Monday, July 25, 2011

Another Writer's Trap

Yes, I am still bogged down in the First Great Awakening.
The research becomes so interesting that I don't want to leave it. The other problem is that I have to squeeze three books down into about three paragraphs (in order to avoid breaking the thrust of the main narrative) and that is really hard work.
What's needed is a simple but accurate summary of complex ideas. For example, it looks as though Jonathan Edwards started out as the last great defender of Puritan ideals.  He was in no way reactionary, however, since he based his theology on the "new science" of Newton and Locke. Then he quickly evolved to lay the theological and experiential foundations of the revival movement, which has been such an important continuing force in American Protestantism.
And since John Locke was such an important influence on Edwards, I had to go back and review some of his stuff.  Fortunately these men's writings are available for free on the internet, because my bookshelves are full.
Only two of my ancestors probably read as much of this as I have: the Reverend David Thurston of Winthrop, Maine and the Reverend Henry Richardson, and they came along much later.  Those living in Edwards's time were ordinary working people, but they were regular church goers, and thus in the middle of the actual revival controversies. So the book will have a few more paragraphs about that.
Now, back to the real work.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

If Jonathan Edwards Could Inspire Backsliding Puritans, There May Also be Hope for Lazy Writers.

I've been making better progress on this book lately. What's my secret? Plain old self discipline. I have somehow been able to work straight through every morning this week between breakfast and lunch.  That has meant three to five hours of writing, but it doesn't mean I have covered much space.  I seem to be advancing at the rate of one paragraph per hour.

It's not that I'm trying to cover a lot of space these days.  I've already got enough words for a book–more than 100,000 of them, most written a few years ago when I was younger and faster.  My problem now is filling in the holes that I left open the first time through because they were kind of tough to deal with.

This week my tough spot has been The First Great Awakening.  That's the religious revival of the 1730's-40's, NOT the problem of getting up in the morning.  How did I get that far back in history? If you've read the side bands, you noted that I'm also checking out Henry's ancestors and the how the big events of their times may have affected them and perhaps Henry. I can't overlook religious movements because Henry's father and grandfather were both Congregational ministers.

The two giant figures of The First Great Awakening were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.  The latter is pretty easy to deal with because he is mainly known as an eloquent and tireless preacher, but Edwards was something else.  It's not easy to get your head around his theology, but to the extent that you do, it's worth it.  And I write that as a staunch agnostic.  Perhaps that's why I've put off facing these religious questions.

I'm taking today off for blogging, but next week I may deal with The Second Great Awakening.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sorry for That Bad Arithmetic, Of Course I know that Gettysburg was 148 Years Ago

I have corrected that unfortunate figure on most but not all editions of this blog.

I Almost Never Happened, But My Ancestor Managed to Survive Gettysburg 148 Years Ago Today

Here we are at an important date in history, which also happens to be my birthday.  Being as egocentric as most, I tend to forget about the history and think of my own important dates.  But today Paul Krugman's Blog sent me over to the Youtube movies about Gettysburg, which are really worth seeing even if not quite professional.

These films reminded me that 148 years ago today my great grandfather lay critically wounded in a Confederate field hospital improvised in a Gettysburg farmhouse.  The day before, Henry had ridden to the southeastern edge of town with General Ewell, in order to get a better view of Union defenses on Cemetery Hill. Henry was Chief Engineering Officer for Ewell's 2nd Corps, but Ewell relied on him as much for reconnaissance as for engineering.  In any case, they had not gone very far when both were hit by Union sniper fire from a distance which both thought too great for accuracy.

In Ewell's case, the "wound" was not serious, because the bullet hit his wooden leg, and he could easily replace it with the spare that he kept back at his command post. Henry was not so lucky.  The bullet hit him near the shoulder blade and lodged next to his lung, where it stayed til the end of his life.  So that is why he lay inert and helpless as the battle raged nearby on July 3rd.

On July 4th, Lee's defeated army prepared to withdraw to Virginia, but the Confederate medics decided that Henry's condition was too serious to permit him to be moved. Henry never expressed much gratitude - at least not in writing - for the care he received from Union doctors who probably saved his life.  He was even less appreciative of those who took care of him for the next year and a half at the prisoner of war camp on Johnson's Island, Ohio.

Fortunately, this ancestor was so tough, as his survival enabled me to enjoy this Happy Birthday 148 years later.

Friday, July 1, 2011

This Book is Progressing Too Slowly. Suggestions Please.

