A Five and Dime Pioneer

Today in History, February 22, 1878:

Frank W. Woolworth opens his first store in Utica, New York.  The venture would fail, but Frank did not give up.  He and his brother would open another store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Their marketing, customer service and business practices would be the model for the modern shopping experience.

As with many other pioneers in retail, Woolworth stores eventually went out of business, although they have reinvented themselves elsewhere.  Woolworth stores still exist in other countries around the world.

Where Else Would We Find Him?

Today in History, February 21, 1848:

“Where else would we find him?”

Former President, former Secretary of State, Former US Senator from Massachusetts, current Representative to the House John Quincy Adams, collapses after suffering a stroke while vehemently stating his opinion on the House floor.

Adams had, by most reports, been a mediocre President.

However he had authored the Monroe Doctrine telling European nations that America was in charge of police actions in the Western Hemisphere; he had served as the Ambassador to the Court of St. James (England); had negotiated the ceding of Florida to the US from Spain; had acted as the attorney for the slaves in the Amistad Trial; stated his vehement abolitionist views, and served 17 years in the House after his Presidency…because that’s what a servant to the people was supposed to do.

His contemporaries were not surprised that he would die while serving the people. He was carried to the office of the Speaker of the House, where he would die two days later. What an example!

“Butch” O’Hare Saved His Ship and Her Crew…Did “Easy Eddie” Help?

Today in History, February 20, 1942:

Lt. Edward “Butch” O’Hare saves his ship. The USS Lexington was initiating a raid on Rabaul, a Japanese stronghold. However the Task Force was spotted, and many Japanese aircraft were sent to destroy the valuable aircraft carrier.

Lt. O’Hare was part of the “CAP”, or Combat Air Patrol for the Lexington (CV-2).

O’Hare singe-handedly shot down five of the attacking “Betty” bombers, effectively saving his ship, one of the few aircraft carriers the United States had available at the time.

This also made him the US Navy’s first ace of WWII.

About a year later, O’Hare, ever the hero, would be lost in unknown circumstances in one of the first night time fighter operations.

O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named for Butch.

What many people don’t know is that this American hero, who gave the “last full measure of devotion” for his country, was the son of a gangster. His father had been Al Capone’s lawyer.

The senior O’Hare (Easy Eddie), according to the story, had exchanged his testimony against Capone for a chance for his son to enter the Naval Academy. He paid with his life, gunned down by Capone’s thugs. As a result, thousands of American sailors aboard the Lexington were saved due to Butch’s heroism.

gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.” – Frederick Douglass

Today in History, February 20, 1895:

Frederick Douglass dies of either a heart attack or stroke in Washington DC after having appeared at an event of the National Council of Women where he received a standing ovation.

Thousands paid their respects at his funeral before he was returned to New York City to be interred at Mount Hope Cemetery in his family plot.

Douglass had been born circa 1818 (he never knew his actual birth date) into slavery in Maryland.

In 1838, on his third attempt, he escaped slavery. In the coming years Frederick Douglass became a well respected orator and statesman for the growing abolitionist and equal rights movements, impressing his listeners with his intellect and powerful messages.

“I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe.

In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.” – Frederick Douglass

The First Use of the “Temporary Insanity” Defense

Today in History, February 19, 1859:

New York Congressman Daniel E. Sickles is acquitted of murder using a temporary insanity defense, the first time this defense was used in US courts.

Sickles was quite a character…he had been censored by Congress more than once, most prominently for having brought a known prostitute into the House chamber, and then taking her to England and introducing her to Queen Victoria while his wife was at home pregnant.

Despite this, he was enraged when his wife confessed to him that she had been carrying on an affair with the District Attorney for the District of Columbia, Phillip Barton Key II (Francis Scott Key’s son…you know..the Star Spangled Banner author).

Sickles confronted Key in Lafayette Square, across the street from the Executive Mansion (White House) and shot him dead. Sickles then went to the Attorney General’s home, turned himself in and confessed.

Future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton defended Sickles at his trial, painting the wife as a cheating harlot, and securing Sickles’ acquittal. Sickles went back to his wife, which enraged his supporters much more than the murder.

When the Civil War began, Sickles used his influence to recruit NY volunteers and gain a political generalship, something that was possible in those days. With no military experience he actually made a good accounting of himself in several battles.

Ironically, his most controversial act was yet to come.

At the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, his III Corps was assigned a portion of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. On his own he decided to move his unit forward to higher ground, which thinned his lines and left a gap in the Union lines, and blatantly ignored the orders of the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Meade.

Confederate General James Longstreet’s Corps attacked and decimated Sickles’ command, costing Sickles his leg.

