Governing the American Colonies (1620)

I recently posted about an astronomy book from 1777 that I discovered while helping a friend clean out his dad’s house. That same day I found another old book. Like the astronomy book, it was in bad shape so I had it rebound.

The title is Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, In 1620 and 1621, Vol. I. It was published in 1766 in England. One of its previous owners, Samuel Hunter, signed his name on the title page in 1827. Like the Bode astronomy book, the paper has tanned with age, but at least it’s not printed in German with Fraktur Gothic script. It’s in English, and the hardest (!) part about reading it is mentally replacing an “s” for an “f,” as in this line on the title page: “In which fome Paffages are illuftrated from other Manufcripts.”

For reference, 1620 was the year the Puritans landed in New England. Jamestown, in Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and in 1619, the first Africans were brought to America on a captured Portuguese slave ship.

The British Parliament includes the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Proceedings and Debates is an interesting transcript of matters, both mundane and monumental, taken up by the House of Commons. Flipping through the book, one particular item caught my eye. On April 25, 1621, the House of Commons took up the regulation of fishing in Virginia. At first blush, this would seem about as interesting as a dead mackerel. But the Secretary of the House of Commons had this to say on the subject:

“… Virginia, New England, Newfoundland, and those other foreign Parts of America, are not yet annexed to the Crown of England, but are the King’s as gotten by Conquest; and therefore he [the Secretary] thinketh it worth the Consideration of the House, whether we shall here make Laws for the Government of those Parts; for he taketh it, that in such new Plantations the King [James I] is to govern it only [by] his Prerogative, and as his Majesty shall think fit …”

This may be the earliest mention of British law as it pertained to governing the American colonies. Governance of the colonies would progress through many stages and permutations over the next 150 years before the colonists would revolt and achieve their independence in the American Revolutionary War.

"Blundering Toward War," and the Willing Suspension of Belief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” required by someone who reads a story they would ordinarily (in real life) discredit for being unbelievable - for example, tales involving fantasy. But in recent times we as a people have too often willingly suspended belief (not disbelief) in true stories we don’t want to believe are true. And believed things we shouldn’t.

In “Blundering Toward War,” an article in the June 3-10, 2019 issue of TIME Magazine, David French warns that the U.S. may be stumbling into “its worst war in more than a generation — without the congressional authorization required by the Constitution.” The threat of war with Iran is exacerbated by “a Chief Executive so erratic even his closest advisers feel the need to ignore his orders.”

If this is not enough to keep you lying awake at night, consider that North Korea is still on the radar screen and still poses a major threat to national security.

In his “speculative novel” titled The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, foreign policy scholar and arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis presents a nightmare scenario in which decisions by unpredictable leaders playing Russian roulette with nuclear weapons lead to the deaths of 1.4 million American citizens. The novel takes the form of a report by a commission charged with investigating what led to the 2020 war, posing questions including, “Did President Trump and his advisers appreciate the dangers of provoking Kim Jon Un with social media posts and military exercises? Was conflict inevitable, or did America’s leaders have the opportunity to avert it?”

I don’t believe either French’s article or Lewis’ book constitute fear-mongering. This administration has not earned our trust, and the consequences of erratic decisions (not to mention “mercurial” communications) could be catastrophic.

Civil War Guerrillas and the Burning of Hale's Mill

Fearing for their lives, Unionist Jonathan Hale and his family fled across the Tennessee state line to Albany, Kentucky in July 1861, leaving behind a substantial settlement in Fentress County, Tennessee. A little more than a year later, Hale’s abandoned property was put to the torch by Confederate guerrillas.

Everything Hale owned was incinerated. His home and his livelihood went up in flames. The main buildings, including the house and the mill, as well as the out-buildings, burned as the sun set on a crowd of Confederate sympathizers. Virtually nothing survived the inferno. Hale’s dwelling and its furnishings and a large library, destroyed. The mill, used as both a grist mill and a sawmill, and the machinery within the mill. The barn, the stable, the cabin for Hale’s slaves, a blacksmith shop. Two acres of ground covered by at least two hundred thousand board-feet of seasoned lumber, a dryhouse and sheds full of lumber. And a hundred bushels of corn, some oats, hay, and rye. By the time the flames had died to embers and the smoke began to clear, only the corn crib and the schoolhouse had escaped the conflagration.

