Talmadge L. Walker, Jr.
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The Timely Disappearance of Van Dorn Sickles Smith

Names have power. Mr. Thomas Baines Smith certainly believed so, and when his wife gave birth to their first son Mr. Smith insisted on naming the child after a hero of our nation's past. He decided that the name of a Civil War general would really hit the mark, and since the young couple had relatives on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line Mr. Smith picked generals from both sides of the conflict.

This might have been a good strategy, had Thomas Baines Smith done some research on the subject. Mr. Smith wanted to avoid the usual cast of heroes - Lee, Grant, Jackson, Sherman and so forth - but there were plenty of other names to choose from. Any father would have been proud to have a son named Cleburne MacPherson Smith, and if, as Mr. Smith believed, the youngster partook of the characteristics of his namesakes well then so much the better.

Unfortunately, and perhaps in part because of the exhausting nature of the delivery of the newborn, Mr. Smith named the baby after the first two generals he ran across on his computer screen: Dan Sickles and Earl Van Dorn. So the new son Van Dorn Sickles Smith was named after a Union general who had killed his wife's lover and a Confederate general who had been killed by his lover's husband. This did not seem to forebode the manly qualities that Mr. Smith probably had in mind, though I suppose it did indicate manly qualities of another sort. But Mr. Smith did not do any further research on the matter and assumed everything was right with the world.

The first signs of trouble appeared in early childhood, though they seemed benevolent at the time. Young Van Dorn Sickles Smith was adored by all his aunts and female cousins. In elementary school all the girls blushed and smiled when he walked by, and if any of the boys were jealous they had to hide it, because Van Dorn Sickles Smith was also the pet of every female teacher in the school.

In middle school this was less of a protection. Male teachers weren't sympathetic at all, would-be rivals were more devious, and the natural developments of age and adolescence made for an increasing frequency of hostility and conflict, with the other boys at least.

By the time Van Dorn reached high school every girl in town adored him and every boy hated him. And though every mother welcomed the idea of him as a son-in-law, every father contemplated buying a shotgun if he didn't already have one handy.

At that point Thomas Baines Smith attempted a solution to the matter. He enrolled young Van Dorn into a private military academy three counties away. The older Mr. Smith did this for three reasons: (1) There would be fewer women for the younger Mr. Smith to get in trouble with; (2) There would be tighter discipline to further prevent trouble; and (3) The elder Mr. Smith still harbored hopes that the supposed heroic attributes of his son's namesakes would rub off on young Van Dorn. Unfortunately, on day five of Van Dorn's stay at the academy he met the commandant's daughter.

The young woman was named Phoebe, and she was involved in a very proper long-term relationship with one of the upper-class cadets. The relationship was so proper in fact that one would have to call it a betrothal rather than an engagement, and everyone who knew them also knew that the young couple would be wed once he had graduated and accepted a commission. But then came Van Dorn Sickles Smith.

Once Van Dorn saw Phoebe and found out who she was, he immediately began to "court" her. Phoebe was not interested, which was a totally new experience for young Van Dorn who was used to women falling all over him. Phoebe's fiance at first ignored the situation, considering Van Dorn to be an ill-bred and ill-mannered plebe who would give up either the academy or Phoebe before the week was out.

But Van Dorn persisted in his efforts, calling her "special" and all sorts of other sweet names, even slandering the fiance a bit in vain attempts to get Phoebe to acknowledge his own worthiness as a suitor. Phoebe showed no outward sign of paying attention, though a seed of doubt may have been planted inside her. Finally, and perhaps too late, the fiance decided to take action.

Young Van Dorn was sneaking his way back to the dorm a couple of hours after curfew when he was brought up short by three menacing-looking figures in the darkness. Two others stepped out of the shadows behind him to block off any retreat.

"Hello, Van Dorn," a husky voice said in greeting.

"Uh, hello," Van Dorn replied anxiously. His nervousness, or fear if you like, prevented him from identifying the voice.

"Where ya been?"

"Oh, I was just visiting a friend in town..."

"A female friend?"

"I don't know..." Van Dorn answered nervously. Several of the figures snickered at the response. "I mean yes, yes. What about it?"

"The 'special' female friend?"

"Hmm? Which one?" Van Dorn asked back in a moment of confusion. It wasn't exactly the best answer, and the fiance clenched his fists, angry on his own account as well as the implied but unintended disrespect toward Phoebe.

"You know which one! Phoebe!"

"Oh! Phoebe!" Van Dorn replied back in obviously feigned ignorance. "I... I didn't know she was seeing you..."

"The Hell you didn't!"

"No, really! She sees lots of guys in town. I didn't know you thought she was taken..."

The fiance took a step forward. "You lie!"

"But... She never acted like she was seeing anyone..."

"You lie again! I've had enough off this." The fiance stepped closer, but one of his companions stopped him and whispered in his ear. Nodding, the fiance spoke again to Van Dorn: "You've got 48 hours."

"48 hours to what?"

"Be off this campus in 48 hours or women won't think your face is so pretty anymore."

"But Dad put me here! He's not going to let me transfer..."

"Not my problem. Get expelled! I don't care! Just be off this campus in 48 hours."

Van Dorn Sickles Smith spent most of the next day trying to convince his father to let him transfer out, but the older Mr. Smith would not budge. As far as he was concerned, the academy was Van Dorn's last hope for legitimate manhood. So that night Van Dorn took up the fiance's suggestion.

Any other cadet might have gotten drunk first, but Van Dorn was afraid he might pass out before the deed was done. So around midnight he tore off his clothes, handcuffed himself to the academy flagpole, and only then drank two entire bottles of Richard's Wild Irish Rose.

By the time the sun had peeked its way over the horizon, before reveille had even sounded (It would be postponed that morning so as not to draw attention to the disgraceful incident.), every cadet on the campus knew what had happened.

Yelling at Van Dorn, cuffed and sitting in his own piss and vomit, was deemed pointless, so the administrators got the young man off campus in the most expeditious way possible. They took bolt-cutters to the handcuffs, leaving one cuff on his wrist ("Serve him right if it never comes off," grumbled one of the custodians.), packed all his belongings that had not been issued by the academy, and dressed him up without even offering him a shower. Then several members of the academy staff drove young Van Dorn to the bus station, bought him a ticket home, and made sure he got on the bus.

No one wanted to sit next to Van Dorn on the bus, but otherwise he made it home alright. The older Mr. Smith gave a long exasperated sigh and enrolled his son in a GED course and later an online college degree program. Van Dorn continued to let women fall all over him, but not in such a concentrated environment.

Back at the academy life returned to normal. Reveille was now played again at its established time, and you only noticed the solitary cuff on the flagpole if you looked very closely. The only long-term casualties of the event were Phoebe and her fiance. The tiny seeds of doubt planted by Van Dorn sprouted, grew and ended their engagement.