Yesterday, I realized that I hadn't made any real progress on this book for several months now.  About the same time, I received an email from a so-called self publishing service, with advice on how to finish a book really fast.  The essential idea was to isolate oneself from as many distractions as possible by holing up in a cheap hotel, subsisting on deliveries of pizza and Chinese food, and to do nothing but write.  There were other good suggestions such as how to make an outline with 300 3x5 cards sorted out on the floor, and how to boost self discipline by forcing oneself to write 2000 words before breakfast.

But the essential lesson for me was that I was trying to spread myself too thin.  I used to be able to multi-task a little, but I'm getting too old for that.  So, I am going to try to isolate myself a little more during this month of July.  That means that I'm going to suspend my two other blogs and make posts here shorter.  I may also shirk my share of household chores by ordering Chinese and pizza instead of cooking and shopping.

I guess Henry, my ancestor, had similar problems.  When he was young he wrote lots of beautiful long letters, but they got fewer and farther between as he grew older and became immersed in a responsible job.

If you have any suggestions, please comment.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Apologies to All Southerners

In my last post, I seemed to single out Southerners as being particularly reluctant to help replenish the suffering U.S. Federal Treasury.  I'm sorry about that, and I apologize.  I know very well that nobody likes to pay taxes. Not even me. It hurts when it comes to writing that check.

It's just that the the Representatives and Senators who seem to be the leading anti taxers are from the South. You may object that John Boehner is from Ohio, which isn't exactly South, but he was born in Reading, Ohio, which is just across the River from Kentucky. 

I admit, however, that there are plenty of other leading anti taxers from the North, East, and West.

I am trying to keep my politics out of this blog, which is why I have a separate blog for my political rants.  But practically every day, there is some event that makes me either sad or mad about the political and economic state of the country.  Now I know how my great grandfather felt when as Chief Engineer of Louisiana he struggled, often in vain, to get the appropriations needed to build and repair Louisiana levees.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

In Those Days it was Even Harder to Get Southerners to Pay Taxes

Current events lead me to jump many years forward in my posts.  Newspaper articles are now warning us that Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana are threatened with disastrous flooding due to the unprecedented height of the Mississippi flood crests now rushing down on them. Today's NY Times article begins:
All eyes in the delta are on the Mississippi River and the bulge of water it is carrying southward, pushing back its tributaries into the towns along its banks, sending residents scattering toward higher ground and setting records all along the way.
"This is historic," said Col. Jeffrey R. Eckstein, commander of the Vicksburg District of the Army Corps of Engineers, who became the day's keynote speaker at the last minute. "Things that have never happened, people here have never seen before, we are going to see."
Continue reading here:
Henry Brown Richardson faced similar situations often after he was named Head Engineer of the State of Louisiana in 1880.  At that time the Federal government had not yet taken any responsibility for flood control, so Louisiana, that is, Henry and his three assistants, had to face up to this problem alone. Henry's most difficult task was to convince the planter aristocracy to accept taxes high enough to pay for levee improvements.  As long as the levees held, they rejected higher taxes for this purpose. But in 1882, many levees broke, and planters suffered disastrous flooding and severe financial losses.  After that, it was much easier to convince them to pay taxes for levee construction.
But for little else.
The State Constitution of 1879, provided strict limitations on taxation, which made it extremely difficult to raise funds even for minimum public services. The State Engineer's office received no funds for the State highway system until after 1900, when Henry was about to retire.  Public schools for whites as well as blacks were starved of funds. Henry's wife's diary suggests that they had to send all of their nine children to private schools, which even then was a considerable burden on a public servant's salary.
As we see from current State and Federal budget fights, political elites in Louisiana and neighboring states still don't like paying taxes all that much. Well, nobody does, but when the water starts to rise, we're sure glad the Corps of Engineers is there to build and repair those levees.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I'm a Little Late in Learning About Early

