Frederick Douglass’ Earthly Journey Ends

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 USS Lexington is Saved

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.


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.

Studebaker…An American Success Story

Today in History, February 16, 1852:

The five brothers, Henry, Clement, John Mohler, Peter Everst and Jacob Franklin, had been taught the skill of wagon making by their parents, who had been taught by their parents, who had arrived in America in 1736.

They began their combined business on this date in 1852, and soon they were providing fully half of the wagons used for the migration west, and a quarter of those in the nation.

They made bank during the Civil War, selling wagons to the Union Army.

Their business continued to thrive…those beautiful red 1900 model wagons pulled by the Budweiser Clydesdales…are Studebakers.

When motorized vehicles came to be, the Studebaker Company began making first electric and then gasoline cars. The company would last until 1957, having a reputation for quality and class in their cars.

Belva Lockwood v US Supreme Court

Today in History, February 15, 1879:

President Rutherford B. Hayes signs legislation allowing women attorneys that are qualified to argue cases before the Supreme Court and other Federal Courts.

3 years earlier attorney Belva Lockwood had sought permission to argue cases before the Supreme Court, and the Justices voted to refuse her permission to do so.

She lobbied the Congress, who passed legislation reversing the Court’s decision. Lockwood would then become the first woman to argue a case before the court. It would be nearly a half century before women would be given the vote nationally in America.

Decisions like this and the Dredd Scott decision are glaring examples of how we cannot assume that the courts are infallible.

A Horrible, Life Altering Valentine

Today in History, February 14: 1884:

25 year old Theodore Roosevelt was at work in the New York Assembly in Albany fighting for a reform bill when he received an urgent telegram to return to his home in New York.

When he reached his front door his brother Elliott greeted him, “There is a curse on this house”.

Their mother Mittie was suffering from Typhoid fever, and Teddy’s wife Alice, who had given birth to her namesake just two days earlier, was suffering from Bright’s Disease. TR went up and down the stairs to be with both of them.

Mittie died first, followed within hours by Alice. Roosevelt was devastated.

His diary entry for that date was simply a large X and the note, “The light has gone out of my life”.

He could never speak of his first wife again, not even mentioning her in his autobiography. When he returned to the legislature, even his detractors treated him with deference for a time because of the tragedy.

He soon left the Assembly, left the infant Alice with his sister Bamie and struck out west to the Dakotas to escape. He would become a rancher and a sheriff, and make many friends who would later be “Rough Riders” with him. In ’86 he returned east, re-entered politics and re-married. His daughter Alice became famous for outlandish behavior, dealing with her own demons due to the temporary abandonment and a new family.

Adversity affects us all differently. One has to wonder if TR would have accomplished all that he did if this tragedy hadn’t driven him west and altered his life.

A Dark Side of Valentines Day…

Today in History, February 14, 278 AD:

Valentine is beaten to death, then be-headed in Rome.

Roman Emperor Claudius II (The Cruel) was overseeing several bloody wars at once. He was having trouble keeping soldiers in his armies, and believed that it was because the men were too loyal to wives and families. So, he outlawed marriage.

A priest, Valentine, continued marrying people in secret. When he was found out, Claudius ordered him executed. He was arrested and brought before the Prefect, who ordered him beaten to death and then be-headed.

The Catholic church later declared Valentine to be a Saint for his sacrifice.