A few years later Van Dorn entered a bar in Juarez with two intoxicated women hanging from his shoulders. The trio staggered over to the bar and asked for shots of tequila and bottles of beer. Van Dorn was startled for a moment by the female bartender, who looked oddly familiar. But how? The woman had piercings and studs in her ears, nose, lips, eyebrow and gosh knows where else, a skull tattoo on her left arm and a spiked dog collar on her right, and a long, thin straight scar running diagonally across her right cheek.

"Not my type at all," thought Van Dorn, and he turned his attention back to his drunken companions.

They giggled and flirted back and forth for several minutes, until a frosty voice from behind the bar said: "You!"

Van Dorn and his puzzled, snookered companions looked over at the bartender. "Yes?" Van Dorn asked.

"Van Dorn Sickles Smith!" the woman blurted out with a gleeful smile on her face. It was not a friendly sort of glee though, that one might experience upon meeting an old friend. It was more the sort of glee a cat might feel upon cornering a mouse.

"Do I know you?" Van Dorn asked uneasily, dropping his arms from the waists of his temporary friends.

"Yes you do," the bartender answered, drawing a little close. "Remember the academy?"

"Oh my gosh!" Van Dorn answered in open-mouthed astonishment. "Phoebe?"

"That's right," she answered, approaching Van Dorn like a boa constrictor might approach its prey.

"Phoebe! How are you? What's that scar on your cheek?"

"That's a dueling scar," she answered icily, grabbing a nearby liquor bottle by the neck. "I won."

"Gosh, Phoebe..." Not knowing what else to say, he simply added: "Can we be friends again?"

"Friends again?! You ruined my life you son of a bitch!" Phoebe brought the liquor bottle down hard against the edge of the bar, shattering the base of the bottle. Holding the jagged neck of the bottle like a dagger, she hopped over the bar and faced off against Van Dorn.

"But Phoebe, I've changed," he whined.

"I'm gonna change you some more, you bastard!" She leapt forward but he jumped out of the way, then ran out of the bar, Phoebe screaming at his hills.

Van Dorn Sickles Smith was never seen again, at least under that name. His father though continued to receive letters asking for financial assistance for many years afterward.

Phoebe felt much more satisfied with her life, and returned to her parents back at the military academy. There she had the tattoo and studs removed, but she wore the scar proudly, and it served her well when she became lead instructor for close combat training at the school. Her parents were proud.

Your response? Click Comments to leave a Facebook comment. BE CIVIL! Argue the point, not the person.

Civil War Geek Trivia Contest (posted 2/3/13)

Feel like you know more than you're given credit for? Well now's the time to strut your stuff in my first annual Civil War & Reconstruction Geek Trivia Contest!

Rule # 1: No Googling!

Rule # 2: No posting of spoilers on the facebook discussion thread, until after a winner has been announced.

Rule # 3: Send answers to me via the email link at the top of the page.

Rule # 4: The winner shall be the 1st person to correctly answer all 12 questions by midnight Sunday, February 10. If no one has answered all questions by then, the winner will be the contestant with the highest number of correct answers.

The prize will be a free copy of my novel Binding Wounds: An Alternate Reconstruction. (Yes, I am that cheap.) Your choice of Kindle or paperback version.

The Quiz:

1: In the 1840s, what key issue led to the separation of northern and southern Baptists? (Some specificity required for this one. One word answers are not acceptable.)

2: Who was the dressmaker for Senator Jefferson Davis' wife Varina, prior to the Civil War?

3: During the Presidential balloting at the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, who voted for Jefferson Davis on more than 50 of the ballots?

4: What key issue led to the breakup of the Democratic Party at the Charleston Convention? (Once again, some specificity is required. One-word answers not accepted for this question.)

5: The first six soldiers to be given the Medal of Honor received it for doing what?

6: Name three Confederate generals who did not attend West Point.

7: The Lincoln Administration was the first in American history to receive diplomats from what nation in the Western Hemisphere?

8: Robert Smalls received a $1500 reward from the United States Government for doing what?

9: Name three Confederate Generals who were definitely or likely shot by friendly fire (not necessarily killed), and the respective battlefields where they were shot.

10: Which one of the eleven seceding states did not have to go through Congressional Reconstruction?

11: In 1876, The James-Younger Gang tried to rob the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Aside from the money, what is one purported reason they chose that target?

12: Name three Confederate military commanders who later served in unelected paid positions for the United States Government.

Remember: No Googling, and no spoilers on the facebook thread!

Your response? Click Comments to leave a Facebook comment. BE CIVIL! Argue the point, not the person.

A Tale of Three Movies - Part 3 - "Les Miserables" (posted 1/15/13)

Victor Hugo was the most successful novelist of Europe's Romantic movement. His novel Les Miserables, published in 1862, was an immediate hit in France, where at least one revolution (1848) had occurred within the living memory of all French adults, and some had lived through three others (1789, 1830 and 1832). The novel was a success overseas as well. In Cuba and Tampa cigar workers would pool their funds and pay a coworker to read passages from the novel aloud as the others worked. In the United States, sardonic soldiers in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia referred to themselves as "Lee's Miserables."

I read the novel back in the 90s, but I almost didn't go see the film version that opened just last month. I never saw the musical stage production upon which this film is based, and I am not a musical connoisseur anyway, so I was afraid I might not be able to judge the film fairly. I was also afraid there would be too many deviations from the novel to make room for the music, or to satisfy the vanities of the director (See last week's posting about "The Hobbit."). The trailers drew me in though, so my wife and I saw the film in early January.

Once the film started I was very pleasantly surprised. The last version of Les Miserables I saw on the screen, with Liam Neeson back in 1998, took some major liberties with the story, including having the priest strike Jean Valjean in the face at the end of the candlestick scene. So I was amazed at how well the new film presented the story in both theme and detail. I had worried that the music might interfere with the telling of the novel, but instead the lyrics worked to reinforce the storyline, and did so effectively. I suppose good musicals are meant to do this, but I haven't seen one that succeeded so well in telling a serious story since Cabaret.

The movie does have faults, but they're so hard to find and minor that you might as well pretend they're not there. Some of the backstory subplots are left out, particularly regarding the connections between Marius, his father, and the innkeeper. But overall the director managed to fit a thousand page novel into a 2 and a half hour movie with very little deviation.

And then there's Russell Crowe. I thought he was fine in the role of Javert, but some critics complain that his singing was of a much lower quality than that of other members of the caste. All I can say is, he sings better than I do (Which isn't saying much, I grant you…).

