Grout, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1973