In honor of President’s Day, Prof. Glenn LaFantasie of Western Kentucky University has written a very interesting piece on why the 15th President, James Buchanan, is the worst president in American history. It’s also sure to push the buttons of some modern-day Republicans:
Who’s the worst president of them all?
When it comes to who least deserves to be honored today, it’s a close call between the 43rd and 15th presidents
By Glenn W. LaFantasie
In 2006, while the Bush administration smashed its way through two wars, countless constitutional constraints, and a fragile economy constructed on the slippery slope of tax cuts for the wealthy, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, pondered in Rolling Stone whether W. would be regarded as America’s worst president. Rather coyly, Wilentz never came right out and said that Bush 43 was the worst, but his essay gathered together all the evidence that pointed toward only one verdict: guilty as charged.
In making his case, Wilentz mentioned a 2004 poll of historians, who predicted that Bush would surely end up among the worst five presidents. While presidents have a way of rewriting their own history — witness Bush’s recent book tour — he doesn’t seem to be on a path to any near-term redemption. For example, a poll conducted in July 2010 by the Siena Research Institute revealed that 238 “presidential scholars” had ranked Bush among the five worst presidents (39 out of 43), with Andrew Johnson solidly occupying the very bottom of the list. Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment (although he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote in May 1868), his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his inept dealings with his Cabinet and Congress, his drinking problem (he was probably inebriated at his inauguration), his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance. He once suggested that God saw fit to have Lincoln assassinated so that he could become president. A Northern senator averred that “Andrew Johnson was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House.”
Queerest? Perhaps. But worst? Johnson actually has some stiff competition for the bottom rung of the presidential rankings, not only from W, but also from one of his own contemporaries, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president.
Interestingly enough, Johnson and Buchanan, two of the worst presidents, stand as bookends for arguably the best: Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln’s greatness might never have manifested itself if it weren’t for Buchanan’s utter and complete incompetency, and for that reason I cast my ballot in favor of the fifteenth president as our absolutely worst chief executive ever.
While I acknowledge that Bush 43 was certainly the worst president I’ve seen in my lifetime (12 presidents have occupied the White House since my birth), he runs neck and neck with Buchanan’s inadequacies as chief executive. Both of them pursued their own agendas: Buchanan hoped to placate the South as the sectional controversy grew worse (and became increasingly more violent) in the late 1850s, while Bush worked assiduously to dismantle the federal government while trying to fit his presidency into his vacation schedule. Buchanan failed to reach his goal; Bush succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Both presidents handed a broken country on to their successors. But Bush broke the nation’s back on purpose, so he wins points for what we might call a competent incompetency.
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By any measure, Buchanan was an odd duck. As the last president to be born in the 18th century (1791), he began life as the son of a storekeeper in Pennsylvania, attended Dickinson College (from which he was briefly expelled for rowdiness), and became an able attorney. Apart from eyelashes and eyebrows, Buchanan lacked any facial hair; he never shaved throughout his adulthood. His eyes were slightly crossed; to compensate for the defect, he often kept one eye shut and cocked his head to the side. Actually Buchanan was nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other.
Yet Buchanan built up a prosperous law practice, and savvy investments — particularly in real estate — made him a wealthy man. In 1819, he was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a prosperous manufacturer, but he devoted most of his time to his work as an attorney and to politics. For whatever reason, Ann Coleman broke off the engagement and died shortly afterward, perhaps from an accidental or self-induced overdose of laudanum. Her death left Buchanan distraught with grief. “I feel that happiness has fled from me forever,” he told his father. The Coleman family prevented him from attending the funeral. He would mourn Ann’s death for the rest of his life. From time to time friends urged him to marry, but Buchanan vowed never to take a wife. “My affections,” he said, “were buried in the grave.”
The mysteries surrounding his relationship with Ann Coleman resemble the bleak and brooding elements of an Edgar Allen Poe story, with Buchanan cast in the role of a bereft and inconsolable inamorato. He remained a committed bachelor until his death. Some historians have speculated that Buchanan was actually a homosexual, but these claims are based solely on the fact that he roomed for several years with a close friend, William Rufus King, an Alabamian who served in the U.S. Senate and as vice president under Franklin Pierce. Andrew Jackson once called Buchanan “an Aunt Nancy.” A Tennessee governor referred to him and his roommate as “Buchanan & his wife.” But such 19th century political slurs should not be interpreted in a 21st century context. Like most of us, Buchanan kept his sexual preferences — whatever they were — to himself.
During the War of 1812, Buchanan turned to politics, joined the Federalist Party, and served in the Pennsylvania Legislature from 1814 to 1816; he later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1821 to 1831. In Washington, he turned his back on the Federalists and ardently — although somewhat incongruously, given his wealth and high status — supported Andrew Jackson and the rising populism of the Democratic Party. Jackson appointed him minister to Russia, a diplomatic post that placed Buchanan as far away from Washington as the spoils system could manage. When he returned to the States, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he displayed all the traits of a Democratic Party stalwart, a strict constitutional constructionist (in the Jeffersonian mode), and — again, incongruously — a Northerner who strongly, even sometimes impulsively, supported Southern interests, including any measure that would protect or extend the institution of slavery.
In the 1840s, he hoped to receive the Democratic Party nomination for president, but he did not attract much attention in Congress or as a diplomat, and he occupied a middling rank in his own party. When James K. Polk won the presidency in 1844, he named Buchanan secretary of state — a plum appointment — but the new president grew frustrated with the Pennsylvanian, calling him indecisive and thinking him ineffective. “Mr. Buchanan is an able man,” Polk wrote in his diary, “but in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid.” As secretary of state, Buchanan’s biggest idea was to propose the annexation of Cuba while the United States went about adding great expanses of territory in the Southwest and along the Pacific Coast after defeating Mexico in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1847. The dream of acquiring Cuba danced in Buchanan’s head for the rest of his life, obviously to no avail, even though plenty of Southerners would have loved taking over an island in the Caribbean where slavery already existed, just 90 miles or so off the U.S. mainland. Americans, he believed, should go wherever they wanted to go, although he said so in a potentially tongue-tying sentence: “Let us go on whithersoever our destiny may lead us.”
