Sunday, July 8, 2012
Weird sidelights on history - 1832 and all that
Of course, the old frontier truism remains as untouched by revisionist thinking in the 21st century as it emerged unscathed from the 20th. It was uncontested by anyone in the 19th century - when it first popped out of the mouth and mind of Abraham Lincoln, in 1832 - during the Black Hawk War, and was shared with the men drinking their coffee around the militia campfire while pursuing the hostile Sauks, Meskwakis, a few Kickapoos and some Potawatomis toward Wisconsin.
Some people have blamed the Black Hawk War on the incident when a party of Meskwakis and Sauks killed twenty-six Menominees, including women and children, at Prairie du Chien in July 1831. Now, I suppose that could be it, it's hard to find out after slightly over 180 years why Black Hawk and his band decided to cross the Mississippi into Illinois. And, it is entirely possible that he (and they) simply were trying to avoid more problems with the Menominees. His raid on them the previous July, after all, was in retaliation for some killings of Meskwakis by Dakotas and Menominees in 1830, also at Prairie du Chien.
In May (1830), Dakotas (Santee Sioux) and Menominees killed fifteen Meskwakis attending a conference at Prairie du Chien. The raid and killing of the Menominees in the summer of 1831 was retaliation for the deaths of the Meskwakis, and it has been said that the move into Illinois was made simply in an attempt to avoid a counterstrike and further escalation. A serious problem with that, likely unappreciated by Black Hawk and his people, was the new president of the U.S...
Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, had become chief executive in 1829, and Jackson, besides being the scourge of Britain in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, was a celebrated "Indian Fighter" who might have invented the phrase "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."
If Jackson never said it out loud, you know he hummed it in the shower. He not only mentioned the idea in speeches, he made speeches that had no other topic. It went so far in the U.S. that a rider on the great Plains - or almost anywhere- seeing an Indian mounted at some distance, would aim the old carbine and pop off a couple of rounds. It was, of course, nothing personal; but the impersonal murders still killed a hell of a bunch of Native Americans, many of whom were just minding their own business on their own land...
On April 5, 1832, Black Hawk and around 1,000 people, warriors and non-combatant civilians recrossed the Mississippi River back into Illinois and it was assumed to be an attempt to reclaim ancestral land which they had been, according to the natives, tricked into ceding to the United States. Maybe. Only about half of Black Hawk's band were warriors, potential combatants, and the rest were a combination of women, children, and elderly.
The band consisted of Sauk, Fox (Meskwakis), some Potawatomi, and some Kickapoo; which lends credence to the idea of peaceful intent. In the event, though, the United States and Illinois governments saw it as an act of war and sent troops. When you study the attitudes of Jackson and many of the whites objectively, you see that the continuation of breathing by Native American people was considered to be an act of war against the white settlers. By then, the philosophy of "removal" of the native peoples was ascendent as the policy of the government of the United States.
Lincoln served as a volunteer in the Illinois Militia from April 21, 1832 until July 10, 1832 and was elected Captain of his first company. He was just 23 and had zero military experience, but was put in charge of a rifle company of the 4th Regiment of Mounted Volunteers within Samuel Whiteside's brigade. He did so well at it that the unit was dissolved and everybody was discharged while the war was underway and they'd never seen a hostile fighter. So, Lincoln, still needing a job, enlisted in a cavalry unit as a private and went back to the rear echelon in the war.
Where, digression ended, we find "Honest Abe" back at the fire - about to speak. He said, solemnly, in the glow of the first tentative light of morning, "Love is where you find it; but, it seems - nearly always - that some young woman is sitting on it." That might not seem all that profound until you consider it, but the fellow squatting next to Abe, turned to him as if to say something and then comprehension whacked him aside the head and he suddenly found himself with hot coffee and milk exploding out of his nose as he laughed uncontrollably.
When I first heard the story, about May of 1955, I think - from Bill Savaard - It was said; and -actually as the point of the anecdote- that the coffee spraying mess-mate was Jefferson Finis Davis, of Mississippi and late of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, who was then just 24 years old and a lieutenant in the regular army under Zachary Taylor's command.