Daniel Crofts's post about Jubal Early on the Times's Disunion blog ( was the first I'd read about the "Bad Old Man" having been opposed to secession. Obviously, I should not have skipped the preface of Early's book about the war. Crofts tells us:
Viewed in retrospect, Early was the most improbable member of the anti-secession coalition that dominated the convention and that believed disaster would befall the Old Dominion if it left the Union. He worked tirelessly to promote a Union-saving compromise that would halt secession in the Upper South and oblige the Lower South to reconsider its reckless course.
From what I've read by Early and about him, however, he seemed a thoroughly disagreeable and stubborn old man, who who was just as skilled at advancing his own interests as he was at commanding men on the field of battle. Early was said to be hyper critical of his subordinates, and Henry Brown Richardson must have suffered when he served as Early's Engineering Officer during the long, cold winter of 1863, when the division was encamped east of Fredericksburg. Henry never complained, however, despite the heavy work load the old man laid on him. In Early's book he writes about the engineering work undertaken during that winter:
After a careful examination of the country, I proceeded to fortify the banks of the river at points likely to afford facilities for crossing, and I established a line of defence also along the main road running parallel with the river, where high embankments with cedar hedges on them afforded good cover for troops and excellent breastworks.... New roads were constructed in rear of the line of defence out of reach of artillery from the opposite bank, for the purpose of facilitating communication between the different positions, and two Whitworth guns... were placed on a high hill in rear of Port Royal…. We were compelled to haul our supplies in wagons from Guiney's Depot on the railroad, and as the winter was a severe one with much snow and rain, the country roads, which we had to use, became almost impassible from the mud, and we were compelled to employ the men for a considerable time in corduroying them at the worst places.
Of course, It was Henry who organized and supervised this work, but Early probably didn't even remember his name.
Crofts continues:
But once the war started, he committed to the Confederate States of America and never let go, becoming one of Robert E. Lee’s corps commanders by the last year of the war. Then, during the postwar era, he became the quintessential promoter of “Lost Cause” mythology, which airbrushed slavery as a cause of the conflict and instead celebrated the heroic fight by outnumbered white Southerners, who sought only to vindicate their honor and maintain their rights.
As promoter of the "lost cause" meme, he was probably no worse than many others. What confirmed my negative opinion of Early, though, was his association with the Louisiana State Lottery during the post war years of Reconstruction and Redemption. Early and General P. G. T. Beauregard provided a front of respectability for this organization by officiating at the drawings, while the Lottery's corrupt backers made millions on the backs of Louisiana taxpayers for a quarter century.
In 1890, Henry's brother-in-law, Edgar Howard Farrar of New Orleans, took a leading role at the Anti-Lottery Democratic Convention, which helped bring down the Lottery machine. But that's another story to be expanded in a later post.

The Rebel's Archives are Here, on this Beautiful Campus

Most of Henry Brown Richardson's family papers are archived at the Hill Memorial Library at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge shown in the gallery below. The LSU campus is one of the most beautiful I've seen.  Its giant oaks with their drooping limbs and moss is like a Louisiana dream. If you have a long research project, you can stay overnight at the Faculty Club.  The lunches there are excellent and not expensive.

One of the photos shows some of Henry's descendants in a conference room at the Hill Library as they prepare to donate some more papers


There are also a few of Henry's papers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Valuable Resource for Amateur and Professional Historians: The Civil War Book Review

While looking for something else on the internet I happened across The Civil War Book Review, which is hosted on the site of Louisiana State University's Hill Library. The Civil  war sesquicentennial now underway is bringing forth a stream of new books on the subject - so many that we will never have time to read them all, let alone the budgets to buy them or the shelves to hold them. In such circumstances, we desperately need the services of the distinguished reviewers - 58 of them in the Winter edition - which the CWBR has hired for us. We eagerly await the Spring issue.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Yankee's Conversion from Douglas Democrat to Solid Successionist