Viewing Les Miserables was a wonderful experience, especially after sitting through Peter Jackson's travesty. Anne Hathaway, Daniel Huttlestone and Samantha Barks were all wonderful, and the stage design was fantastic. Lincoln will have strong competition in several categories on Oscar night.

Your response? Click Comments to leave a Facebook comment. BE CIVIL! Argue the point, not the person.

A Tale of Three Movies - Part 2 - "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (posted 1/8/13)

I am a Tolkien geek. I have been one since 5th grade, when I obtained a copy of The Two Towers through Scholastic Books. After finishing that I immediately bought the other two books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and read through them as quickly as I could. In the 40+ years since then I have reread the trilogy many times, as well as The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, Children of Hurin, Farmer Giles of Ham, etc. I love Tolkien's work, and I was really looking forward to Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Hobbit, released last month shortly before Christmas.

I enjoyed watching Jackson's version of the LOTR trilogy. They weren't perfect, but a better version is not likely to appear anytime soon, if at all. Important chapters of the books were left out, and several characters were oversimplified, but that was probably necessary to keep the films to a reasonable length. Overall, the films seemed to preserve the "feel" of the books, at least as well as any film could.

So I was hopeful that Peter Jackson would do an equally good job with The Hobbit. The first online trailor looked promising. The dwarves acted dwarvish and Martin Freeman seemed the perfect hobbit, though perhaps skinnier than the books would have you believe. I was slightly disturbed to hear that Peter Jackson would be splitting the story into two films - The Hobbit is a short book - but I trusted him. If Peter Jackson needed extra time to tell the background of the story then that was okay.

Then as the summer flew by it was announced that there would be three films, not just two. A less gullible person than I would have screamed "overkill" immediately. Someone on Youtube posted a video satirizing the decision, in which the dwarves chanted about their pecuniary interest in having three films. Someone else on the internet pointed out that a quick reader would be able to finish the book in less time than it would take to watch all three films. A facebook post began making the rounds (possibly just after the film was released), announcing that Peter Jackson would soon be making a ten film adaptation of Goodnight Moon (no doubt with CGI special effects depicting epic combat between the kittens and the mouse). Still, I was able to set aside my unease, trusting that Peter Jackson knew what he was doing and would be faithful to the mood, storyline, and characters of the book.

My family and I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey just a couple of days after it opened. The opening section, dealing with "An Unexpected Party" at Bilbo's home, was wonderful. The mood was right, Martin Freeman acted like Bilbo ought to, Ian McKellan was perfect, and Richard Armitage really stood out as the arrogant Thorin Oakenshield. The dialogue and actions relied heavily on the book. Everything was pretty much as it should be.

Unfortunately, once the troupe left Hobbiton the movie began sliding slowly downhill, as Peter Jackson drifted further and further off script. The first big difference was the encounter with the trolls, a highlight of the early chapters of the novel. In the book, the trolls are bested by Gandalf, to hilarious effect. In the movie Freeman gets the honors, in boring fashion. The troll scene in the book was wonderfully written. Peter Jackson trashed it.

Then Radagast the Brown shows up, though he's only mentioned in passing in the book, and his physical appearance is not as described in Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion. No big deal. I've always had a fondness for Radagast, and it was nice to see a film adaptation. I just wish Jackson hadn't adjusted the plot to do it.

But what really got under my skin was Peter Jackson's resurrection of Azog the orc, and the ongoing hate match between Azog and Thorin. In the books, Azog was killed by Dain (not Thorin) in the battle before the Gates of Moria, years before the events in The Hobbit. He wasn't hidden away to nurse a grudge against Thorin. He was dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. D-E-A-D dead. I wouldn't mind Jackson changing plot lines in the movie so much, if the changes served a purpose, but as far as I can see the resurrection of Azog and the over-extended fight scenes are only there to lengthen the movie and make more money for Mr. Jackson.

I understand that directors like to exert their own creativity, and some changes always have to be made while making the transition from print to screen. But the changes Peter Jackson made to The Hobbit were egregious and unnecessary. Instead of giving the audience a feel for the book, a children's book, much of the film seems like one more CGI action film, entertaining for the teens, and the adults when bored, but devoid of any meaning or developed interest.

I'm not saying The Hobbit isn't worth seeing, if you're looking for cheap, thoughtless entertainment. I'm just saying that, except for a few brief scenes (the party sequence, "Riddles in the Dark," and perhaps the Great Goblin before the fighting starts), it is not The Hobbit. If Jackson had wanted to make a faithful rendition he should have scrapped half the footage and combined it all into one (perhaps two) films that we'd feel comfortable taking our kids to.

Your response? Click Comments to leave a Facebook comment. BE CIVIL! Argue the point, not the person.

A Tale of Three Moves - Part 1 - "Lincoln" (posted 1/1/13)

This past year I spent a lot of time thinking about politics, but when I wasn't thinking about politics I was anticipating the opening of two movies that I was really looking forward to seeing. "Lincoln," based upon sections of Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, was set to open in mid-November. "The Hobbit," based upon the delightful children's book by J.R.R. Tolkien, was to open in mid-December. And very late in the year I learned that "Les Miserables," adapted from the hit stage musical that in turn was based upon the classic novel by Victor Hugo, would be opening Christmas week. If my candidate lost in November I would have a fairly decent way to drown my sorrows, and if my candidate won I would have a non-alcoholic way to celebrate.

"Lincoln" came first. As many of you already know, I am a Civil War history buff, and I was really looking forward to seeing a Lincoln biography brought to the modern screen. The fact that it was based on the Goodwin book, which I read a couple of years back, raised my expectations even further. After all, this country's motion picture industry had to find a way to atone for the "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" travesty they unloaded upon us last summer. (Disclosure note: I despise modern undead fiction.)

I was uncertain how well Daniel Day Lewis would fill the shoes of President Lincoln, and I wondered whether sweet Sally Field could fit in the role of a First Lady rightly or wrongly considered neurotic and temperamental. But I felt that casting Tommy Lee Jones as the driving, iconoclastic Thaddeus Stevens was an inspired piece of work.

As a bit of an amateur historian, I was also wondering how well Stephen Spielberg and his collaborators could adhere to the factual truth while still putting together an entertaining film. Would Lincoln be lionized? Would he be vilified? What portions of the story would get left out in the interests of film length and plot cohesion? Would any sections of the film be fictionalized for entertainment purposes?

We finally got to see the film a week after it opened. The movie fully matched the hype. Daniel Day Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones both had very solid performances, and the decision to focus the film on the passage of the 13th Amendment lent it a narrative flow that would have been difficult to maintain with a focus on the whole war. Historian critics might argue that such a limited focus leaves too much out of the story, but remember that Homer's Iliad, only covers about a week of a ten year war.