And; the story, as offered, made the embarrassment of the, supposedly, priggish Southerner out to be the cause of his later antipathy toward Lincoln and by extension, a cause of the "war between the states" which caused the deaths of over 650,000 Americans along with the destruction of the area which had become the Confederacy, prior to being reduced to rubble - and, only incidentally, the emancipation of the slaves. Good story, right?
Now, as my grandfather, the old-time dairy farmer from Texas used to say - when confronted with a story that he felt certain was not cloaked in veracity, although it sounded plausible - "That will do to tell." And, so it proves to be: I and, I'm certain, my contemporaries present at the recounting of the tale back when Eisenhower was President of the USA, accepted it without reservation, of course we were twelve. Consider; it's heavily swathed in detail. Potawatamis, Kickapoos, Meskwakis and Menominees, oh my! Zach Taylor, Andy Jackson, Honest Abe and Jeff Davis - there's hardly anybody left out; Davy Crockett and Tippecanoe were busy elsewhere...
It is true as can be that Lincoln and Jeff Davis were almost the same age and both were doing pretty much as the story goes, except that Lt. Davis was down home in Mississippi at the time - he was attached to Zachary Taylor's unit, though - he just was not there. And, had he been, it would not have made a hell of a lot of difference. It's unlikely to the point of nearly impossible that a U.S.Army officer, an Academy graduate, would be at a campfire with a bunch of militia temporaries.
Davis was not a prig, he was a serious man of principle and a believer in the constitution of the USA, subject to his interpretation of "states rights" and he believed - as many did - that the several states were still sovereign entities and had the legal right to opt out of the United States should they decide to do so. He was pursuing General Taylor's daughter, a pretty girl who then was 17, and he wanted to marry her - really, he just wanted to sleep with her, okay; sleep wasn't really involved, we just call it that - but you had to get married to do that back then. General Taylor would, otherwise, have shot him dead as a rock or skewered him to the point of perforation with a sabre, and no court in the land would prosecute Taylor for defending his daughter's honor and his own.
As for Jeff Davis starting the "Civil War," hardly or "no way" describes that idea. Jefferson Davis was against secession of the southern states in 1860, he was a sitting United States Senator, and it wasn't his first term. He had previously served as the United States Secretary of War under President Pierce until 1857. While he did believe that the several states had the constitutional right to depart the union, he did not believe that the union was going to let them go peacefully and he did not believe that the south had a snowball's chance in hell of beating the northern states in a war. He made speeches in which he counseled against a precipitous secession. It happened anyway.
Jeff Davis waited twelve days until he had unequivocal instructions from Mississippi before he, in what he said was the saddest day of his life, resigned his position in the U.S. Senate and went down the river to Mississippi. I'm guessing, knowing as I do, that Davis lost his first bride (Taylor's daughter), who was only 19 and very beautiful, to malaria only three months after they were married, that he meant to express that he was heartbroken over secession.
Davis, of course (at least we, now, think of it as "of course"), was a cotton plantation owner and long-time slave owner; which means that his "broken heart" might have been due to the fact that he expected the Confederacy to get its collective derriere thoroughly kicked by the more populous and more industrialized north, and that he could anticipate the abolition of slavery as a result of the expected military loss; or maybe not. Maybe he was talking with just (just!!!) the bloodshed that would be the result of such a war on his mind, I doubt that though.
It would have been far better, in my estimate of the situation, to wire a foxtrot uniform and stay in the north, but I had four great-great-grandfathers in Confederate uniforms in that war - and those are only the ones I know for sure, several others might have been. We look at things a bit differently now, we don't think people should be owned as chattel, like cattle and chickens - actually, we know damned well they shouldn't be and we are abso-damn-lutely amazed that our ancestors, who weren't idiots, failed to figure it out.
Of course, nasty old man that I am, I have my own theory as to what that was actually all about. It's a different paper and it features one of my - former - heroes, now slightly demoted to merely another imperfect human male, Thomas Jefferson. Smart, brilliant, even - but - just a man, a bit hypocritical (a rather large bit) and unable (or unwilling) to keep his hands off the servant girls. Of course, the pivot (as nearly always) would be a girl, or several girls, or maybe young women. As old Abe said, and it wasn't new and it wasn't temporary or transient, it is still as it was then - a simple reality: what the men are willing to kill or die for usually has a girl or a young woman sitting on it.