The French Retreat from Moscow

Today in History, October 19, 1812:

Napolean Bonaparte’s French army of 500,000 men had invaded Russia and made their way to Moscow, pushing back a weaker Russian army.

However when they got to Moscow, they found it all but deserted, devoid of food and supplies they desperately needed, and partially afire.

After occupying it for a month, Bonaparte realized the expected surrender was not to be and had to retreat himself as his Grande Armee was starving.

On this date in 1812 the retreat began. The Russian army attacked the retreating French, who were also starving and freezing to death in the Russian winter. By the time they made it back to French soil, approximately 400,000 had perished.

Today in History, October 11, 1809:

We all know of the adventures of Lewis and Clark.

But on this day in 1809, Meriwether Lewis died. The big question is whether it was murder or suicide.

He was, at the time, the Governor of Upper Louisiana, and traveling the Natchez Trace to bring information to Washington, DC about his efforts as Governor and as an explorer.

He was staying at Grinder’s Stand, an inn along the Trace, when the owners and other travelers heard “several” gunshots ring out.

Depending on who you talked to, he suffered through the night, either by gunshots by his own hand or by murderers who stole the money he had with him.

Clark and President Jefferson, who knew him best, were easily convinced that he killed himself.

Others believed he was murdered by one of the many pirates along the trace. I have to wonder about the “several shots” at a time of flintlock pistols. How determined would a suicidal person have to be to shoot himself several times to complete a suicide then, or even now?

The cash he was carrying with him was never found. Those reporting the demise of one of our most significant explorers suddenly came into money.

Presidential Leadership Averts Disaster – 1902 Coal Strike

Today in History, October, 1902:

President Theodore Roosevelt becomes the first president to intervene in a labor dispute.

Anthracite coal miners, organized by the United Mine Workers, were asking for fewer work hours and more pay. The mining companies refused and the miners went on a strike that had lasted for months at this point.

American industry and transportation relied almost exclusively on coal at this time in our nation’s development, as did very many homes for heat.

The dispute had already had a significant effect on the country, and winter was coming on. The potential for countless citizens freezing to death was quite real.

President Roosevelt felt he had to act to prevent a national catastrophe. He invited both parties to the White House to mediate an agreement on behalf of the American people.

The miners agreed to negotiate, the Coal companies were not so inclined.

Roosevelt, never shy to take the bull by the horns, promised to have the military take over the industry if a settlement was not reached.

By October 23rd the miners were back to work, with less hours and more pay. The coal companies did not, however, recognize the UMWA, and the story was far from over.

But a disaster had been avoided and Roosevelt’s re-election was assured.

Meat Industry Safety Demanded

Today in History, June 30, 1906:

The Federal Meat Inspection Act is passed by Congress.

After Upton Sinclair had published “The Jungle” about Chicago’s corrupt meat packing industry, President Theodore Roosevelt sent representatives to investigate the industry.

Inspite of the Chicago industry’s efforts to hinder the investigation, the investigators uncovered horrific practices.

TR respected his investigator’s findings, and Congress acted to protect the public. The USDA was born, and healthy meat processing practices were enforced.

It may seem a mundane issue, but people were dying from disease due to the bad meat they were sold. We are truly fortunate to live in our time.

The Mother Road Retires

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!

Hellcats!

Today in History, June 26, 1942:

A new Navy fighter, the F6F Hellcat, flies for the first time.

When WWII started, the F4F Wildcat was the primary Navy fighter. Both built by Grumman, the cats served their pilots well.

The Wildcat was too slow and ungainly to compete with the Japanese Zero well, but it held it’s own. It was so well built that it was hard to knock out of the Pacific skies, and it’s weight made it better in a dive.

Grumman took it’s advantages and improved on it with the Hellcat, which was just as tough but faster than the Zero, and armed with 6 .50 cal. machine guns.

The Hellcat and the F4U Corsair would sweep the Pacific of Japanese air power. But the Hellcat would hold the title…having downed 5,271 enemy aircraft, she holds the title for destroying more enemy aircraft than any other fighter type.

A House Divided

Today in History, June 16, 1858:

Illinois “circuit” lawyer Abraham Lincoln, running to be the Senator from that state, gives a speech at the capitol of Springfield and gains the Republican nomination.

One of his most famous speeches, the “House Divided” speech did not gain him the job of US Senator from Illinois, that would go to his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas.

However, published nationally, it did launch him onto the national stage, along with his series of debates against Douglas, which would gain him the Presidency two years later.

The speech was prophetic, as Lincoln told his listeners that after recent events, the nation could no longer expect to be half free and half slave, but must be all one or the other.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

The 1862 Homestead Act

Today in History, May 20, 1862:

President Lincoln signs the Homestead Act, which would give 160 acres of western lands to anyone who would farm it successfully for 5 years and build a residence upon it (often a sod building).

The Act would encourage vastly expanded settlement of the west; bad news for Native Americans, good news for those newer Americans wanting to improve their lot in life.

Congress had attempted to pass similar acts in 1852, 1854, and 1859, but each time the attempts were shot down by Southern Democrats who were afraid that if the west were populated it would result in more “free” states, which would result in more votes against slavery.

Once the Republican Lincoln was elected, and the Civil War began, the Southern Democrats were no longer part of the equation.

The Republicans soon passed the Homestead Act and the settlement of the west began in earnest. By the end of the war 15,000 settlers (some of which were merely pawns for land speculators) had accepted their lands. Eventually 80 Million acres would be settled.

Brown v Board of Education

Today in History, May 17, 1954:

In 1898 the Supreme Court had ruled in Plessy v Ferguson that keeping blacks people and white people separate on railroad cars was constitutional, as “separate but equal” did not violate the 14th Amendment.

This was quickly perverted to all public facilities being segregated.

In the 1954 Decision of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas the Supreme Court Ruled that 3rd grader Linda Brown could attend a white school, and that segregation was illegal.

Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall led the team that won the case.

“Black Jack” Pershing

Today in History, March 16, 1916:

Misconceptions. US General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing leads a force south across the border with Mexico to assist in the chase of Mexican rebel Pancho Villa.

I knew this. I also knew that Pershing served as the commanding US General during WWI. What I didn’t know? He was born during the Civil War, was a leading cadet during his time at West Point…leading the contingent at the funeral of Ulysses S. Grant.

He fought Apaches and Sioux during his career.

He served in the 10th US Cavalry, the famous “Buffalo Soldiers”, or the original African-American soldiers (we had a Buffalo Soldier that came to the City Hall cafeteria routinely before his passing…what an honor).

The surprise for me was that I thought “Black Jack” was because he was seen as a pirate or a gambler…instead the cadets he supervised while a strict instructor at West Point hated him, and because he served in an African-American command, they called him “N****R Jack”….later amended to “Black Jack”…and it stuck.

He served in that same regiment as they charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, then served in the Philippines. Roosevelt took a liking to him, appreciating his abilities, and made him an envoy to Tokyo in 1905…so he served as an observer to the Russo-Japanese War, then received his generalship by appointment by TR.

In 1915 Pershing was commanding the Presidio in San Francisco when his regiment was reassigned to Ft. Bliss, Texas because of the problems with Mexico.

After a year there, he sent for his family to join him…only to find out that his wife and three daughters had died in a house fire at the Presidio…leaving only his young son to join him.

After his exploits in Mexico, along with young George S. Patton, he would become the commanding General of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during WWI, becoming the mentor to the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, George C. Marshall, Omar Bradley and many others. What a life!