Echoes of Buchanan’s belief in Manifest Destiny can still be heard in our own time. In his 2004 State of the Union address, George W. Bush recast (but only slightly) Buchanan’s belief in manifest destiny by trumpeting: “America is a Nation with a mission — and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace — a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman.” That was one of his explanations for why the United States had invaded Iraq without provocation. Buchanan’s “whithersoever” had landed us in the Middle East — without an exit strategy. For Bush and Buchanan, there was simply no way to avoid destiny and providence. If God wanted the U.S. to possess California and Oregon, so let it be done. Ditto Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buchanan thought he could grasp the presidency by wooing support from Southern Democrats, so he remained steadfast in his defense of states’ rights, slavery and its extension into western territories, and aggressive expansionism. Yet his bid for the Democratic nomination failed in 1848, when Lewis Cass of Michigan ran and lost to Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, and again in 1852, when Franklin Pierce won the Democratic nomination and the election. Buchanan hoped that Pierce would name him secretary of state, but the new president instead appointed him minister to Great Britain. Once again Buchanan’s ostensible political friends had succeeded in getting him out of the country and, one assumes, out of their hair. In London, he could not stop thinking about Cuba. He traveled to Ostend, Belgium, in October 1854, where, with two other American ministers, he drew up a “manifesto” that called for the use of force by the U.S. to take possession of the island. Inevitably, the Ostend Manifesto was leaked to the press, giving rise to a storm of protest at home and abroad. Congress investigated the diplomatic correspondence surrounding the document’s creation, and Northern antislavery forces denounced it as nothing more than a Southern attempt to expand slavery into the Caribbean. The Pierce administration gave up its designs on Cuba, but Buchanan kept longing for the island, hoping that someday the United States (and he) would hold it in a loving embrace.
From across the Atlantic, Buchanan also kept his eye firmly focused on presidential politics. He resigned as minister to England and returned to the U.S. in time to throw his hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination in 1856. His timing was perfect, since the Democratic Party had been thrown into disarray by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act two years earlier. The act, which was the brainchild of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, voided the earlier Missouri Compromise by allowing the voters of Kansas and Nebraska to decide by means of what was called “popular sovereignty” whether their territories should allow slavery inside their borders. Conflict between pro-slavery “border ruffians” and “free-soilers” resulted in violence between the two sides. President Pierce supported the pro-slavery element in Kansas, despite the fact that free-soilers actually constituted a major of the population. As a result, both Pierce and Douglas, who also had presidential aspirations, lost support in the Democratic Party — a political development that worked to Buchanan’s great advantage.
Regarded as a safe candidate, since he had been overseas during the upheavals over Kansas, the Democrats nominated him at their convention in Cincinnati. In the general election, Buchanan faced off against two other candidates: John C. Frémont of the Republican Party and Millard Fillmore, the former president, of the American (or “Know-Nothing”) Party. Buchanan won, but only by a plurality, not a majority. Nevertheless, he saw his victory as a mandate, namely that Americans had voted for Union over disunion.
From the start of his presidency — indeed, from the very moment of his inaugural address — Buchanan revealed that he was going to do everything he could to sustain slavery and Southern interests, no matter how much his policies would give Northern Republicans proof that the new president was part of what they called a “Slave Power Conspiracy.” Sixty-five years old, with snow white hair, Buchanan took the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address. He made plain his own and his party’s belief that Congress had no authority to interfere with the institution of slavery.
What really mattered to him, however, was the prospect of finding a judicial, rather than a congressional or a presidential, solution to the sectional issue of slavery. Going beyond accepted political bounds, and ignoring the principle of separation of powers, Buchanan had used his influence to sway a Northern Supreme Court justice to side with the Southern majority in a pending case, Dred Scott v. Sandford. When he delivered his inaugural, Buchanan already knew the outcome of that case, although in his address he deceitfully alluded to the forthcoming decision by saying of the Court: “To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be.” Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued the most infamous decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court — an opinion holding that Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom because he had lived with his master for a time in a free state, was not free; that no slave or black person could be a citizen of the U.S.; that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from a territory; and that the slavery exclusion clause of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. The opinion did not resolve the sectional controversy as Buchanan and the Taney court had hoped. Instead, it produced thunderous outrage throughout the North. In the South, of course, the decision was cheered. But Northerners saw the court’s action as a partisan ploy.
Ignoring the clamor of criticism from the North, Buchanan nestled into the White House by surrounding himself with advisors who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to know. The new president lived in a bubble, despite the fact that the nation was beginning to crumble around him. During his first year in office, an economic depression (referred to as the Panic of 1857) hit the country and persisted for his entire term in office. With striking ineptitude, Buchanan failed to deal with the economic crisis in any effective manner, which only helped to increase bitterness between Northern commercial interests and Southern agrarians. Spouting his philosophy of limited government, he told the public that the government lacked the power “to extend relief” to those hardest hit by the depression. As he promised to reduce the federal debt and all government spending, Buchanan nevertheless oversaw during his one term in office a growth in federal spending that amounted to 15 percent of the budget in 1856. When he left office, Buchanan handed over a $17 million deficit to Lincoln.
In the heat of mounting sectional discord and as the economy bottomed out, Buchanan abandoned the traditional understanding in U.S. politics of regarding his political enemies as a loyal opposition; instead, Buchanan, like George W. Bush 150 years later, accused his political opponents of disloyalty, extremism and treason. “The great object of my administration,” Buchanan wrote in 1856, “will be to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question at the North and to destroy sectional parties.” In other words, Buchanan wanted to eliminate the Republicans, not just defeat them, rather like how Karl Rove worked strenuously to create a “permanent majority” for the Republican Party during Bush 43′s presidency.
While Buchanan condemned Republicans and abolitionists as the source of all the nation’s troubles, the Kansas problem continued to boil over. When the pro-slavery minority in Kansas submitted a fraudulent constitution legalizing slavery in the territory, Buchanan endorsed the document as legitimate. Then he tried to force his arch-rival, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, to do the same. In a White House meeting, Buchanan threatened Douglas by pointing out that since Andrew Jackson’s time no senator had opposed a presidential measure successfully without then losing his next bid for reelection. Furious, Douglas replied: “Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead!” He then stormed out of the White House. (Douglas won reelection to his seat, successfully defeating Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois Senate contest of 1858.)
Buchanan went forward and submitted the Kansas issue to Congress. Then, in his annual message, he enjoyed a “Mission Accomplished” moment by declaring that “Kansas is … at this moment as much a slave state as Georgia and South Carolina.” But Congress had not yet decided the fate of Kansas. After fierce debate, the Senate approved the bill admitting Kansas as a slave state, but the House of Representatives did not. Finally, in Kansas, the free-soil majority voted against the pro-slavery constitution in a fair election. (Kansas would remain a territory until 1861, when, after the departure of Southerners from Congress, it was admitted into the Union as a free state.) With a smugness that smacked of delusion, Buchanan took credit for making Kansas “tranquil and prosperous.”