I really liked the tangential way in which Spielberg handled Lincoln's assassination, and the rather touching way he dealt with Thaddeus Stevens' reputed relationship with his housemaid. I do wish there had been a scene of Lincoln visiting Richmond after the fall, and a larger role for Elizabeth Keckley (who lived about a mile from here for a while when she was still enslaved), but you can't have everything.

Film critics have been almost unanimous in their praise of the movie, but there has been criticism from some Civil War historians. The criticism ranged from the broad to the nit-picky and the mild to the severe. Some criticized the scene in which Lincoln slaps his older son as having no historic basis, though there was certainly a lot of tension in the Lincoln household. Garry Adelman loved the movie overall, but had problems with scene 2 as being historically impossible. (Evidently the soldiers depicted were serving in the western campaign, so they would have had no opportunity to speak with Lincoln in real life.) Others maintain that the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment wasn't nearly as close as the film portrayed it, and that the road to abolition wasn't just a northern white male affair.

There is some truth in all of this, and viewers of the film should not leave with the impression that it tells the whole story of the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction. The movement to abolish slavery began decades before the war, and Lincoln, though sympathetic to its ultimate goal, was never a leader of that movement. There is no mention of Frederick Douglass in the film that I can remember, and other than Stevens few leaders of the movement were mentioned at all. Nor is there any direct reference to the long struggle for civil rights after the war, though it is hinted at in scene 2.

No film can be both popular and encyclopedic though, and Spielberg's "Lincoln" was not meant to be a documentary. It's stated focus is President Lincoln, and it handles that focus very well. The movie may miss a couple of details, but it succeeds in showing us the man and the spirit of his times.

Your response? Click Comments to leave a Facebook comment. BE CIVIL! Argue the point, not the person.

The Electoral College (posted 12/24/12)

Although most people overlooked the fact, the President of the United States was reelected last week. The Presidential Electors met in their respective state capitals and cast votes for President and Vice President. These votes have been sealed, and will be announced next month by the presiding officer of the United States Senate (i.e., the incumbent Vice President). The person who receives the majority of electoral votes for President is elected to that office, and ditto for the Vice President. In the event no one receives a majority of electoral votes, the Senate chooses the new Vice President and the House chooses the new President, using some rather quaint and complicated rules wherein each state gets one vote.

Typically the candidate who receives the most electoral votes also receives the most popular votes, so there isn't too much controversy with the system. This has only failed to happen in one (arguably two) elections in the last 100 years. In 2000 Al Gore received the most popular votes (though not quite a majority), but lost the Electoral College vote by the slimmest of margins.

The 1998 election is more complicated. John Kennedy received the most electoral votes, but whether he's considered the popular vote winner depends upon how you count the votes in Alabama. At the time, the state of Alabama did not list the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates on the ballot. Instead, the ballots listed the names of the candidates for Presidential Elector for each party. In the 1960 election, the Democratic slate of electors was chosen by Alabama voters, but half of those electors refused to vote for John Kennedy, and instead voted for Harry Bird, the conservative independent from Virginia. If you assume that all of the Democratic voters in Alabama intended to vote for John Kennedy, then Kennedy edged out Nixon in the popular vote. But if you assume that a significant portion of Alabama voters knew the electors would be splitting their votes, then you could argue that Nixon won the national popular vote by a slim margin.

(This was not the first or the last time Alabama Democratic Electors betrayed the national Democratic Party. In 1948 the entire slate of Alabama Democratic Electors voted for Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond rather than Democrat Harry Truman. And in 1968 they supported home-grown independent over Democrat Hubert Humphrey.)

A much more complicated result occurred back in 1824. There were four major candidates for President that year, all with strong regional followings: John Quincy Adams from the northeast, William Crawford from the Deep South, and Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, both from what was then considered the West. Jackson received the plurality of popular and electoral votes, but no one had a majority of either, so the decision was sent to the House of Representatives. The Twelfth Amendment, which made small but important adjustments to the Electoral College, required that the House only consider the top three electoral vote getters, so Clay would not be considered in the House vote. Clay despised Andrew Jackson, so he encouraged his own supporters in the House to shift their support to Adams. John Quincy Adams won the Congressional vote, and hence the Presidency, and Jackson complained that the election was stolen.

Why was such an odd, convoluted system put in place? The usual reason cited is that it gave the smaller states some leverage against the larger states, by insuring that each state get two electoral votes in addition to a number of votes equal to the size of their House representation. But there were also other reasons, mostly linked to the peculiarities of that time and place.

No major nation had ever had popular elections of its chief elections of its chief executive before, and the idea of doing this in a brand new country must have been intimidating. The distances were too great and the people were too many. A Presidential election by popular vote may have been deemed too difficult. Splitting a national election into thirteen separate state elections may have seemed more workable. In Alexander hamilton's words, it provided "as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder." (Federalist Papers, No. 68)

Furthermore, not everyone agreed that electing leaders by popular vote was a good idea anyway. By setting up the Electoral College they put in one more level of authority between the common voter and the nation's executive power. In addition, the article setting up the Electoral College system allowed each state legislature to determine how electors were chosen. State leaders who opposed popular rule could keep the choice of electors in the hands of the legislature, while state leaders who leaned toward popular rule could allow popular election of the Presidential Electors. Nowadays it's hard to imagine choosing the electors in any other way but a popular vote, but back at the start of the Republic several states opted to have their legislatures choose the electors instead. Most of them switched to a popular vote system fairly quickly, but South Carolina didn't allow voters to choose the Presidential Electors till after the Civil War.

Another reason may stem from the fact that there were no political parties back in 1790. Without parties, how would candidates be nominated? How could such a widespread country, with many politicians popular within their own states but perhaps little known elsewhere, have an election if there was no way to limit the election to a reasonable number of candidates? I believe that the Electoral College was to be, in part, a nominating process. A bunch of wise old men, chosen by either the voters or the legislatures of their states, would get together and cast votes for whoever they thought would be a good President. Once the electoral votes were tallied in Washington, if there was a clear consensus for a candidate, as there was for George Washington in the first two elections, the person would become President without much fuss. If there was no such consensus, the process would still be simple as long as one candidate had a majority of the electoral votes. If no one received a majority, the decision would be made by Congress. It's hard to say how often the Founding Fathers thought that might happen, but I suspect they assumed it would happen quite often. There was no other winnowing process for the candidates, and few political leaders had more than a state or regional following.

Thus there were many reasons for establishing the Electoral College back in 1790. Over the decades and centuries though, many of those reasons have lost relevance. With advanced technology, counting scores of millions of votes is no longer exceptionally difficult. There is now a general consensus that political leaders should be chosen by the people they represent. And as a winnowing process the Electoral College has been replaced by our system of political parties.

