A short visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul

The Thinker by Rodin

Life can be busy when you are retired. For me it’s been busy in a good way, meaning I took a mini vacation last week. This had the effect of keeping me from blogging. It meant a 4-day trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend a reunion related to my last job.

Our hotel turned out to be a mile away from the Mall of America (MoA), so when we weren’t doing tours or attending a banquet we were often at the mall for dinner and to gawk at its immensity, its indoor amusement park and its four levels of shopping. It’s so big that there are two or three stores for some retail brands in the Mall. I guess they want to make sure they have you coming or going.

The MoA is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not into malls or shopping in particular. If it’s available for retail, it’s probably somewhere in the MoA, if you can find it. Thinking of our tiny Hampshire Mall, I’m guessing you could fit a hundred of those in the MoA and still have a floor or two to spare.

The trip was a good change of pace. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a beautify area, at least near the end of summer: prosperous and clean where the run down houses are few and the streets look regularly swept. If life were longer I might want to move there. It has it all: two major cities close to each other, light rail connecting cities with the burbs, three major rivers including the mighty Mississippi, bluffs along the rivers, major arts, sports and events venues and 10,000 glacial lakes to choose from within the state.

It’s also got history of sorts. St. Paul was a big gangster haven during and after Prohibition. We took a Gangsta Tour that included a tour guide who was also an actress. She stayed in character the whole time as we looked at a speakeasy built into some sandstone cliffs and saw houses where various mobsters and gangsters hung out. She played the sister of a woman married to the mob and provided colorful insights into the mobsters of the time. St. Paul was known back then as a safe city, not meaning it was a particularly safe community but that gangsters could hang out there with impunity as long as the police got their payola and you refrained from open violence.

Today the biggest scandal is probably Garrison Keillor’s (“A Prairie Home Companion”) alleged sexual harassment. He did well enough though to buy a fine home in St. Paul’s most exclusive neighborhood: Summit Street, which we drove down. He shares this street with previous luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

With Hurricane Florence wreaking havoc on the Mid-Atlantic States, I was a bit anxious about flight delays. Thankfully we had direct flights between here that were on time, making our air travel relatively painless for a change. Florence did eventually catch up with us here in Florence, Massachusetts. It resulted in three inches of rain yesterday and the report of one missing woman who was stupidly swimming in the local Mill River. They are looking for her body on the river.

Back to more germane topics in the days ahead.

Two book reviews: “After Lincoln” and “City of Dreams”

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m back home after 19 days away. I’d like to say I was on the road but most of it was on a cruise ship so technically I was on the seas. When not at ports of call, cruise ships does give you downtime. With no Internet, there was time to do something I should do more of: read books. I completed two books on the trip, both worth your time if you are into histories.

After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace
By A. J. Langguth
ISBN 978-1-4516-1733-7

It’s curious how many books you can find on the Civil War but how few you will find about Reconstruction: the time after the Civil War when the slaves were technically freed but not quite equal citizens. This book by the late USC professor A.J. Langguth (1933-2014) finished in the year of his death delves into the messiness of the post Civil War years. You are introduced to a cast of characters including a number of rogues. The title gives away the ending, in case you are unfamiliar with U.S. history. What is truly heartbreaking is how much overt discrimination remains 140 years later. Moreover, the parallels between Andrew Johnson (who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination) and Donald Trump are more than a little creepy. (Trump though is actually worse.)

The book does not start immediately after Lincoln’s murder. Most chapters delve into particular historical figures, fills in their biographies before reconstruction and tell the roles that they played. It’s quite a gamut of figures: from Nathan Bedford Forest who founded the KKK (and led a very successful cavalry for the Confederacy) to Pickney Pinchback, half black by birth (white slaveowner, black slave) but all black in the eyes of society. He won election to the U.S. House and Senate for Louisiana, but was not permitted by Congress to actually be seated. There are also names that might ring bells from newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, to Secretary of State William Henry Seward (who bought Alaska for the U.S.) to presidents that served during this time. Johnson is the most infamous since he was impeached (but not convicted), but the book also covers Ulysses S. Grant’s eight years as president and ends with his more obscure successor: Rutherford B. Hayes.

Langguth’s approach works pretty well because it illuminates these figures while constantly adding backstory and connecting characters. The chapters are just the right size to be comfortable reads without feeling overwhelming. They also draw you in. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were progressive tools that should have made most of these class and race issues moot. By dropping out of the Union, states of the Confederacy gave power to the Republican Party to pass these progressive amendments freeing the slaves, giving them full enfranchisement and equal protection. To say the least the Southern states were put out. They became experts in passive and overt resistance that was occasionally quelled by the introduction of federal troops.

Langguth gets into all the details of how we lost the peace. Basically the South sort of won the Civil War after it lost it for two reasons: Jim Crow laws that courts were reluctant to strike down and northern Democrats who tired of the whole equal enfranchisement business. Essentially a critical mass of white America stopped caring.

At 375 pages (without appendices) it’s an appropriately sized history that should sustain your interest despite the known outcome. The movie Lincoln gave us a taste of some of these figures (like Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones). Langguth colors in these characters and exposes the macro and micro forces at work during this time. In short, you’d have a hard time finding better book to read about Reconstruction, in part because so few have been written.