Even as Buchanan was fanning the flames of sectional strife over Kansas, another crisis in the West demanded his attention as president. In Utah territory, the Mormons combined an overt patriotism and demonstrations of loyalty to the U.S. government with rebellious rhetoric and actions — such as the practice of polygamy, otherwise outlawed in the U.S. — that left many Americans outside of the Great Basin convinced that the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were intent on dominating the government of Utah, ignoring federal officials and authority in the territory, and enforcing a “Theodemocracy,” rather than a true democracy, under the leadership of Brigham Young. When reports reached Washington in the spring of 1857 that the Mormons were in a state of near insurrection against federal authority, Buchanan concluded — on something less than reliable evidence — that the Utah settlers had “for several years past manifested a spirit of insubordination to the Constitution and laws of the United States,” that the inhabitants of the territory were under “a strange system of terrorism,” and that those who resisted the federal government were therefore traitors. Accordingly, he ordered, in his capacity as commander in chief, a military expedition to the territory that was “not to be withdrawn until the inhabitants of that Territory shall manifest a proper sense of the duty which they owe to this government.” The army blundered its mission, and the Mormons fought an effective guerrilla campaign against the federal troops. Eventually, Buchanan felt the heat of political pressure to end the so-called Mormon War, and a peaceful end to the fiasco. True to form, however, Buchanan claimed credit for a victory in Utah.
The president was a saber-rattler. To solve a dispute between the U.S. and the British over the boundary through the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Northwest, Buchanan sent troops under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott to Puget Sound. Luckily the argument was settled peacefully. He also dispatched 2,500 sailors and Marines to Paraguay after a U.S. naval captain had been killed there. The campaign lasted months without any appreciable results. Like other presidents who would follow him, including George W. Bush, Buchanan resorted to military force without qualms and then, when the use of force did not quite work out as he intended, he simply declared victory and hoped that everyone would forget his mistakes. At least he did not say out loud to the Mormons, the British or the Paraguayans, as Bush 43 did to his enemies, “Bring them on.” Even so, he assumed the posture of an aggressive commander in chief — one who conveniently overlooked the fact that Congress, and not the chief executive, was supposed to declare war.
Meanwhile, Buchanan pushed ahead with what he considered his most important piece of business: acquiring Cuba for the United States. After his nomination for the presidency, Buchanan reiterated his extraordinary lust for Cuba. “If I can be instrumental in settling the slavery question … and then adding Cuba to the Union,” he exclaimed, “I shall be willing to give up the ghost.” Yet Spain had not changed its mind since the time of the Ostend Manifesto. It had no interest in relinquishing Cuba to any other country, including the United States. A bill to purchase the island languished and then died in Congress. Undeterred, Buchanan kept saying over and over, “We must have Cuba.” Because his desire for Cuba was not fulfilled, he did not give up the ghost.
Instead, he led the nation into its worst crisis. The crisis, at least, was not entirely of his own making, although he surely contributed to the steady escalation of belligerent feelings between North and South while he sat in the White House. He also helped bring about a schism in the Democratic Party that led to a four-way race for the presidency in the election of 1860: in the North, Abraham Lincoln (R) versus Stephen Douglas (D), and in the South, John C. Breckinridge (D) versus John Bell (Constitution Union Party). Buchanan did not run for reelection because he had promised the nation he would serve only one term. In that sense, he was a lame-duck president from the moment he had been elected in 1856, and his disputes with Congress suffered because everyone in Washington knew that he would be gone after four short years.
What triggered the immediate chain of events that led to the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency on Nov. 6, 1860. Fearful that Lincoln was a die-hard abolitionist, rather than a Republican who simply wanted to prohibit the spread of slavery into the western territories, a good number of Southern extremists called “fire-eaters” vowed to take their states out of the Union if Lincoln became president. With his election, South Carolina quickly called a convention to consider the matter of secession, and on Dec. 20, after Lincoln’s election had been confirmed by the Electoral College, the Palmetto State jubilantly declared that it was no longer in the United States. Despite all the rationalizations and elaborate justifications for secession, then and ever after, the action taken by South Carolina was illegal and traitorous. Buchanan, as the nation’s chief magistrate, watched with a slack jaw as the South warned the nation that it would not abide Lincoln’s election, despite the fact that the Illinoisan had been legally elected (and not, say, appointed to the presidency by the U. S. Supreme Court as George W. Bush would be in 2000). Rather than taking the South’s threats seriously, Buchanan in his annual message ignored the impending crisis and asked one last time for a congressional appropriation with which to purchase Cuba. He also suggested that it might be prudent to send a military expedition into Mexico for the purpose of establishing an American protectorate in Chihuahua and Sonora to ward off Indian attacks and bandit raids into Texas and New Mexico. Congress refused his requests.
At first, though, it looked like Buchanan might take decisive action against disunion. In his annual message to Congress, in December 1860, he denied “the right of secession.” The Founders had established a perpetual union, he said, and the federal government had the duty to defend it from all enemies, foreign and domestic. In Buchanan’s estimation, there was no wiggle room when it came to disunion: “Secession is neither more nor less than revolution. It may or may not be a justifiable revolution; but still it is revolution.” By inserting the word “justifiable” in this last sentence, one could detect Buchanan faltering, his knees buckling like a boxer who’s about to collapse to the mat. Sure enough, Buchanan also declared in his message that he and Congress lacked the authority to force any seceded state back into the Union. “The power to make war against a State,” he contended, “is at variance with the whole spirit and intent of the Constitution … Our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war.”
But he said this 17 days before South Carolina or any other Southern state had left the Union. He was, in other words, providing the South with a handy justification for secession and letting them know the federal government would do nothing to stop the disintegration of the nation. No longer did Buchanan rattle sabers, as he had done in Utah or had threatened to do in acquiring Cuba or invading Mexico. When it came to the South and secession, the president professed to be powerless. In the North, his professed impotence seemed inexcusable, especially among those anti-slavery Democrats who remembered how Andrew Jackson had effectively handled the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina tried to void a federal tariff law. Jackson had responded by threatening to use military force against South Carolina, which wisely had backed down. Stephen Douglas was right, though: Jackson was dead, and Buchanan was nothing like him.