The only significant reason that might conceivably be brought up in support of the Electoral College is that it continues to prevent the small states of this country from being overwhelmed by the big ones. As an example, the combined electoral votes of the fifteen states with the smallest populations, plus D.C., is greater than the electoral vote of California, even though their combined population is less than half of that state.

But is that appropriate? Is it right that a Montana citizen's vote should have more value than a New York or Texas citizen's vote? Is it right to support the equality of states, which are artificial entities, over the equality of flesh-and blood citizens?

If the system were changed, there probably would not be much difference, policy-wise. No President has been elected from any of the fifteen smallest states in the last 100 years, and that's not likely to change. Small states would still have an equal say in the Senate, giving them an advantage in regard to policy-making. Not much campaigning is done in the smallest states during Presidential elections, and that probably would not change. And only rarely does a candidate win the electoral vote without winning the popular vote as well.

The biggest change would probably take place in the large states. Currently serious campaigning only takes place in states that are within reach of both candidates. This past year, California, New York, Illinois and Michigan were all safely Democratic, and Texas and Georgia were both solidly Republican, so relatively little campaigning was done in those states. If we were to switch to a national popular vote, then the citizens of those states would have to suffer through campaign ads just as much as the rest of us. Sounds fair to me.

Your response? Click Comments to leave a Facebook comment. BE CIVIL! Argue the point, not the person.

The Second Amendment (posted 12/17/12)

Let's be blunt. The Second Amendment was added to the Constitution so that early settlers could cross the Alleghenies and kill Indians without government interference. This had been an issue prior to the Revolution, when the British government wanted peace along the frontier, and was willing to place restraints upon its colonists in order to keep the Shawnee, Cherokee, Creek and other Indian nations happy. Once Independence was achieved, people along the frontier (the Ohio River valley, western Carolinas, etc.) wanted to be sure they maintained the ability to muster up the local militia to protect against attacks from Indians living up the creek. Such militias are still in existence, in the form of the National Guard.

The Amendment places the right to bear arms within the specific context of "a well regulated militia." Not young men with emotional disorders, not good old boy survivalists, not crazed Ted Nugents, but a well regulated militia, subject to state authority (hence the word "regulated"), and at times to federal authority (Article II, Section 2, paragraph 1).

None of the other amendments in the Bill of Rights are given such an explicit context or explanation. There is no clause in the First Amendment specifying why we need free speech. Nor is there any clause in the Fifth Amendment explaining the necessity for the prohibition of self-incrimination. So one can reasonably assume that when the Founding Fathers threw in the clause "a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state," they intended to provide some guidance as to the scope and purpose of the amendment.

Furthermore, the Amendment refers to the right of the people to keep and bear arms, not the right of persons. In other words, the Amendment refers to a group right, not necessarily an individual right. Under other circumstances the difference between people and persons might be just a question of style, but I think that's doubtful given its placement immediately following the militia clause. The Amendment was designed for community defense (and regulation by the state), not individual rampage.

And what were the arms that those well regulated militias bore 220 years ago? Muskets. A well-trained militiaman might be able to load and fire his musket in half a minute. A mass murderer back then would have to have the cooperation of his victims to stand around and wait while he reloaded. There is no comparison whatsoever between the weapons used back then and the automatic and semiautomatic weapons available now.

Given all this, why can't we put in place reasonable controls of what types of guns and hardware can be sold? No one's calling for an end to hunting. No one's trying to get rid of shotguns and hunting rifles. But can't we at least place tighter restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and ban high-capacity magazines?

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John Hiram Walker & John Bell Hood (posted 12/10/12)

Earlier I talked about my ancestor, Civil War veteran William Wiley Prickett. Another Great-Great-Grandfather of mine was John Hiram Walker, who served in the 46th Alabama Infantry during the War. Walker enlisted in the spring of 1862, and with his regiment took part in the invasion of Kentucky later that year, though they missed out on the battle of Perryville.

After the Kentucky campaign, Walker and the 46th were shifted down to Mississippi and placed under the command of John Pemberton to help with the defenses of the Mississippi River. The regiment took an active role in the Vicksburg campaign, but ultimately they were surrendered along with the rest of the city's defenders, in early July, 1863.

Ulysses Grant paroled the captured Confederates and sent them home to await exchange. Eventually the exchanges went through and the men of the 46th were sent to join the Army of Tennessee, though not in time to take part in the Battle of Chickamauga, the only Southern victory of any significant strategic value in the western theatre of the war.

The 46th was present throughout the Atlanta campaign, under the overall command of Braxton Bragg, then Joseph Johnston, and finally John Bell Hood. Hood was awarded command of the Army of Tennessee after convincing Confederate President Jeff Davis that Johnston was far too cautious. Hood himself was an effective and aggressive commander at the brigade and division levels, but he may not have been fit for higher command. As an army commander he was too willing to take big chances against heavy odds. Hood attacked Sherman's army four times outside the fortifications of Atlanta and lost, then had to abandon the city because he no longer had the strength to hold it.

After the loss of Atlanta, Hood took his army to northern Alabama, where he prepared to invade Union-controlled central Tennessee, and possibly points further north. The stated goal of this plan was to draw Sherman out of Georgia, but Sherman wasn't interested in playing along and decided to march to Savannah instead, while sending General George Thomas back to defend Nashville.

Hood advanced northward in November, 1864. At Franklin, Tennessee he launched a series of frontal assaults against the evenly matched but entrenched forces of John Schofield. General Schofield retreated during the night after the battle - Thomas had ordered him to fall back to Nashville anyway - so Hood claimed the victory, but his casualties were tremendous. Hood lost nearly a quarter of his army, and six of his best generals were killed. Fortunately my Great-Great-Granddad's regiment was in reserve with Stephen Lee's Corps.

After Franklin, Hood and his army advanced to Nashville, where they faced the larger, fortified army of George Thomas, now reinforced by Schofield's troops. Hood now found himself faced with three options: (1) Retreat back to Alabama, leaving the Union in control of Tennessee and in effect ceding all initiative to the Union forces in the West; (2) Go around Nashville and advance into Kentucky, leaving his supply lines dangerously exposed during winter, when living off the land would be difficult; or (3) Attack the fortified and numerically superior forces in Nashville. Not knowing what to do, Hood sat down to the south of the city and waited, while Thomas continued to receive reinforcements and prepare for battle.

Thomas attacked on December 15, and forced Hood's troops to fall back to shorter, more defensible lines. The disaster occurred the following day, when Thomas renewed the attacks. Toward the end of the day the Confederate lines collapsed, and barely maintained order during their retreat.