As soon as Union troops began to establish a more or less permanent presence in the Upper Cumberland, Hale sought the help of the nearest Union provost marshal in seeking redress for his losses. Over the next three years, the accuser and the accused exchanged facts and fancy like gunfire. What led up to the destruction? Who exactly was responsible? Who should pay for damages?

Not surprisingly, most of the explanations proffered led back to the infamous Confederate guerrilla, Champ Ferguson. The instigating factor in the burning of Hale’s Mill, it was said, was the death of young “Fate” Allen, a member of Champ Ferguson’s band. One version of the story maintained that Allen was killed by a sniper firing from Hale’s abandoned home. This was denied by Hale and his Unionist friends. Another version claimed that Champ Ferguson’s band was in the Three Forks area of northeastern Overton County, allegedly driving stolen cattle. Rufus Dowdy and his men lay in wait near Hale’s Mill, hoping when Ferguson came along they could scatter the stolen cattle. As Ferguson passed by Hale’s abandoned settlement, Dowdy’s men opened fire and scattered both the cattle and the Confederate guerrillas. When the Confederates regrouped, they discovered that Fate Allen was dead.

Enraged at Allen’s murder, Ferguson’s men and many Confederate sympathizers gathered, plotting retaliation and destruction. Jonathan Hale was hated by the secessionists. It was bad enough that he had recruited Union scouts, but for Union guerrillas to use his property as a base of operations could not be allowed. And so the fires were set.

Once Hale began to press his case with the Union provost marshal, authorities took statements from him, Dowdy, and others who provided a list of dozens of local citizens who allegedly participated in starting the fires or watching and shouting their support. The list included Champ Ferguson, Ferdinand Daugherty, Alvan Cullom, James McHenry, and McHenry’s father. Hale and his friends also documented the value of what was destroyed. Virtually no documentation was gathered from the men accused of this arson. Each of the accused was held liable for an amount of damages proportional to his net worth.

Samuel Matheny was one of those present who was assessed for damages. Samuel was the uncle of my great-great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Lacy, who disappeared during the Civil War. When the Federal government began rewarding veterans of the War of 1812, Samuel received a bounty warrant and a pension for his service. But in the early 1870s he was faced with having to defend his loyalty to the Union during the Civil War. This was a new requirement for continuing to receive a pension. Someone – likely Jonathan Hale or his wife – informed the U.S. government of Samuel’s alleged participation in the burning of Hale’s property. Federal review resulted in Samuel being dropped from the pension rolls. Matheny claimed that his loyalty to the Union was sufficient to give him voting rights immediately after the war. That information was ignored by the pension bureau. In the process of attempting to renew Samuel’s pension, several friends provided affidavits of his loyalty. Staunch Unionists and Union officers like Maj. John A. Brents and Col. Abraham Garrett claimed that Matheny was always a Union man and had aided the Union cause on many occasions, including providing Federal officers with information on the whereabouts of Confederate troops and guerrillas. But other Unionists claimed Samuel was a loyal Confederate, and that he had taken pains to support the Southern cause.

The truth of Matheny’s culpability was never settled. But in March 1878 the loyalty requirement for a War of 1812 pension was removed. Matheny’s pension was then restored.

For more on Jonathan Hale and Confederate guerrillas, see MISSING IN ACTION, 1863: Andrew Jackson Lacy and Tennessee’s Confederate Cavalry.


J. D. Hale and John D. Hale files, in NARA. Papers Relating to Citizens, compiled 1861-1865. Microfilm M345, Record Group 109 (Washington, DC: National Archives Microfilm Publications, 1967. Online version, Union Provost Marshals’ File of Papers Relating to Individual Citizens, Fold3.com, 2011).

Samuel Matheny, in NARA, War of 1812 Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, compiled ca. 1871- ca. 1900, documenting the period 1812 - ca. 1900, Record Group 15, Roll RG15-1812PB-Bx2355 (Washington, DC: National Archives Microfilm Publications, n.d.; Online edition, War of 1812 Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, Fold3.com, 2011).