Buchanan’s lack of resolve, once South Carolina and the other states of the Deep South did abandon the Union, opened the door for those rebellious states to take possession of federal property — forts, armories, post offices, customs houses — without hindrance. Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which sat on a small island in the middle of Charleston’s harbor, was among the few federal military installations that remained in the hands of the U.S. government. The fate of Fort Sumter threw Buchanan into a fit of indecision. Always something of a sponge who absorbed the ideas and strength of others around him, like W did under the mesmerizing influence of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Buchanan continued to listen to his Southern advisors who told him to tread carefully or not at all. Throughout the month of December 1860, Buchanan nearly suffered a complete breakdown: He cursed aloud, he wept, his hands trembled, he could not remember orders he had given or documents he had read. Some mornings he found it difficult to get out of bed. Observers noticed that there was a constant twitching in his cheek, an indication that he might have suffered a minor stroke as the crisis mounted. Finally, he decided not to give up the fort, and the Southern members of his Cabinet resigned in protest. Buchanan replaced them with Cabinet officials who were more decisively Unionist in their sentiments.
He wanted someone — anyone but himself — to find a solution to the nation’s problems. Nevertheless, by the end of December Buchanan ordered a supply ship to Fort Sumter; the effort failed, however, when the ship was forced to abandon Charleston harbor when it came under heavy fire from batteries along the shore. Buchanan decided to do nothing else about the fort and the troops who defended it. In fact, it became clear that he intended to take no action against the South for the remaining eight weeks of his term. When he shared a carriage with Lincoln back to the White House after the new president’s inauguration, Buchanan said, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his private estate in Pennsylvania] you are a happy man.” Lincoln’s reply, if any, is not recorded.
Buchanan spent the rest of his life at Wheatland justifying his actions — and, more pointedly, his inaction — in a memoir in which he referred to himself in the third person, as if he were a figure he had never met in person. He continued to blame abolitionists and the Republican Party for the nation’s troubles, and he absolved himself of any responsibility for the Civil War, stating that he was “completely satisfied” with everything he had done as president. Forgotten by his countrymen as he spent his last years at Wheatland, he died in 1868. Many Americans had assumed he was already dead.
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Numerous historians have said that no president was better qualified to serve in the White House than James Buchanan, given the vast amount of experience he had gained in elected and appointed offices over the course of a long career in public service. In 1988, some pundits said the same thing about George Herbert Walker Bush, who had served as vice president, ambassador, congressman and director of the CIA before winning the presidency. Too few pundits, however, pointed out how injuriously unqualified George W. Bush was for the presidency. But, then, we all learned that for ourselves over eight long years.
Lately some historians have tried to rehabilitate Buchanan. “It is unrealistic,” writes a recent historian, Russell McClintock, “to think that in 1860 the White House could have been occupied by a chief executive willing to take a sufficiently bold stand” in the secession crisis. Really? McClintock believes that “few of the men who have occupied the White House could have stood up to the challenge of the moment.” But that’s nonsense. It amounts to admitting that most presidents are mediocre, and Buchanan should be forgiven for simply being more mediocre than most of them. Yet Lincoln had no experience in leadership when he took the oath of office. And while it’s true that he fumbled during his first weeks in office, he eventually rose “to the challenge of the moment.” What distinguishes Buchanan, then, is not that his mistakes can or should be excused, it’s that he totally lacked the capacity to rise to the occasion, to act when action was necessary, to defend the country precisely when it needed defending. In other words, he was a terrible president.
Even so, Buchanan’s incompetent incompetency resulted in our worst national catastrophe, though the Civil War cannot entirely be laid at his feet. Other forces, beyond his blunders, led to secession and war, and to some extent, when all’s said and done, there was probably little he could have done to prevent the cascade of Southern states that left the Union after South Carolina marched out in December 1860. Indeed, it’s just possible that if he had attempted to coerce South Carolina to rescind its secession, other Southern states might have seceded in even more rapid order than they ended up doing. That’s not an excuse for his inaction, and my statement differs significantly in substance than McClintock’s apologia for Buchanan. Buchanan might not have been able to change the course of history or to stop the onslaught of Civil War. But he might have at least tried.
As for George W. Bush, and his incompetent competency, he did not usher in a civil war — not quite. But he did make a mockery of the Office of the President of the United States, initiate foreign wars without provocation, mismanage the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, overstep his constitutional authority as president and commander in chief, violate human and civil rights, approve the use of torture, call his domestic political opponents enemies of America and traitors, alienate most of the nation’s allies around the world, lie about WMD, pass tax cuts for the wealthy that brought the national economy to its knees, sign the TARP bill into law while letting foreclosure victims eat cake, and spend a great amount of time pedaling his trail bike and clearing brush on vacation.
Buchanan’s sins were many. Their consequences were felt by Northerners and Southerners through four years of a bloody Civil War. And so we still feel the effects of his ineptness 150 years after the fact. But we are still too close to Bush 43′s despicable actions in office — the ripple effect of all the mayhem he sought purposely to create — for us to understand just how much lasting damage he actually accomplished. Even so, Bush’s eight years in office were an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the more we learn as time goes by, the worse Bush’s presidency continues to get; there will undoubtedly be more damning revelations in the years and decades ahead.
Hence my verdict: As of today, Presidents’ Day 2011, James Buchanan wins the dubious distinction of having been our worst president. Nevertheless, it is well within the realm of possibility — once historians have a chance to reckon more completely with all of Bush 43′s extraordinary transgressions as president — that W might someday unseat Buchanan as the very worst president this nation has ever had.
Sadly, I have to agree with his assessment, and it pains me to do so. Buchanan is the most famous alum of my alma mater, Dickinson College, and he is my home state of Pennsylvania’s only president. His weakness and inaction triggered the Civil War, the cataclysmic event that cost 600,000 American lives in four years of bloodletting. His sitting by and doing nothing while the Union unraveled is, in my humble opinion, unforgivable and an egregious breach of his constitutional duty to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. Any redeeming values that he may have had, and any qualifications that he may have had for the job, pale in comparison to Buchanan’s epic failure as Chief Executive.
As for Bush 43, time will tell, and I would prefer to leave the discussion of modern politics out of this particular discussion.Scridb filter
I took a suggestion from Steve Stanley and returned the black and white Nook and exchanged it for the color version. The color version scales the PDF’s much better, and it also has a larger storage capacity than the black and white version. With the 8GB micro-SD card plugged in, the device now has 16GB worth of storage capacity. The display is 7 inches, as opposed to the 6 inch display for the black & white unit. The color version is larger, and weighs a good bit more, but the color is vivid.