The controversy amongst historians is whether Sickles sacrifice of his Corps helped or hurt the Union’s chances of victory. In the end the Union could count Gettysburg as a victory, but in my humble opinion, the ambitious Sickles had little to do with it. He put it at risk.

In his later years Sickles served as Minister to Spain (continuing his womanizing there) and returned to the legislature.

He spent much effort in creating the Gettysburg National Military Park and in denigrating Gen. Meade, while promoting himself as the true reason for the victory at Gettysburg. After lobbying for 34 years, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the battle. Perhaps most telling is the fact that there are memorials to almost all of the generals involved in the battle at the Park, but not for Sickles.

Good or bad, between his killing of Francis Scott Key’s son, his pioneering use of the insanity defense, and his military career, Sickles’ story is fascinating.

Honorable Brothers and Enemies at the Same Time…

Today in History, February 18, 1862:

“I know you are separated from your people, and perhaps you need funds.  My purse is at your disposal.”  Union General Ulysses Grant to Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner as Buckner prepared to board a river boat taking him north to a Yankee prison.

On February 16, 1862 after a hard-fought battle and investment, Confederate Fort Donelson in Tennessee had surrendered to Union forces.

Tennessee was a strategic area in the Civil War, providing resources, people and a launching point to move against the rest of the South.

General U.S. Grant had been little known to the public before this battle, but the victory would change all that.  He coordinated with the US Navy to bombard Ft. Donelson and surround the 12,000 men there.  After assaults and counter assaults, the Confederate commanders came to the realization loss of the fort was a foregone conclusion, a tragedy for the South.

Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner was actually third in command.  His superiors resigned their positions so they could sneak out and escape.  Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest took some of his Cavalry and fled also, leaving Buckner to stay with his men and surrender.

Buckner sent a note through the lines asking Grant for terms.  And here is where Grant became famous.  He wrote out his response for delivery to Buckner,

No terms except unconditional and imme­diate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

In a time when furloughs and prisoner exchanges were common in battle, Buckner found the response to be “ungenerous and unchivalrous.”  Yet he had no choice, his only option was surrender.  Having had little but bad news for some time, the Northern papers seized upon the victory.

They used Grant’s initials to rename him “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”  Turns out it wasn’t the first time others had changed his name for him, but that’s another story.

The public was finding out something those serving with Grant had learned…he was unpretentious, unceremonious and tenacious.  He got results.  President Lincoln would eventually say of him, “I can’t spare this man; he fights” in defense of Grant’s reported drinking problem.

If you want History to be more than dates on a page, watch out for the back stories…the facts that bring out the humanity in what you’re reading.

The story reads good already.  But lets dig further.

When Grant was younger, he wanted an education.  His father worked hard and secured him an appointment to West Point.  Initially, Grant didn’t want to go.  But once in, he liked it.  His uncanny horsemanship impressed fellow cadets and instructors.  And he made friends among the other cadets, including Simon Bolivar Buckner, who was attending at the same time.

Grant and Buckner, among many other officers in the US Army, served together and performed heroics in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

After that conflict Grant found himself assigned to the frontier in California, where he missed his family grievously and took to drink.  In July of 1854 he suddenly resigned his commission from the Army and sought transport home.

Grant found himself in New York without even enough money to get a meal or pay for a room.  And then he happened upon an old classmate and friend, Simon Bolivar Buckner.

The two enjoyed a visit, talked old times and Buckner, who was doing much better financially, paid for his friend’s room and board.

In the intervening years until 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War, Grant was somewhat of a hard luck case.  He tried farming, he tried real estate, nothing worked.  When the war began he was working for his brothers and his father in a store as a clerk.

When Southern states began seceding many in the US Army that were from those states, resigned their commissions and joined the Confederate Army, including Buckner.  Thus the old friends found themselves on opposite sides.

Thus, after the Battle at Fort Dolelson, Grant sought out Buckner before Buckner boarded the boat taking him off to prison in an attempt to return an old favor. Buckner, ever the gentleman, politely refused the return of the kindness.

Grant, of course, would become commander of all Union Armies and eventually President.

Buckner would eventually be exchanged for a Union general officer and continue to serve in the Confederate Army.

He surrendered in New Orleans in 1865 for a second time.  He would become Governor of Kentucky among other political successes.

In 1904 he visited the White House and asked President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint his son to West Point.  TR quickly agreed.

His son, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr would be killed at Okinawa in WWII, the highest ranking officer killed by enemy fire in WWII.

Commander of the Militia

Today in History, February 17: 1621 –

Mayflower passenger and military officer Myles (Miles) Standish is elected by the Plymouth Colony as commander of it’s militia.

He would take on various governmental roles, and represent the colony in England, but the militia would repeatedly re-elect him as it’s commander until is death at 72 in 1656. In his later years he served more of an advisory role, having retired to his farm.