Hood's army suffered over 6,000 casualties, a fifth of his command, and about 4,500 of the casualties were soldiers captured by the Union forces. My ancestor was one of them. John Hiram Walker was sent to a prison camp up in Kentucky, and then transferred to Camp Douglas in Illinois, where he spent the last few months of the war.

Walker was lucky. The survivors of Hood's Army of Tennessee had to make the long, grueling march back to Alabama through a winter storm that left the roads covered in freezing rain and sleet. Many of the men were barefoot. When Hood's army settled in for winter quarters in Tupelo, Mississippi, he had only half the troops he had set out with in November. Hood resigned his commission in January.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were movements to establish national commemorative parks and monuments at the sites of many Civil War battles, and many of the former battlegrounds of the western theatre are now part of the National Park System: Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Stones River, Vicksburg, Chickamauga & Chattanooga, Brice's Cross Roads, Kennesaw Mountain.

There is no such park for the battle of Nashville, though there are several monuments in the southern part of the city, and a National Cemetery for the Union dead of the battle. Perhaps 120 years ago the loss was still too fresh in the minds of any surviving southern veterans, and Nashville's civic leaders weren't enthusiastic about halting development to make room for a park commemorating an ignominious defeat.

The men who took part in the campaign remembered it with bitterness. Captain George Evans Brewer, who published a regimental history of the 46th¹, called the Nashville campaign a "long, unprofitable and disastrous march." Blame for the campaign was slung about freely. Hood, like Braxton Bragg before him, tended to spend a lot of time blaming subordinates. But most people, then and now, place the bulk of the blame on John Bell Hood himself. Sam Watkins, a private in one of the Tennessee regiments, wrote: "As a soldier, he was brave, good, noble and gallant…; but as a general he was a failure in every particular." Sadly, that lack of effective military leadership led to intense suffering for the men under his command.

1) Brewer, Captain George Evans, History of the Forty-Sixth Alabama Regiment Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865, Montgomery, AL, 1902.

2) Watkins, Sam R., Company Aytch or, A Side Show of the Big Show, first published 1882.

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Calling Ruby (posted 12/3/12)

A few weeks ago my wife's grandfather Marvin died. He had a fairly easy death, but everyone grieved, including his great-grandchildren who had played with him whenever they went up to Virginia. He only had one child, a son, but that son gave him two granddaughters, and five more in the next generation. Marvin also left behind a loving wife named Ruby.

Marvin and Ruby grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, just outside Bridgewater. They got married in December, 1941, a couple of weeks after Pearl Harbor. Their son, my father-in-law, was born late the following year, and Marvin shipped off to the Pacific with the navy in 1943.

Marvin survived the war and returned to join his wife and son on the farm. He worked for the post office, and together Marvin and Ruby raised beef cattle for several decades, until round about the year 2000. Ruby broke a hip when a calf ran into her, some of the cattle began losing their calves in utero, and Marvin began showing signs of dementia.

Their son graduated from Bridgewater College and got his Ph.D. from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he met his wife and settled down. They would return to the farm frequently though, eventually with two daughters in tow, and with grandchildren beginning in 2000.

Naturally, as all this was happening, Marvin and Ruby were getting older and older, but relatively speaking they remained in good health. So much so that when the remnants of Hurricane Fran blew through their area in 1996, Marvin was up fixing the roof of the barn during the high winds. They did begin to slow down some after Ruby had the run-in with the calf, and Marvin had a couple of minor strokes.

And then the dementia really started getting bad. Marvin started forgetting where he was and who the people were that were with him. We only got to see the effects when we were up for visits and reunions, but it seemed like each time he had a harder time remembering who we were. Whenever I saw him he was friendly, but he looked as if he was trying to figure out whether he ought to know me or not.

Sometimes having the children with us seemed to help. Perhaps playing with them unlocked some memories, or maybe it just relaxed him to the point where he wasn't worried about whether he knew who we were or not. But over time his condition grew worse and worse, and eventually he seemed to have no memory of us at all.

He still tried to be polite about it. Not too long ago last summer we were all sitting in their family room. Ruby stepped out of the room for a moment, at which point Marvin stood up and went around the room, introducing himself and asking each person - all family members - who we were.

It was hardest of course on Ruby. She lived with him through all this, and any time he became frustrated or disoriented she had to deal with it. What made things worse was that he didn't recognize even her, after almost 70 years of marriage.

Don't misunderstand me. Marvin knew he was married to Ruby, but he did not believe the woman standing in front of him was the woman he was married to. This must have been almost unbearable for Ruby: Knowing that Marvin longed for her, cared for her and wanted to be with her, but also knowing that he didn't see her as the woman he was missing.

Finally Ruby hit upon a solution, of sorts. Marvin started wanting to call Ruby, and would pick up the telephone. Ruby would stand behind him, and talk to him quietly as if she were on the other end of the line. Strangely, he recognized her voice, if not her face. She would talk quietly to him, and tell him to listen to that woman he was with.

The brain is such a strange and marvelous organ. It can hypothesize about the nature of the universe, imagine great works of visual, written and musical art, and feel the bonds of love and affection for family and close friends. But when something in the brain goes wrong it can be very frustrating, even frightening, for the individual and those close to them. For Grandma Ruby it must have hurt to know that Marvin no longer recognized her, but she found a way to get around the loss, to a degree, that eased Marvin's anxiety and gave her back at least some connection to him.

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William Wiley Prickett (posted 11/26/12)

You run across a lot of interesting details when researching genealogy, and sometimes they can be conflicting and confusing. Before she passed away, Mom and I both spent a lot of time looking up names, dates, places and relationships, trying to piece together the family tree. My Dad's side of the family seemed to have better documentation, so that's where most of our research was directed.

Sometimes you find real gems in your background, or blemishes. I remember going back home for Christmas one year and Mom telling me with a beaming smile that I was distantly related to Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. "Uh, Mom, he started the Klan." Mom's smile disappeared. Interestingly enough, that same branch of the family was also distantly related to John Brown, so I guess I shouldn't feel too embarrassed.

Several relatives besides Forrest served during the Civil War. One of them was my Great-Great-Grandfather William Wiley Prickett. He and his brother George enlisted in a Georgia cavalry regiment in 1862 and served under Joe Wheeler, and in 1864, during the Atlanta campaign, both Pricketts were captured while scouting. Earlier in the war they might have been paroled and released. Then they would have gone home and waited until they were legally exchanged for captured Union soldiers, after which they would have rejoined their regiment.

The exchange program worked fairly well for the first couple of years of the War, though some generals on both sides grumbled that it made the men more inclined to surrender in sticky situations. But the system broke down in 1863, after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. In addition to freeing slaves in certain parts of the South, the Proclamation called for the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army. Southern politicians were scandalized, and Jeff Davis and the Confederate Congress directed that captured black soldiers be treated as slaves rather than legitimate prisoners of war. Lincoln insisted that the Confederate Army treat black prisoners just like everyone else, and the exchange program fell apart, though it was revived briefly in the closing months of the war.