Downside: The black and white unit comes with free built-in 3G wireless as well as built-in WiFi. The Nook Color does not have the 3G wireless capacity, only the built-in WiFi, which means that it can’t be used in as many places.
I’m also having a real challenge finding a decent case for the thing. There aren’t many out there, and I don’t like most of them. A lot of the makers say they’re coming, but I need something in the interim. I really liked the M-Edge case that I had for the black and white version, but it’s not available for the color version yet. I guess I will just have to be patient and wait.
So far, I am pleased with the upgrade. I’m looking forward to messing with it further.Scridb filter
Harold Jackson is the editorial page editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper that I grew up reading. He is an African-American, and here is his take on whether to celebrate or commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War:
Commemorate, don’t celebrate Civil War’s 150th
By Harold Jackson
Inquirer Opinion Columnist
A number of years ago while in Biloxi, Miss., on assignment for the Baltimore Sun to report on the Gulf Coast’s casino industry, I took advantage of some down time to visit Beauvoir, the final home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
Only a handful of other visitors were there on that chilly, early fall day. They stared at me as much as they did the antique furniture and memorabilia in the antebellum house built in 1852. No doubt they were curious as to why a black man might be paying homage to Davis.
I wasn’t. I was there to see if there were any signs in Davis’ artifacts of his mentality in leading a rebellion to preserve an economic system based on the capture, sale, and further subjugation of fellow human beings who just happened to be of a different skin color.
I didn’t find any answers. But that day comes to mind now as I look at the ways the former Confederate states are observing this year’s sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Adding poignancy to the moment is the fact that they are making plans to commemorate the rebellion fought to perpetuate slavery even as the nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King’s Birthday federal holiday.
Special events are being held in at least 21 states, including Pennsylvania, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which officially began when secessionists fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., on April 12, 1861.
A week ago, cadets from the Citadel, South Carolina’s historic military college, fired cannons on Morris Island in Charleston Harbor to reenact the January 1861 shelling of a ship that had tried to reinforce U.S. troops at Fort Sumter. That’s another site I visited years ago, looking for answers in the ruins to explain the war that had begun there. I didn’t find any.
In my home state of Alabama, Civil War reenactors are planning to parade through Montgomery to the state Capitol on Feb. 19 to re-create the swearing-in of Davis. They will also raise a Confederate flag, but not on the main pole of the Capitol dome, which is only a stone’s throw from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
The Confederate flag did fly on the dome’s pole for about 30 years until 1993, when black legislators won a lawsuit that ended the practice that had begun during the civil-rights era. “I’d love to see it up there, but that’s not going to happen,” said Thomas Strain Jr., a board member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Mississippi began its commemoration of the Civil War this month with a reading at Vicksburg National Military Park of that state’s Ordinance of Secession and a reenactment of rebels in 1861 firing from the bluffs of Vicksburg on a commercial steamboat that they believed was carrying U.S. troops.
In observing the war’s sesquicentennial, Virginia is taking pains to note that although Richmond succeeded Montgomery as the capital of the Confederacy, the state originally voted by a 2-1 ratio not to secede. Paul Levengood, president of the Virginia Historical Society, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the moment of secession should be recognized, but not celebrated.
Commemorate, don’t celebrate. I like that perspective for how the former Confederate states should observe the war’s anniversary. I know, however, that there are people who will use this opportunity to again try to spin history to perpetuate the lie that the war wasn’t about slavery, that it was about states’ rights.
OK, but the right that the rebel states wanted so badly was to continue slavery.
It’s understandable that people want to justify their ancestors’ participation in a war. Even today, people are trying to rationalize their sons’ and daughters’ fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan when they’re not really sure they should be over there.
Some months ago, I was on an airplane leaving Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood, and heard two fellow passengers discussing the wars we are in. The women were very proud of their husband and son in the military. But the wife, almost in the same breath in which she declared they “are fighting for us,” admitted she didn’t know why our troops were still there.
The answer will be left to the writers of history. Let’s hope they do better than the numerous book writers who romanticized the Confederacy and made slavery seem like a benign institution in which the benevolence of good masters kept people who otherwise were incapable of fending for themselves from dying of starvation.
A recent article in the Anniston, Ala., Star noted that for decades after the Civil War, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had provided an approved list of textbooks for Alabama public schools. Students were taught that the Confederates had fought for a noble cause but lost. “The South lost the war, but they won the history,” Jacksonville State University professor Jennifer Gross told the Star, quoting a past teacher.
Through the end of this year, we will see various attempts to win the history, to obscure the truth that led to the Southern states’ secession, to ignore that the Civil War’s aftermath included a brutal backlash against black Americans for having been the catalyst for the South’s pain, to glorify soldiers who fought on the wrong side of glory.
Speaking of glory, one of my most prized possessions is something I bought during my Charleston visit, which included a guided tour of Fort Sumter – a copy of a Thomas Nast engraving for Harper’s Weekly depicting the 54th Massachusetts regiment’s ill-fated charge at Fort Wagner. Led by white officers, the 54th was an otherwise all-black unit.
In this sesquicentennial year of the Civil War, my thoughts will be on those who, like the men of the 54th, fought to preserve the Union and end slavery. And I’ll celebrate the soldiers in the civil-rights movement who followed them, including King, many of whom also gave their lives in the fight for freedom and equality.
In reading this, I can understand Mr. Jackson’s viewpoint. As an African-American, his focus on slavery as THE cause of the Civil War is completely understandable, and I completely agree with his statement that it is appropriate to commemorate but not to celebrate the Civil War. However, I have some different thoughts on this issue.
There is no question that slavery was probably the most important issue that triggered the Civil War, but it surely was not the only one. To say that the war was about slavery alone simply does not do it justice, nor does it reflect the feelings/sentiments of the many Southerners who fought not to perpetuate slavery but to defend their states and to pursue a vision of states rights that they shared. There certainly were plenty of Southerners who fought for the Confederacy who never owned slaves. To simply lump all Southerners into a single category of advocates for slavery is unfair and is likewise historically inaccurate.
I do agree that there was nothing to celebrate in our great national blood-letting. However, the sacrifices of both sides should be commemorated, and the moment of secession needs to be commemorated as the turning point in the development of this country. As a member of the Governor of Ohio’s Advisory Commission on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I can attest to the fact that we have wrestled with this issue as recently as last week, when we had a spirited and lengthy discussion about what role the Confederate flag should play in events that have the imprimatur of the Commission. This is an issue that should intrigue anyone with even a passing interest in these events.