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York
By Tyler Ambinder
ISBN 978-1-328-74551-4

Published in 2016, this book is one that I don’t think has been done before: a deep dive into New York City’s 400 years of history with a special emphasis on its many immigrant communities: who came, how they interacted, where they settled, who succeeded, who failed and the many tensions of living in this biggest of cities. Ambinder, a professor of history at George Washington University, fills out the story in part by documenting his own relatives’ paths.

This is a real tome: 738 pages, 570 pages without the appendices. It’s also the kind of history that I like best: that tells me things I would never learn otherwise. It’s a work of immense scholarship but written so well that at times you can’t put it down. To me the most interesting and appalling part of the book is its discussion of immigrants transit to America in the mid 19th century, which for most of our ancestors meant steerage class on a sailing ship: a slow trip to America in the bowels of the ship where sickness, overcrowding, darkness, dysentery and literal bowels made the journey hellish with many casualties along the way. The fetid atmosphere describe almost rises from those pages.

Curiously it intersects frequently with After Lincoln since the era around and after the Civil War forms a significant chunk of this tome. You see some of the same characters in both books, such as Horace Greeley and cartoonist Thomas Nast. Both books cover the draft riots in New York during the Civil War too. New York started out as New Amsterdam and was hence a Dutch colony, but the Dutch couldn’t hold onto it particularly as colonies around it became British possessions. People arrived by the boatloads. New York quickly became the largest city in the world. Jamming so many people into the city was done poorly at best. Most immigrants ended up in crazily crowded tenement housing, with populations per square mile so dense that they rivaled anything ever seen before. Ambinder also shines with his extensive look into tenement housing, whose details are equally as appalling as the passage of people in steerage class during the days of the sailing ships.

New York first previewed America’s coming ethnic tensions. How could it be otherwise when so many ethnicities were jammed together into so small a space? Then as now people self segregated themselves by ethnicity. For a very long time the Irish dominated the city. If the word Tammany Hall rings a bell, you’ll learn a lot about the Irish that ran it mostly corruptly while also giving employment to huge numbers of immigrants.

Ambinder though shows us that regardless of the time it’s always the same story. It’s only the cast of characters that rotate. In the 19th century the Irish were oppressed. The cartoonist Nast even drew them with gorilla foreheads. The No Nothing Party of the 19th Century was formed principally to keep the wrong kind of immigrants (the Irish in particular) out. Like Trump today, the No Nothings wanted only the right people to be Americans. Eventually though it was the Irish that saw themselves the most legitimate of New Yorkers and they worked to repress other groups, like the Italians. Having felt discriminated they seem to delight in dishing it out.

Ambinder’s detail is often staggering, but mostly it’s an engaging read. If it drags, it is only near the end where we see New York’s latest immigrants (mostly from the West Indies) going through this pattern yet again. As recently as the 1990s, whites in Queens were bashing in the heads of West Indies immigrants when they happened to stray into their ethnic enclaves. With Muslims pouring in today, Ambinder makes it clear that they too will become part of our fabric and that our fear of them is ridiculous.

I read a lot of history books and City of Dreams is definitely in the top ten percent of my favorites. It may be a tome, but it is definitely worth your time.

London, Part 5 (Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, Oxford and some travel notes)

The Thinker by Rodin

We reserved our last day in London to escape it and see something other than an impressive city. Fortunately it’s not hard to do. There are bus companies that do these sorts of things. (We chose an Evan Evans tour.) One advantage of being sixty is for one of the first times in my life I could get a senior discount. Also, the tour company picks you up at the hotel and delivers you back to an Underground station, so it was convenient as well. The trick is to not pick too long a tour. One that took us to Bath would have been more than 15 hours! As it was ours was a busy twelve-hour tour.

You also get a feel for life outside of the city. Southern England is not exactly flat but there are no mountains to speak of. The closest parallel here in the United States is southeastern and central Ohio, with the exception being that England has a much better infrastructure. There are fewer large roads but more railway stations. Since it gets plenty of rain and moisture, it is a lush if often overcast land.

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle – Buckingham Palace in London is the Queen’s primary residence, but it’s not particularly pretty, just very convenient for facilitating her busy schedule. She puts in more than 300 appearances a year, not bad for an old monarch who recently turned 90. I can understand why given the choice she would prefer to be elsewhere. In fact she was in residence when we visited Windsor Castle, as evidenced by her flag flying from the castle’s flagstaff. It didn’t slow us down taking the public tour, along with thousands of others – it’s quite a hopping tourist destination. The Queen stayed in her private chambers while we walked its inner courtyard and then ascended into the residence itself. The tour is quite impressive. Windsor Castle is on par with Versailles but has quite a view on its knob of a hill. The tour will take you through many rooms, including the king’s bedchamber, various libraries, studies and whole rooms that are nothing more than pantries with priceless plates and such that are probably rarely used. (Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the residence.) It’s unlikely that Britons will have to fight off an armed invasion with swords, pikes and suits of armor. Should it ever be necessary, there are thousands of these items to gawk at behind secure displays along with endless amounts of artwork. Originally built by the French during the Norman years, today the castle still impressed; even on a dreary day like the day we visited. The city of Windsor can be found just outside its gates. Windsor Castle is definitely worth a day trip.