As long as the exchange program was working the military prisons on both sides managed fairly well. Conditions weren't exactly pleasant, but for the most part they were adequate. But once the parole and exchange system was suspended, the prisons quickly became overcrowded. Feeding the prisoners became a serious problem, especially in the South, and the crowded conditions meant that hygiene was almost nonexistent. Prisoners on both sides began getting sick and dying, and places such as Andersonville and Elmira became deathtraps.

It was during this period that my Great-Great-Grandfather Prickett and his brother were captured. Uncle George was shipped off to Rock Island prison camp in Illinois, where he died of Smallpox in February of 1865. William Wiley Prickett was sent to Camp Morton in Indiana, where according to family lore he remained until the end of the war.

To a person like me, who's interested in both history and genealogy, this in itself is interesting enough. But then I noticed a detail in some of the information I had on William Wiley Prickett. He was married in March of 1865, about a month before the war ended, in Cobb County, Georgia, near Marietta. That didn't add up. How could he get married in Georgia in March if he was in prison in Indiana until the war ended in April?

A clerical error was and still is a possibility. Perhaps he really got married in May, not March, or maybe the year was really 1866, not 1865. I don't think that's likely though, because all the sources I have on Prickett give the same marriage date: March 12, 1865.

I had no clue was the answer was, until one day I happened to be looking through some documents regarding Prickett's wife and an application for a pension based upon Prickett's service in the Confederate Army. There were several statements on file about the date of his capture and where he was held, but none were provided regarding when he was released.

Toward the end of the war, many Confederate soldiers held in Union prisons were freed if they swore an oath of allegiance to the United States Government. All well and good, but jump ahead a decade or so to the end of Reconstruction. Once conservative Democrats regained control of the Southern state governments, the states of the former Confederacy set up pension systems for those soldiers who had served honorably during the War, and their widows. But if you swore the oath of allegiance before the war ended, you were not deemed to have served honorably, regardless of how bravely you fought or how much you suffered during the conflict. In other words, if my Great-Great-Grandfather took the oath to get out of prison in Indiana, and went down to get married in Georgia before the war ended, neither he nor his widow would be eligible for a pension.

It made sense now. William Wiley Prickett had probably taken the oath in February or early March, a month or so before the end of the war and long after there was any realistic hope for a southern victory, and headed back home. Perhaps he had gotten word that his brother had died at Rock Island. Or maybe he heard that he was needed back home. At any rate, staying in prison at this point no longer served any purpose.

Things may have gone very well at first. Earlier in the war units of Confederate Army or Home Guard troops might have combed through the area looking for deserters and new conscripts, but by March, 1865 many of those troops would have been desperately needed on the battlefield, or would have snuck home themselves. So Prickett probably could have stayed at home without too much worry about arrest or harassment.

Immediately after the war, and in fact up until the turn of the century, Prickett probably got along without too much concern over his war record. He was a young man of nineteen when he enlisted, and Prickett received no disabling injuries during the war, so for several decades afterward he would have been healthy and able to work. But by the early Twentieth century he would have been getting old, those bones would be weary and a pension would have been highly desirable.

Here's where things probably got sticky. Great-Great-Granddad Prickett had documentation for when and where he was captured, the jail he was originally sent to (in Chattanooga) and the prison where he ended up. All that was missing was the documentation of when he was released, which would have been essential in determining whether he was eligible for the pension. It is of course possible that his paperwork was misplaced over the years, or that some bureaucratic officer just failed to give him the documentation when he was released. But that marriage date of March 12, 1865, in Marietta, Georgia, makes it pretty clear that he got out early, before the war ended. As such, most post-Reconstruction Southern state governments would have considered his service less than honorable, and unworthy of a pension.

Now here's my beef: During that sad, ugly, horrible war any officer could have resigned his commission and gone home. Any wealthy landowner could have avoided conscription if he owned 20 or more slaves. Anyone with friends in high places could try to get himself appointed postmaster or some similar cushy position that was exempt from the draft.

But if you were just an ordinary farmer or farmer's son who joined up in 1861 through an excess of gung-hoism, or in 1862 to avoid conscription, then you had no legal or "honorable" way out. No matter what you had been through - whether you had starved in Vicksburg, survived the storm of bullets at Shiloh, retreated barefoot in the snow and sleet from Nashville or watched your companions die of smallpox or dysentery at Rock Island - if you left for home before April, 1865 you were considered a disgrace by the Southern powers that be, most of whom had a much easier time of it.

No war is fair, and those who endure them all share varying amounts of suffering, brutality and senselessness. But in the end, it is important to remember that behind every headline and war story there are real people, with real lives, dreams and aspirations that get mangled up in unpredictable ways.

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Love & Little White Lies (posted 11/19/12)

Is there ever a time when a little lie can be a good and loving thing?

This story is all about parakeets. When I was young we had a pair of them, one yellow and one blue. Mom mentioned once or twice that she had had a parakeet, but that it escaped one day and flew away. She also hated cats, but at the time that seemed neither here nor there.

I should also mention that my birth came after a fairly stressful pregnancy for Mom. When she was roughly ten weeks pregnant her own mother died of ovarian cancer. Then a couple of months later she seriously feared losing me when her amniotic fluid began leaking. Things worked out well after a couple of weeks bed rest, and I was born the following May.

Fast forward to almost fifty years later. Mom was in the hospital with a tumor that would eventually take her life, and I had returned to Alabama for the funeral of her brother Howard, a veteran U.S. Army airman from the Second World War. At the funeral I got to talking with Alan, one of my older cousins who I don’t see very often. Alan was very close to Mom and Dad because he was almost their age, so he had a lot of memories to share. One of those memories concerned Grandma Woodward’s death, and how hard it had been on Mom. The family wouldn’t let Mom in to view the body because they were afraid she would get too upset, her being pregnant and all. And to make matters worse a neighborhood cat had eaten her pet parakeet.

I stopped Alan right there and corrected him: “Oh, no. Mom always told us the parakeet flew out the window.”

Alan was insistent though, and remembered the incident pretty clearly. He had helped Dad clean up the mess. I was heading up to Huntsville later that day to see Mom in the hospital, so I figured I’d check with her on what had really happened.

When I finally got up to see her and told her what Alan told me about the cat and the parakeet, she was also insistent: “Oh, no. The parakeet flew out the window. Levis (my Dad) always said so.”

At that point it became obvious to me what had happened. On one of the most stressful days of Mom’s life a cat had made things worse by eating her pet bird. In order to spare her feelings when she was in a very delicate situation, Dad had covered up the gruesome details, and made up a believable cover story.