This op-ed column plainly shows that there are many ways in which we Americans remember the Civil War. I’m not saying that he’s wrong, as he’s entitled to his opinion. I will, however, say that I disagree with some of what he says. My disagreement, though, does not make his opinion any less valid than mine. Let us hope that as the Sesquicentennial unfolds, we can have civil discussions about what it means and commemorate the event that made this nation into the United States of America.Scridb filter
I don’t know whether it should make me feel better that the State of Ohio is not the only state that has scrimped on funding its Sesquicentennial celebration. Indeed, it appears that most states are avoiding funding their sesquicentennial celebrations. The following appeared on MSNBC today:
States scrimping on Civil War anniversary
Efforts to commemorate the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest war will begin next year and run into 2015
By CHRIS CAROLA
updated 12/26/2010 2:18:27 PM ET
ALBANY, N.Y. — New York state contributed 448,000 troops and $150 million to the Union cause during the Civil War, not to mention untold tons of supplies, food, guns and munitions.
But with the 150th anniversary of the war’s start just months away, New York state government has so far failed to scrounge up a single Yankee dollar to commemorate a conflict it played such a major role in winning.
New York isn’t alone. Other states saddled with similar budget woes are unable or unwilling to set aside taxpayer funds for historic re-enactments and museum exhibits when public employees are being laid off and services slashed.
Even South Carolina, where the war’s first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter in April 1861, has declined to provide government funding for organizations planning events in the Palmetto State.
“State money right now is hard to find for anything,” said New York state historian Robert Weible. “That’s life. We’re all living with that.”
At least 21 states have formed commissions, committees or initiatives to commemorate the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest war, starting next year and running into 2015. Of those states, Virginia and Pennsylvania appear to be leading the way in efforts to plan, promote and stage Civil War commemorations.
“Most states have very little or limited funding,” said Cheryl Jackson, executive director of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. “That’s not unique among the states, what you’re finding in New York.”
The Virginia organization has received an annual $2 million appropriation from the state since 2008, Jackson said. Three out of every five Civil War battles were fought in Virginia, home to the Confederate capital, Richmond, and some of the South’s greatest generals, including Robert E. Lee.
“Virginia bore its share of scars, many of which are still there, so it’s natural that the state take the lead,” said James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., a Virginia Tech history professor and member of the state’s commission.
Pennsylvania has managed to collect nearly $5 million in government funding for its commemoration, including $800,000 in federal grants, according to Barbara Franco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The key, she said, was Pennsylvania’s decision to start its planning in 2007, just before the economy tanked and government coffers shriveled. Plus, Franco added, Pennsylvania didn’t wait for Congress to get around to creating a national Civil War commission, something lawmakers in Washington, D.C., so far have failed to do.
On the federal level, the National Parks Service is coordinating Civil War events planned through 2015 at more than 75 battlefields and historic sites, as well as at museums and other privately operated sites.
On the state level, various local and regional groups are being enlisted to muster resources for 150th anniversary events.
“Sometimes national commissions are helpful, sometimes they’re not helpful,” Franco said. “Perhaps this grassroots approach provides more opportunities to get down to the real issues that a national commission would never be able to do.”
New York so far doesn’t plan to create a Civil War commemoration commission. But Weible said talks already have begun between his office and local history-related entities to come up with ways to mark the war in the coming years.
“Our concern right now is trying to get everybody on the same page and cooperating with each other and talking to people they don’t normally talk to,” he said. “You don’t need money to make good things happen. It’s nice if you can get it. But we work with what we’ve got.”
What New York has to work with is a deep well of Civil War resources, even though no battles were fought on its soil.
New York communities large and small were touched in some way by the Civil War, and many still have the evidence to prove it, from old industrial sites that supplied Union troops to vast collections of artifacts held by state and local museums. Besides providing the most soldiers during the war, New York suffered the most casualties, with 46,000 killed. Monuments and memorials to their sacrifice can be found all across the state.
More than 200 New York infantry, cavalry and artillery units served in nearly every campaign of the war, from Gettysburg to Vicksburg, said Michael Aikey, director of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, home to more than 850 Civil War battle flags, the largest collection in the nation.
Prominent figures from the era — including William Seward, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Fredrick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant — all lived in New York, and museums and historic sites in their names can be found upstate.
With such links to its Civil War history, New York is counting on local historians, re-enactment groups and the approximately 20 Civil War round tables across the state to help organize anniversary commemorations without any government funding.
“We must definitely commemorate what those soldiers did,” said Patrick Falci of Queens, past president of the Civil War Round Table of New York City. “Our job is to keep it going. What happened down there made us what we are today.”
Despite the lack of an official role by New York, Weible said he’s certain the state’s legacy in the War Between the States will be properly honored over the next five years.
“The bottom line is, we’ve got a great story,” he said. “Stay tuned. Things are happening. We’re going to make this work.”
Given Ohio’s terrible budgetary challenges, I really do understand the reasons why we can’t get any taxpayer funding for what we’re trying to do. We’re fortunate that our staffers have done a fabulous job of finding some grant money for us, so that we have some budget, and I am sure that the commissions from some of our sister states will do the same thing. Nevertheless, a great opportunity for the states to help to generate new interest in the Civil War on the occasion of its sesquicentennial. In spite of the lack of funding, I can only hope that we succeed in spurring some new interest in the war while also paying appropriate tribute to them men who gave the last full measure of their devotion for causes that they believed in.Scridb filter
I first met my friend Dave Lingenfelter 25 years ago. Dave was a law school classmate of mine and we quickly became close friends. I was Dave’s best men when he got married the first time, and he was my best man when Susan and I got married. He also is someone I envy because he can honestly call himself a recovering lawyer, something I aspire to be. Dave had the first personal computer I ever saw, an Apple IIe (this was before the McIntosh, after all). My, how times have changed.
Dave is also a fabulous writer. I’ve always envied his ability with words, and I wish he would write more often. Last Friday, in commemoration of Remembrance Day, he sent me the following musings that he had composed. They’re so good that I asked for, and received, permission to share those musings with all of you. Dave gets it.
I stand in the same spot that I stood as a boy: before me a granite marker that lies by a low stone wall bordering a broad open field. As a boy, I saw only those things. As a man, I see what happened there so long ago.