Layers of Secrets: Joseph Kanon's "Los Alamos"

New Mexico. Ancient ruins of vanished Native Americans. Desolate spaces and tumbleweeds crossing the highway. Snow-capped mountains. Little bars with menus listing hundreds of different brands of tequila. And two of our country’s national laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia. Los Alamos was established as a secret center of research for atomic weapons during World War II. In the years following the end of the war, Sandia was established for further weapons testing, but its mission is now focused on developing and testing non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. The mission of Los Alamos is now one of supporting a broad range of interdisciplinary research covering national security, nuclear fusion, supercomputing, and other areas.

Secrets permeate these facilities as easily as unshielded radioactivity, and are just as invisible to the naked eye. And they can be just as dangerous. In Joseph Kanon’s literary thriller Los Alamos, set in the final months of World War II, the secrets are not all military. There are clandestine meetings with Communist sympathizers, lover’s trysts in the desert, and personal histories that many would like to keep from the watchful eyes of government security. I was drawn to the book, and willing to give it a go, because I’ve visited New Mexico’s national labs. I’m familiar with the countryside, from the urban sprawl of Albuquerque to the views from Sandia Peak, from the historic Plaza of Santa Fe to the Anasazi ruins at Bandelier National Monument (the location of an unpublished story of mine). Sure, it’s fun for a fantasy reader to be plopped down in the middle of an invented landscape, but sometimes reading a story where you know the locale well can be even more fun.

Kanon gives us a murder mystery based largely in Los Alamos during the final stages of the development of the bombs that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bring World War II to an end. Needless to say, neither the scientists nor the military involved in developing the atomic bomb were pleased to know that one of their own could be murdered. The story of how this mystery is solved spans many pages but kept me glued to the page - not a requirement for me to give a book my blessing, but certainly an indication of how much I enjoyed reading it.

Highly recommended.

Civil War Mysteries

William Martin's hybrid historical-fiction/thriller, The Lincoln Letter , promised to be an interesting read, and I was not disappointed.  The story revolves around a previously-unknown diary of Abraham Lincoln's, a daybook that clearly shows the evolution of his thoughts on the emancipation of slaves. Modern-day historical sleuths Peter Fallon and Evangeline Carrington are racing to locate the diary before it is found by those who would use its controversial contents to further their nefarious political desires. Juxtaposed with the 21st century treasure-hunting story is the story of how Lincoln's diary came to be lost during the Civil War, and the lengths to which Lincoln's enemies would go to locate it. In order to track down the diary, Fallon and Carrington must - through careful research - reconstruct the Civil War story.  They must also thread their way through a complex web of characters whose varied selfish aims place the sleuths in danger at every turn. The novel was very interesting, but it also appealed to me on another level: it reminded me of my own research in reconstructing the Civil War career of my great-great-grandfather, a junior officer in Tennessee's Confederate Cavalry who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the middle of the war, never to be seen again. Solving Lt. Andrew Lacy's mystery does not have the potential impact of Lincoln's diary in The Lincoln Letter, and there is no race to elucidate this mystery. But just as seemingly minor details at the time of the Civil War provided important clues to the disappearance of Lincoln's diary in The Lincoln Letter, my hope is that minor details (many of which are found in the letters Lacy and his family wrote one another during the war) may lead to the discovery of my ancestor's actual fate. This possibility is what keeps me searching, researching, and re-researching. It also makes for more extensive research than I realized I would need in order to tell Lt. Lacy's story. That, in turn, has caused the writing of my story to take much longer than I had guessed. All I can ask for is patience from those who are waiting to read Lt. Lacy's tale.

Four Ministers and a Confederate Colonel

{research}In a letter he wrote a month after joining Tennessee's Confederate cavalry, Second Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Lacy spoke of going to church and hearing "Dr. Pendergrass" preach. The chaplain of the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry was Charles Wylie Witt, 39, a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. But "Parson" Witt's nephew, Travis Witt Pendergrass, 35, accompanied the regiment for several months, attending to the needs of both body (surgery) and soul (exhortation). Like his uncle, Pendergrass was a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian church. His three younger brothers were all in the same company as Lt. Lacy.