Russell McClintock's recent post in the NY Times Opinionator blog (here ) about Senator Stephen Douglas reminded me that Henry Brown Richardson had been a Douglas Democrat before he went to Louisiana. McClintock writes about Douglas's energetic efforts to avoid secession, and within that context, his support for Lincoln:
For both patriotic and political reasons, the Democratic senator had decided that his best course lay in a conspicuous display of public support for the incoming Republican administration — and in making himself a critical player in the last-ditch efforts to avoid civil war.
Douglas’s change was jarring for many observers; for years, and especially over the last several months, the belligerent, free-swinging senator had been blunt in asserting that the Republicans, with their irrational, reckless belief in racial equality and their self-righteous, moralistic attacks on Southern society, were no less to blame for the growing sectional crisis than the fire-eating Southern radicals. The previous August, referring to Andrew Jackson’s ferocious response to South Carolina’s defiance of federal law three decades earlier, Douglas had linked extremists on both sides of the slavery question with disunion when he thundered, “I wish to God we had an Old Hickory now alive, in order that he might hang Northern and Southern traitors on the same gallows.”
Yet Douglas was no fire-eater himself: his overriding goal was to save the Union, and to him, the only effective way to do this was through compromise. “I will not meditate war, nor tolerate the idea,” he pronounced in a fiery speech in early January 1861, “until every effort at peaceful adjustment shall have been exhausted, and the last ray of hope shall have deserted the patriot’s heart.” His reasoning captured the fears of millions, North and South: “War is disunion, certain, inevitable, irrevocable disunion. I am for peace to save the Union.”
Henry claimed to have little or no interest in politics, but his letters showed consistent sympathy for "The Little Giant" until the final months of 1860. He was probably circumspect about expressing these views in Louisiana, because many in the South considered Douglas to be a traitor. "The Little Giant" had incurred Southern enmity by his consistent support of the principle that local sovereignty must determine whether a territory or a state should be slave or free. Thus, according to his Freeport Doctrine, the Dred Scott decision could not be enforced in a territory opposed to slavery, because its citizens would never permit the exercise of police power necessary to support the peculiar institution. His ultimate act of "treason", however, came in 1858, when he led Congress to refuse admission of Kansas to the Union as a slave state, following a constitutional convention and referendum in that territory, which were tainted by fraud and misrepresentation.
Henry was a solid supporter of States Rights including the right to secede from the Union, but as one would expect from a Douglas Democrat, he doubted at first that secession was a wise policy. As secession fever swept the South, however, Henry, too, was caught up in the same current, and by mid April of 1861 found himself to be a committed citizen soldier of the Confederacy.
Henry was probably an ideal candidate for conversion to the Confederate cause, and the story of this conversion is treated in detail in my forthcoming book.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Krugman Blogs Appomattox: This Rebel Might Have Agreed

Krugman begins:

...I’ve long had a special fascination, not with how the war began, but with its end. And on this day in 1865 Phil Sheridan began the flanking movement that culminated, just 11 days later, in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Why do I find this final campaign so fascinating? Partly because the battles of the Five Forks campaign ended up involving some of the very same players who famously fought at Gettysburg: heroic action, once again, by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and the Confederate force destroyed at Five Forks was led by none other than George Pickett.

But mainly, I think, it’s because of the symbolism of that final surrender: Lee the patrician, in his dress uniform, surrendering to the not at all patrician U.S. Grant, still muddy and disheveled from hard riding. It was, in a very real sense, the victory of modern America — of a democratic nation, in manners as well as politics — over an aristocratic ideal.

I doubt that Henry would have admitted this last part, but as an engineer, he would have appreciated the rest:

And the way modern America won was characteristic. Southerners were better warriors — man for man, they almost always outperformed Union armies, although the gap narrowed over time. But the North excelled at the arts of peace — that is, in industry and ability to get things done. The North couldn’t stop Bedford Forrest from raiding supply lines; but it could repair track incredibly fast. And it was that Northern superiority in logistics, in production, that eventually proved decisive.

Krugman continues to develop this theme here:

Shortly before the battle of Five Forks, Captain Henry Brown Richardson, CSA Engineers had seen proof of Union logistic superiority first hand at the huge Union Army supply base at City Point, Virginia, where he and other "rebels" were released to the Confederacy. In terms of shipping volume, City Point was then the largest and most active port in the United States. Henry was eager to get back into the fight, after being held for a year and a half as a Union prisoner on Johnson's Island, Ohio.

I arrived in Richmond on the 22nd of March and rec’d a leave of absence “for thirty days unless sooner exchanged.” Stopped in Richmond, at Gen’l Ewell’s house for ten days, and on the first of April went to Bedford Co., Va. (west of Lynchburg) where I remained till the first of May. Then over the mountains to Botetourt Co. and spent a week, and on the eighth started on horseback for this side of the Mississippi, or wherever I could get to anything like a Confederacy.

Henry was obliged to stand by and watch the final Confederate agony. He had been paroled, that is, released on his word of honor as an officer that he would not resume active duty until he was officially exchanged, that is, that the Confederacy had released to the Union army a prisoner of equivalent rank, or several enlisted men in exchange for him. Then on April 1,1865, his former commanding officer, General Richard Ewell must have advised him to leave Richmond, where the city’s defenses were on the verge of collapse. Thus our reluctant noncombatant left Richmond only one day before Lee’s army withdrew from the sector, and preceded them along many of the same roads to Bedford, VA. There he continued to wait helplessly through the Lee’s final battles, and the signing 40 miles to the east at Appomattox on April 9th.