The boys that died in that field did not see what lay before each one of them. They saw only what was there: the crops in the field, a low stone wall on the other side of the field and, to be sure, they saw the boys behind that wall with their cannon and their rifles. Not one of them saw, not one of them could see, his own death in that field. Each one of them saw that death would rain down on them from those cannon and rifles. But nature had endowed each of them with the utter inability to comprehend that death is not in the third person. And so, when told to advance by a man who could see what they could not and remained at the rear, every one of them walked into that field.
So it has always been and so it will always be with boys.
Why should boys be so blind? Boys meander carelessly, blissfully unaware of their circumstance. Boys are not simply blind but are incapable of appreciating that they are blind. Dire warnings pertain to other boys. Boys walk unhurriedly because they see no end to their field, no stone wall, no cannon pointed at them. Not today, not tomorrow, and if not now, then never. So boys have their youthful, exuberant dalliances, despite the efforts of the men who would mentor them.
For if by youthful good fortune we manage to avoid the cannon that would quickly teach us the lesson of our mortality, one morning we unexpectedly wake as terrified men. We suddenly see that we are ourselves in the field and that the cannon and rifles are pointed not at us but at me. We laugh with amazement that we have survived our journey so far, having stumbled blindly along for so long. Then we realize, to our horror, that the field in which we find ourselves is level and open, with no cover from the cannonade, no route to safety, and no retreat possible.
I stand in the same spot that I stood as a boy. Now I see what I could not have seen as a boy. I was a boy, just as they were, and I was immortal. No cannon could set its sights on me, so I dallied. I wandered along a path that men set out for me. Though they could see that which I could not comprehend, I found no urgency in the mission.
I return to that spot as a man and a mortal. I see that which has always been there: the sights of cannon lie squarely on me. Still, my sight is limited: I see the cannon but I can not see how far the fuse has run.
So, my young friend, please pardon this old man if he rushes by in seemingly inexplicable haste. The cannon, you see, make my journey increasingly urgent.
I found it to be very moving. I hope you did too. Like I said, Dave gets it.Scridb filter
Susan and I visited some friends in Springfield, Illinois this weekend. We just got home. They only moved there a few months ago, so this was our first time out to visit them. It was also my first visit to Springfield, which means it’s the first time I’ve seen any of the Lincoln sites there.
Springfield, of course, was Abraham Lincoln’s home for something like 17 years before his election as President of the United States, and his body was returned there for entombment after his assassination. He lived there, practiced law there, and raised his family there. Even though Springfield is the capital of Illinois to this day, Abraham Lincoln’s presence is everywhere there. It’s unavoidable.
In downtown Springfield, you will find the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, the Abraham Lincoln home and preserved neighborhood, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, the Old State Capitol Building (where the Lincoln/Douglas debates occurred), and, of course, the magnificent Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery. There are multiple statues of him throughout the downtown. Not far away–just a few miles–is Lincoln’s New Salem, where he operated a general store for several years before beginning his legal career in Springfield.
We had limited time, so we didn’t get to see everything. We decided to reserve a visit to the Lincoln home and preserved neighborhood, New Salem, and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office for our next visit. We began our visit to the Lincoln Tomb, which is our second presidential tomb in three weeks (we visited Grant’s Tomb in New York City last month). The Lincoln Tomb is very beautiful, and a very appropriate tribute to the greatest American President. President Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their two younger sons, Willie and Tad, are entombed there. The monument features a standing figure of Lincoln, surrounded by the soldiers who preserved the Union. The temporary crypt where he was buried–and his body was nearly stolen from–also still exists. It’s on the hillside behind the main tomb. I left there with a real sense of awe. I’ve visited a number of presidential graves before, but I have never come away with the feeling that I left Lincoln’s Tomb carrying. On one hand, it was deep sadness, knowing that our greatest President was assassinated at his greatest moment of triumph, but with a deep respect for the fact that I had just visited the final resting place of a truly great man.
When we left there, we then drove by the site of the Lincoln Home and neighborhood (and the Herndon-Lincoln Law Office), just to get a look, and then we went to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. For those unfamiliar with it, the Museum opened in 2005, and it’s quite a facility. It’s enormous, and someone spent a vast amount of money building it. It’s filled with very accurate reproductions of various important scenes from Lincoln’s life, from the cabin where he spent his boyhood, to his law office, to the White House, to Ford’s Theater, and finally, to his catafalque at the Illinois State House. It thoroughly documents his life, and is very informative, especially for those not familiar with his life. As far as that goes, it kind of sets the gold standard for this sort of interactive museum. At the same time, I was somewhat disappointed with how few actual artifacts pertaining to the 16th President are there. There’s a small room, called The Treasures Gallery, that has some tremendous items, such as one of the five handwritten drafts of the Gettysburg Address, written out by Lincoln himself for Edward Everett. This small collection also includes the kid gloves that Lincoln had in his pocket when he was shot, and the feathered fan that Mrs. Lincoln was carrying that night. The few real artifacts are remarkable, but there are very few of them. I frankly expected more of them and was surprised with how few there were.
There is also a very impressive gift shop in the museum. When I got there, I realized that it’s been many years since I purchased or even read a Lincoln biography, so I purchased Ronald C. White’s well-received 2009 Lincoln bio, which I will read shortly. Susan, who can’t resist this sort of thing, purchased the very silly Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
On another note, I have long maintained a fascination with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the great architect. The Dana-Thomas House, which was one of Wright’s last prairie houses, and the largest and best preserved example of the prairie houses, can also be found in downtown Springfield. We made a quick visit to the site, long enough to spend some money in the gift shop, but didn’t have time to take a tour of the house. I definitely want to go back and take the full tour of the house, as it’s really spectacular.
As I said, Abraham Lincoln’s presence in Springfield is palpable, and it’s everywhere. There’s so much of it to see that it’s actually a little overwhelming. I will have to see the rest of it on our next visit. I left Springfield with an even greater appreciation of our greatest President, and for his towering presence that still lingers over the city 145 years after his tragic death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. It’s almost as if he’s still there.Scridb filter
With many thanks to Jim Schmidt for bringing this little gem to my attention, I give you more dumbass re-enactors…
From the July 6, 2010 issue of the Morris County [NJ] Daily Record comes these candidates for dumbass re-enactors of the year:
Hanover cops: 2 injured when mistaken Civil War gun powder tube explodes
By JAKE REMALY • STAFF WRITER • July 6, 2010
HANOVER — A 66-year-old Livingston man was burned when a man asked him for a light and, instead of lighting a cigarette as he thought, he lit a paper cartridge filled with gun powder.
Police said Joseph Princiotta, 42, of Jersey City, obtained the cartridge from his friend, a Civil War re-enactor, who had the tube of gun powder with some of his re-enactment gear.