A few months after Lt. Lacy heard Pendergrass preach, the Eighth Cavalry was sent to Florence, Alabama. There Pendergrass was surprised to run into a fellow Cumberland Presbyterian minister, Thomas Fletcher Bates. Then, to his further surprise, he encountered Rev. R. A. Young, a prominent preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, currently serving as president of the Wesleyan University in Florence. Pendergrass had met Young in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1853, shortly before Young was reassigned to a pastorate in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1846, Rev. Young had met the "plain, quiet" son of a friend, Anthony Dibrell. That son, George Gibbs Dibrell, was now a colonel commanding the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry. Of Col. Dibrell's religious convictions, Young said "When his chaplain preached to his command, standing between two tallow candles, one of his most devout listeners was the commander in chief." The chaplain he refers to is most likely Charles Witt.

Before Lacy's regiment returned to Tennessee, Charles Witt resigned as chaplain, complaining that the varicose veins in his legs made riding very uncomfortable. Pendergrass signed off on a medical discharge for his uncle. When Witt left Florence for Jackson County, Tennessee, he delivered to Lacy's family an accounting that Lt. Lacy had kept of all the operations of the Eighth Cavalry up to that point. The family owns that document today.

See (1) http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pendergrass/pics/travis/pics_travis.html (2) Young, R. A. Reminiscences. Nashville, Tennessee: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1900. https://readux.library.emory.edu/books/emory%3A7sv2p/pdf/

Killer robots? Not a joke, and I'm not laughing.

Breaking from my trend of reviewing a book I've just read, I have to get on my soapbox and ask, "Are these people crazy?" A "fully autonomous weapon" is one that can be used to kill a human being without human input.  The May 26, 2014 issue of TIME Magazine, page 9, informs us that over the past few years, "the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea have developed drones with technology that could be repurposed to create machines with the ability to open fire without human input."

Are you kidding me?  Has no one seen the Terminator movies?  Ever heard of Skynet?  This is insane.

The TIME article goes on to say that opposition groups have been pushing for "a ban on further developing or deploying the technology ..."  Proponents have pushed back, saying a ban would be premature, and in time the technology could be advanced enough to reduce collateral damage.

Collateral damage?  Is that the only thing we should worry about?  Of course not.  How about the fact that by distancing ourselves from actually pulling the trigger -- or pushing the button -- we make it even easier to kill without compunction.  "I didn't kill those people," an officer might say.  "The drone did it."  Or what if we make drones more and more intelligent, so they can autonomously do our dirty work, only to lose control over them?

Opponents of this technology are hoping the U.N. will issue a ban, but that could take years to materialize.  When a ban on blinding lasers was proposed to the U.N. in 1987, it took eight more years before the ban was issued and three more years before it went into effect.

I worry that the pace of technology development for military purposes may far exceed the pace at which governments can come together to agree on how to use or not use new technology.

April 1865 - Momentous Decisions

April 1865: The Month That Saved AmericaApril 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most people know that Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, and that Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox that same month. What most people don't know (but I learned from Winik's excellent book) is that the military and political leadership of both the Union and the Confederacy were involved in momentous decisions in April that helped bring the war to an end, and bring the country back together. These were decisions that, had they been made differently, could've resulted in catastrophe for our nation. Even if the Union had won the war, and the South readmitted, our identity as a unified country might have been in jeopardy. As Winik points out, using contemporary examples, some countries and regions never fully recover from civil wars. To increase the probability of long-lasting peace, Lincoln and Grant chose to disregard the railings of those who would bring shame and severe punishment on the heads of their conquered enemy. Though Jefferson Davis was all for a last-ditch attempt at preserving the Confederacy by sending the army into the hills for prolonged guerrilla warfare, Lee chose the high road, knowing the impact of a sustained war would only make matters far worse than they already were. Winik covers both the strengths and faults of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Sherman, Johnson, Davis, and Forrest, and shows that despite these faults, they made the decisions at the end of the war that enabled the U.S. to come back together.

The only thing I wish Winik had not omitted was a discussion of Lincoln's presidential pardons for high-ranking Confederate officers and officials, and how that played out with Andrew Johnson once he assumed the presidency. I believe Lincoln's policies in this regard played an important role in achieving peace, and Johnson's policies almost aborted this.

For a different but equally engaging account of events in April and May 1865, I highly recommend James L. Swanson's Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse.

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