“Mom, I think Dad lied.”

Now it was fifty years later and we could laugh about it. Dad himself had passed away a couple of years earlier and could neither deny nor confirm the story. A purist would say that Dad should have told her the truth, and I think he would have in almost any other circumstance. But on that particular day 55 years ago, the absolute truth would have been just a piling on of cruelty. I can’t say he did the wrong thing.

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Truth and Fiction (posted 11/15/2012)

Back in 1970 a particularly vitriolic gubernatorial campaign was taking place in Alabama. Albert P. Brewer had been elected Lieutenant Governor four years earlier, but he had risen to the governorship when the elected governor, Lurleen Wallace, died of cancer. Lurleen had been elected as a stand-in figurehead for her husband, former Governor George Wallace, back when the Alabama state constitution prohibited governors from being elected to two consecutive terms. Now George Wallace wanted his old job back, but Brewer wanted to keep it.

Black voters had only recently been re-enfranchised in many parts of the South, and their participation in politics was itself an issue in the state. Brewer was supposedly trying to incorporate black voters into his coalition of moderate and working class whites, mostly through the passive method of simply not spouting racist rhetoric. Wallace countered by making subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on the “black bloc.”

Some of the sleazier attacks were by surrogates who may or may not have had the blessing of the Wallace campaign. In one memorable instance a photo was circulated that purported to show Governor Brewer at a meeting with some members of the Nation of Islam, the black nationalist Moslem splinter group then led by Elijah Muhhamed. The photo was obviously doctored, but many people in the state saw it and some believed it. Though Brewer edged out Wallace in the first round of the Democratic primary, Wallace won the runoff easily.

With the advent of the internet in the 1990s, such antics seemed to escalate in frequency, perhaps because of the ease of spreading false information, and the relative anonymity of internet communications. One of the first email hoaxes I read claimed that the well-known atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare was trying to get the FCC to deny permission for networks to air the popular tv series “Touched by an Angel.” O’hare probably would have despised the series, but by the time it was on tv she had been dead for several years. That did not bother whoever authored the email though, nor the people who passed it on.

A few years later another email was circulated warning everyone that violent Moslems were taking over the cultural centers of central Europe. As evidence of this, the email linked to a YouTube video that purported to show Shia Moslems in the streets of Vienna ceremoniously lacerating themselves during the festival of Ashura. To be fair, Ashura is a bloody festival, but is it more barbarous than Jewish circumcision or the sublimated Christian cannibalism we call Communion? What I found most interesting and disturbing though was the claim that the festival was filmed in Vienna. It opened with photos of a pair of Austrian statues and the music of Mozart. But if you looked at the film carefully you noticed that none of the buildings shown during the festival activities had any resemblance to European architectural styles. Although the film showed actual events, the assertions accompanying the film were a lie – a cold, calculated lie intended to make viewers fear other people simply because they were different.

This is nothing new of course. Before the American Revolution cartoons and drawings of the Boston Massacre portrayed a skewed version of the event in order to make the British soldiers seem villainous. During the 1800 Presidential election partisans of both sides launched scurrilous attacks upon their opponents in many of the newspapers. Much later, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois, Senator Stephen Douglas insisted that Frederick Douglass was riding around the northern part of the state in a carriage with two white women, campaigning for Lincoln.

The same sort of stuff still goes on of course. I was prompted to write this tirade when my wife received an email claiming that among other things, Barack Obama refuses to salute the flag and wants to change the national anthem. You would think that after nearly 20 years of internet experience people would know to verify statements like these before they passed them along, but the “gentleman” who forwarded the email felt no such compulsion, even after my wife pointed out the inaccuracy and absurdity of the statements. He said it wasn’t his duty to determine the truth of emails he passed along.

We were astounded, especially since the man claimed to be a religious person. When did dishonesty and gossip stop being vices? When did we decide it’s okay to spread lies about people?

Not everyone is like this. I have some friends that have strong political differences with me, but they would not dream of passing along anything of such an obviously deceitful nature. And the relative who passed along the anti-Islamic video now asks me to verify the truth of stuff he gets before he passes it along to anyone else. But it still happens far too frequently, and what disturbs me the most isn’t the naivete of most of the people who pass these things on, but the intentional dishonesty of the people who write the stories in the first place.

What can we do about it? Such dishonest tripe will be floating around the internet as long as there’s an audience for it, so the only way to stop it is to remove the audience. Create an atmosphere in which it is not cool to pass along misinformation, by verifying anything that seems outlandish, and politely calling it to the attention of whoever posted it or sent it. This is doubly important when the misinformation comes from people you agree with. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, so check on it.

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Grandmother (posted 10-2012)

For most of her life, my paternal grandmother was a racist. She didn't talk about it in front of the grandkids. Nobody talked about it in front of the grandkids. I probably would never have given it much thought, if Mom hadn't mentioned it when she found out I had snuck off to an anti-apartheid rally in the late 70's. I do know that some of her sons did not share that part of her beliefs, I think because they had served in the armed forces at a time when those institutions were being integrated. So most of the family was apparently uncomfortable with it.

But the racism was there, even though no one spoke of it. Grandmother had bought into "southern populist" rhetoric, and she named Dad after one of it's practitioners, Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, even though she was born and raised in Alabama. By 1970 her beliefs hadn't changed much at all. She had given up on George Wallace, and was supporting his former speechwriter, Asa Carter, for Governor. Asa's campaign appearances always had the battle flag in the background, but the kicker was the content of his speeches. For some reason, the only campaign issue Asa only seemed to worry about was the peril of allowing black boys to go to school with white girls. Now it makes me sick, but back then it only made me puzzled.

I'm not saying Grandmother was a bad person. She was a good person. Everyone has faults, and hers was probably typical for the time and place she grew up. If the story ended here it would be pretty unremarkable, and I wouldn't be writing about it right now. But at some point in the closing years or months of Grandmother's life she changed.

One Sunday, a few months before she died (I think it was 1980), we were sitting on the porch of my aunt and uncle in Gadsden, Alabama. Grandmother's health was going, and by that point she was having a hard time holding food down, but the family was able to take her out of the retirement facility for an Easter celebration. She and I were just sitting, and she began to talk about how a lot of the people at the facility were "colored". With an expression that can be best described as stunned, grandmother looked at me and said "They're just like we are." I would have hugged her, but given her condition she might broken a bone or something. Instead I just said, "I know".

I know that today, saying "They're just like we are" would probably be considered quaint, at best. But for my Grandmother, who had lived most of her life believing in bigotry, this was a genuine epiphany. I'm just glad she lived long enough to see it.

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© 2012: Talmadge L. Walker, Jr. All Rights Reserved. 12/18/2012