The incident occurred last Wednesday around midnight.
Police said Princiotta thought it was a firecracker and asked the alleged victim to light it as he was walking through the parking lot of the Brookside Diner, Hanover Detective Earle Seely said. The gun powder ignited, flared up and burned the man’s arm. He was taken to St. Baranabas hospital and released. Princiotta had slight burns on his hand as well.
Princiotta was charged with simple assault.
Amazing. Can you say “dumb-ass”, boys and girls?Scridb filter
I wanted to take a moment to wish all of my readers a happy and safe Independence Day, and to take a moment to thank all of our veterans, past, present, and future, for the sacrifices that they have made to give us a country where we can celebrate our independence not through martial displays, but through family gatherings and happy times spent with family and friends.Scridb filter
For about fifteen years now, I have made a point of going to the annual Civil War show in Mansfield, Ohio, which is always held the first weekend in May. It’s been a place to catch up with friends, to perhaps buy something, and to work my network. I usually run into at least one regular reader of this blog there. However, last year’s show introduced World War I and World War II relics, and that stuff took up about half of the show. A lot of the vendors that I’ve visited over the years were not there last year and I don’t expect to see them this year either. It’s just not worth the time or money to attend under these circumstances.
Since a big chunk of the show is going to be taken up by irrelevant stuff, which will keep many of my regular vendors from attending, for the first time in something like fifteen years, I will not be attending the show in Mansfield this year. As long as it’s not exclusively a Civil War show, I very seriously doubt that I will ever go again. So, for those of you who were hoping to see me there this weekend, I regret that I won’t be there. I regret that, but it’s not worth the time or effort to go to a show that’s becoming more and more irrelevant each year.Scridb filter
With special thanks to reader Chris Evans for providing this link, I give you some more moronic re-enactors, written be a re-enactor of the 4th Virginia Cavalry:
About six years back, my pard and I decided to see how many events we could do in one year. [Obviously single or well on the way to a divorce.] We do not venture north of Gettysburg much, as we are spoiled on all the wonderful events on the actual battlefields here in Maryland and in Virginia. I was however intrigued by an ad in the Camp Chase Gazette, for an Analomink, NY event. Soon after arriving at this event, we forever after called it “Analmink”. The ad stated, “Indiscriminate firing of weapons in camp is encouraged!”
I’m convinced that surveyors within 70 miles of this place would have been put out of business, for lack of yellow survey tape, as it had all been bought up and sewn to the uniforms of these guys. 99% of the people there were dismounted cavalry.
The weapon of choice was the chromed Remington revolver, with at least two extra cylinders. The “battlefield” was a baseball field next to a bar (yes a saloon, tavern). When any of the combatants needed to reload, they entered the bar, ordered a beer and sat on the bar stool to reload. [An amenity.] Our mouths were agape by time the “battle scene” was ready to start, as there’d been continuous firing going on all day. The small valley, where the camp was situated, was covered by a thick cloud of burnt powder smoke.
Suddenly from out of nowhere, a dilapidated pick-up truck hove into view with fenders flapping and dragging what was supposed to pass as a horse trailer. The engine gave off a cacophony of grinding noises and smoke. Various and sundry engine parts and tools were in the bed, along with a rebuilt “big horn” saddle with the horn cut off. The doors were emblazoned with a crude, handwritten legend: “Rebel Construction Co.” Out jumps a young man, somewhat lost in the cloud of dust, exhaust fumes and the accumulated pall from the morning’s unbridled skirmishing. He stood akimbo, hands on hips and announced for all to hear: “I’m Lt. (name deleted). I’ve just completed officer’s school, so I’ll take charge of all “Rebel” cavalry.” [Assertiveness training obviously formed a part of officer school.] We looked at each other with mild amusement and continued to stir the beans we were preparing for lunch. Somehow the Lt. had enough native savvy to realize that he was not going to be carried into battle on our shoulders and he went about his business, tacking up his horse.
He was the only other local reenactor who was mounted, except for Rush’s Lancers. This group contained 19 troopers, all of which had deadly-looking lances to go with their chromed Remingtons, but only one horse among them. Their cavalry boots were home-altered Dingos that had extra leather sewn on the tops. They all wore scarlet hankies about their necks and appeared very serious about their impression. [Well, at least they were all attired the same. You have got to give them that.] However, we did have to stifle laughter when their bugler called them “to horse.” They all lined up with their lances, dismounted, except for the one guy whose turn it was to use the horse. Once the battle was joined, it overflowed the ball field and continued up the mountainside. At one point we spotted a Louisiana flag and rode over to warn, what we mistook to be a true southern unit, of a Yankee flanking move. The “Col.”, covered in yellow survey tape and with an obvious NJ accent rallied his men with the cry: “Git youse guns goys, we gotta killed some Yankees heah!” It was not hard for the spectators to know where the combatants were, for the cloud of gun smoke that continually shifted back and forth across the face of the mountain.
Later, when we figured all black powder had to have been expended, the weary fighters came off the mountain and entered the bar to reload and refresh, immediately after which, the combat was renewed. Nobody was safe, even in the portajohns (doors were kicked in, in order to fire upon the hapless occupants). [!] As we continued to observe this spectacle, an officer entered our camp to assign picket duty for the night. We allowed as how we did not mind standing guard, but what in God’s name were we to guard against, as every “no-no” of reenacting was already being carried on in the open during daylight? The officer told us that we needed to guard against “civilians” participating in the skirmishes. “Well, golly Sir, look at this herd. Most of these guys are wearing Levi’s and white shirts. Who can tell who’s a civilian?” He blew off our concerns and assigned us an hour to “stand watch.”
At 2330 hrs., we were sitting in the bleachers with a cold beer watching in amazement as the lines formed for yet another charge. These guys never tired of burning powder. When we loaded our mounts for the trip back to Maryland, one of the “organizers” came over to shake our hands and express his hope that we had enjoyed the “premiere Civil War event in NY!” Our stomachs hurt and tears ran down our cheeks from the laughter that was generated on the ride back home. [Sounds like a successful weekend, then. Laughter will add years to one's life, authentic reenacting won't.] We relived what we’d seen, but we still did not believe it. I’ve related this story several times and even carried the ad for awhile. The ad said it all:”indiscriminate firing in camp is encouraged!”
Steven in Maryland, 4th Virginia Cavalry
As Bugs Bunny would say, “what a bunch of maroons!” Thanks, Chris. I needed the laugh.Scridb filter