Henry Brown Richardson was not quite ready to admit that the war was over. But you will have to wait for the book to find out about that.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

This Yankee Rebel was Repulsed by Chicago in 1857 - Perhaps One Reason he Later Chose the South

Henry arrived in Chicago in the evening of March 11, 1857.  He was on his way to Milwaukee, where his employer, A. P. Marshal, had set up a new engineering office, after closing out his business in Portland, Maine. Henry had left Springfield, MA more than two days before on a cold and uncomfortable trip over four different railroads, so he was happy to find a bed in a hotel. 

Even after a refreshing night of sleep, Chicago in the light of day turned out to be Henry's first big disappointment in the West:

As the train did not leave until half past nine, I had some little time to walk about.  I was going to say look about, but that you can't do - that is to any great extent, the whole city being "flat as a flounder" in fact a miserable filthy, dirty, swamp of a mud hole.  I would not wish to live there on any account.  I did not see it in its worst phase though for it was mostly frozen up, it being as cold as Labrador that morning.  I believe that city to be a God-forsaken, Mammon-worshipping, Devil-serving, unchristian, abominable filthy sink of iniquity in a most superlative degree.

Chicago must have been a mess in March 1857.  The city had been growing on marshy soil only a few feet above the level of Lake Michigan.  By 1855, six successive years of cholera epidemics convinced city and state officials that they would have to establish a regular sewer system.  Chief Engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough determined that the city was indeed so flat that sewage would not drain adequately into the Chicago River.  He convinced the Board of Sewerage Commissioners to lay out the sewer system, as well as gas and water mains, above the existing streets, and raise the grade level of the streets from six to ten feet throughout the city using fill dredged from the Chicago River.  Existing buildings were either jacked up to the new level or modified so that an original upper floor became the new ground floor.  This ambitious project had no doubt made Chicago even muddier than usual in 1857, but Henry apparently did not stay long enough during this first visit to appreciate the magnitude of the sewer project.

The expression "sink of iniquity" also suggests that he was shocked by the laxity of public morals in this relatively new city. He had been raised in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire, under the kindly but watchful eye of his father, a Congregational Minister.  Perhaps Henry had even been approached by a prostitute, an experience much more likely in Chicago than in Portland, where he had finished high school and served his apprenticeship. In any case, he had little desire to learn more about Chicago at this time, and hurried to take the first available train to Milwaukee.

After this experience, Henry never did learn to appreciate Chicago.  I seem to have inherited this attitude, but to overcome my prejudices about the city, I am reading William Cronon's excellent book, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, which I heartily recommend, and about which I may have more to say in a later installment.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Quirk of Fate Led This Yankee to the South Where He Fought for the Confederacy

Henry probably had the picture on this page taken when he was visiting Hockanum, now part of Hadley, Massachusetts, in the Spring of 1859.  He had stopped there for a few weeks to help with the heavy spring workload on his uncle William Richardson's farm.  He would then go on to Boston to find work in his chosen profession, civil engineering.


At that time, he could not yet claim to be a fully qualified engineer.  He had never taken any courses at the university level.  He may have studied the rudiments of surveying in secondary school, but he had gained most of his professional knowledge in the school of hard knocks by working as an assistant to experienced civil engineers. In fact, States did not enact requirements for professional licensure in the U.S. until early in the 20th century. Membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers (founded in 1852) could provide assurance of professional qualification, but the Society’s influence did not become widespread until some years later. Henry did not become a member until 1879. In any case, in July 1859 his experience enabled him to find employment with an engineering firm in Boston.


One year earlier, he had missed an opportunity to become a U.S. Navy engineer. He had applied for and been accepted to sit for the qualifying examination in New York, but due to his employer’s insolvency after the financial panic of 1857, Henry could not collect his back salary and was unable to pay his way from Milwaukee to the East. But for this twist of fate, Henry would probably have been a loyal Yankee in the United States Navy, when the Civil War broke out two years later.


As Henry’s Puritan ancestors might have said, Providence would have it otherwise. In the winter of 1860, Henry became pessimistic about his career prospects in Boston, and decided to seek his fortune elsewhere. An opportunity to work on a Mississippi River levee project led him to St. Joseph, Louisiana where he found himself when war broke out in 1861. 


But that will be the subject of a later installment.