Union Soldiers Burn the White House


Today in History, June 28:  1862 – Union soldiers inadvertently burn the White House.  No, not that White House.  In fact, the Executive Mansion which housed the President wasn’t known by that name until 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it.

Another difference between these “White Houses”, is that George Washington never resided in the Presidential Mansion along the Potomac.  His successor, John Adams was the first President to live there.  But he courted and married the widow Martha Custis at and near the White House on the Pamunkey River.

One of General Washington’s officers was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.  His son, Robert E. Lee, would marry Martha Custis-Washington’s granddaughter, Mary.  Together they would live in Arlington House, overlooking the Potomac…and the Executive Mansion.  When the Civil War began, Robert E. Lee chose to support “his country”, Virginia; which also meant the Confederacy.  As a result he and his family had to leave Arlington House and move to one of their more southern Virginia properties…the White House on the Pamunkey.

As the Union dead mounted, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the area around Arlington House to be used as a cemetery so that Lee could never again live there.  Today it is Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1862 during the Seven Day’s Battles, Union forces pushed the Confederates back past Lee’s family’s new home at White House Landing, using it as a major supply base.

Before she fled further south from yet another home, Mary Lee left a message on the door of the residence, “Northern soldiers, who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the house of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.”  Union soldiers agreed.  General George McClellan ordered a guard to posted around the house to prevent looting or vandalism.

McClellan took a lot of heat from the press and DC for the protection of General Washington’s one-time home.  It should be used as a hospital for Union soldiers!  Even though it had but six rooms.

As was frequent in the Civil War, the lines moved back north after moving south.  And on this date in 1862 Confederates took White House Landing back.  As the Union Army fled, McClellan ordered all supplies and outbuildings burned to prevent their use by the Confederates…with the exception of the White House, it was to be spared.

As often happens in war, orders from the top rarely get carried out to the letter.  The White House was burned to the ground.

The Mother Road


Today in History, June 27: 1985 – Route 66, The Mother Road, Main Street of America, Will Rogers Highway, is decommissioned in the National Highway System, bypassed by more modern “interstate highways.” In 1857, Navy Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, working for the US Army Topographical Engineers, charted a wagon road across the western US. In the 1920’s, amidst Congressional acts creating a national highway system, Tulsa businessman Cyrus Avery and businessmen in Springfield, Missouri began lobbying for a highway that would roughly follow Beale’s route, and incidentally draw business away from Wichita to Tulsa, OKC and numerous other small cities between Chicago and L.A. In 1926 they got their way and Route 66 was born. For the next several decades small communities were connected by the highway, the trucking industry took off due to it’s influence, travelers stopped at new motels, drive-ins, etc…the entire culture of America was changed as Americans were able to see their country on vacations easily. In the 50’s, Congress approved President Eisenhower’s proposals for an interstate highway system, born from his youth as an Army officer when he traveled across the country on insufficient roads. By the 70’s, the interstates had rendered Route 66 obsolete, and by 1985 it was decommissioned. 85% of the route still exists, and has become a tourist hotspot for those that miss the romanticism it engendered. Traveling it’s route is definitely on my bucket list!

Thank you, Henry James Hungerford…


Today in History, June 27: 1829 – Strange that we should be thankful that Henry James Hungerford died childless in 1835. On this date in 1829 a British scientist who had never set foot on American soil died in Genoa, Italy. James Smithson was a wealthy man. He wrote in his will, “In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”.

So thanks to James Smithson’s eccentricity, which he never explained, and the untimely death of his nephew, the US came into possession of over $500,000.00 in funds dedicated to research and learning. President Andrew Jackson sent a diplomat to receive the funds, President James K. Polk signed the bill creating the Smithsonian Institute once Congress agreed how to use the money. President Theodore Roosevelt saw to the movement of Smithson’s body from Italy to “The Castle” of the Institute in 1904. Smithson was escorted from Genoa to Washington by none other than Institute regent Alexander Graham Bell and his wife. Today the Smithsonian has 19 museums and the national zoo, including the National Aeronautics and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world. Thank you, Mr. Smithson.

Brothers…Before and After

Today in History, June 25: 1913 – “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.” –President Woodrow Wilson. The Great Civil War Reunion at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Nearly half a century after the end of the Civil War, aged men and women who had been sworn enemies, who had lost loved ones on both sides of the great conflict, began to gather at Gettysburg for a reunion to honor those they had lost…and each other. Men missing limbs commiserated with each other, slapped backs, shared stories, joined together as brothers…Union, Confederate, White, Black, recognized that the War was history and they were comrades again. If men and women that were so committed to killing each other could do this….can’t we?

A Bad Idea

Today in History, June 24: 1812 – A bad idea. Napoleon Bonaparte invades Russia with his Grande Armee, 500,000 troops from France and other nations under French control, the largest army ever assembled to that time. The Russians would avoid major conflict, continuously retreating while burning all resources in Napoleon’s path. This is important because in those days armies had to live off the land. Napoleon managed to take Moscow…but the Russians burned their own capitol to deny the French food, housing and resources. Napoleon had no choice but to retreat……in the midst of the Russian winter. But now the Russians changed tactics…now they raided the retreating French army continuously…by the time Napoleon finally reached Russia’s borders (abandoning his army to return to Paris), over 400,000 of his army had starved to death or been killed.

Ernie Shore Runs the Table

Today in History, June 23: 1917 – “A perfect game”, or technically a no-hitter for Ernie Shore of the Boston Red Sox. What an exciting game it must have been!

The Red Sox faced off against the Washington Senators that day at Fenway Park. Shore wasn’t supposed to pitch, Babe Ruth was pitching. One Senator managed a run to base before Ruth’s famous temper got him into a shouting match with Umpire Brick Owens. Both refused to back down, and Owens threw Ruth out of the game. Ruth punched the umpire before being removed from the field. 

An exciting game already, right?  Now Ernie Shore was brought in to pitch. He hadn’t had much of a warm-up, having expected to be a spectator. 

With a new pitcher in the game, the base runner attempted to steal…but Ernie quickly “threw” him out. 

Shore then proceeded to deny the remaining 26 Senators a single run to base. The Red Sox were victorious, 4-0.  It was considered a “perfect game” for years, eventually officially changed to a no-hitter since Shore didn’t pitch to that first batter. 

Ernie Shore would miss the 1918 season because he signed up to go “Over There” during WWI. 

After finishing his Baseball career with the Yankees, Shore would serve for several years as the Sheriff of Forsyth County, North Carolina. 

Ignore History at Your Peril: Operation Barbarossa

1941 – Operation Barbarossa. The largest invasion in history, ordered by Adolph Hitler, kicks off as 3 million German soldiers, supported by 19 Panzer (tank) divisions, 2,500 aircraft and 7,000 artillery pieces use their now standard Blitzkrieg tactics against Russia. Initially the offensive was incredibly successful, pushing 300 miles into enormous Russia within weeks. Hitler’s fellow meglomaniac Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, and had recently asked to join Hitler in his designs on world domination, so he thought his country was safe; and Russia’s air forces were obsolete. However, Hitler was ignoring history (never, ever, EVER, do that!!). Napoleon (almost 129 years to the day) had invaded Russia and been turned back by the Russian winter, in WWI Hitler’s predecessors had been ruined by opening a second front against Russia. Hitler’s fate would be the same. Russia benefited from an almost limitless source of manpower, and the industrial might of America, which sent arms and modern aircraft. Added to the Russian winter which Hitler did not prepare for, and defeat was unavoidable for Germany. 

Being sent to the “Eastern Front” was the kiss of death for German troops who had gained disfavor with their superiors.