Stonehenge – To visit Stonehenge, drive a couple of hours west onto the Salisbury Plain. You can see Stonehenge from the highway in the distance but of course it’s better to get a closer look. It’s a Celtic henge (a circle of stone or wooden uprights; there were wooden ones too that did not survive) that acted as something of a calendar and celestial navigator for these ancient people, not to mention a place of public sacrifice. It’s not exactly the pyramids, but Stonehenge at least predates most of the pyramids. For its time it was quite a logistical feat to simply quarry and move the stones more than thirty miles into position, let alone to position them for astronomical events. Stonehenge sits literally in the middle of nowhere. It is frequently windy on the Salisbury Plain with gale force winds the day we were there. It was hard not to be swept away by the wind. You can’t actually touch the stones but you can walk around it. There is a visitors’ center a short bus ride away. What you will learn is how little is actually known. You can see many earthen mounds nearby, burial sites for prominent people of the time it was built and most actively used (3100BC – 1600 BC). We toured Stonehenge a few days before the equinox, which explained a long row of RVs nearby. There is still a pagan community in England (and elsewhere) to celebrate these celestial events.


Oxford – In fact, there is no official Oxford University, but there are a host of independent colleges in Oxford butt up against each other that compete with similar universities in Cambridge, England for being the center of learning, really in the world. Among its graduates were our tour guide, who has a degree in History from an Oxford college and apparently a peerage title he never uses. He regaled us with fascinating stories of what it’s like to study there, and showed us many of the haunts frequented by the best and the brightest, including pubs that go back to Tudor times. He showed us the pub where C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien argued about religion (Lewis was COE, Tolkien a Catholic). While not quite the Shire or even Bree, you can certainly understand why Tolkien found inspiration here. Oxford is chock full of the best and brightest with impossibly high standards and rules that are easily broken and usually lead you to be dismissed if you transgress any of them. If you can afford the tuition and can get accepted, there are no barriers based on age or national origin. Bill Clinton studied at Oxford. The Thames River is much narrower in Oxford, but annually it still hosts a rowing race with Eton College in Cambridge. Oxford is definitely best appreciated with an experienced tour guide and we were blessed to have one to make this grey place flood with color on a dark and dreary evening.

Travel notes

  • It’s not often that I fly on a foreign carrier. We flew British Airways between Boston’s Logan Airport and London’s Heathrow Airport on 747s. Even way back in coach where we were, the service and standards were quite superior. Our meals were tasty, wine didn’t cost extra and the entertainment system was first class. Seats were still narrow and cramped but British Airways easily outshone any American airline I have ever flown on lately. Thanks for making flying fun again!
  • Heathrow is a very impressive airport, with five major terminals but just two east-west runways (a third will apparently be built). Heathrow is also something of a shopping destination as each terminal is pretty much a high-end shopping mall where gates seem somewhat incidental. At least where we were in Terminal E the standards were quite high.
  • No one likes jet lag, but direct flights do make a huge difference in minimizing it, so it’s worth getting a direct flight if one is available. Having a hotel you can crash at without waiting for check in time helped too, and we had that luxury. Getting through customs though was a lengthy process. I was surprised how quickly I adjusted to local time and how fast I adjusted returning home as well.

London, Part 4 (Some sights)

The Thinker by Rodin

A week in London isn’t much time, so we mostly hit highlights. Even so we missed a lot of things you might think would be must sees: Buckingham Palace, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Parliament (although we did pass Big Ben), 10 Downing Street and many other places. That will leave plenty for our next trip but even with another week, London is so massive that we’d still be scratching the surface. Anyhow, here’s places we did see while in London, aside from theaters, roughly in this order.

Elizabethan Gate to St. Bartholomew the Great Church
Elizabethan Gate to St. Bartholomew the Great Church

St. Bartholomew the Great Church – This church goes back to the 12th century and still has an active congregation. The Priori Church on the main level shows the influence of the Norman architecture of the time. St. Bart was apparently martyred by the pagans for his proselytizing, reportedly flayed alive. In the back of the church you can see a remarkable gold statue of St. Bart holding his own skin, a fairly recent addition and on loan from the artist Damien Hirst. This less often seen church in entered through the Elizabethan Gate, which is one of the few Tudor houses still around.

Sherlock graffiti at St. Bartholomew's Hospital
Sherlock graffiti at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital

St. Bartholomew’s Hospital – England’s oldest hospital it is still in use and not a tourist attraction at all. We didn’t go inside but our guide Helen asked us if it looked familiar. It did, sort of. Here they shot a scene from Sherlock where Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) jumped off the roof to what seems like certain death. Fans of the show left plenty of graffiti on the granite near the street.

Mummy at the British Museum
Mummy at the British Museum

British Museum – The United Kingdom’s human history museum, it makes the Smithsonian’s American History Museum look tiny. It is massive and we only had a chance to see parts of it. The Rosetta Stone is here but so much more, most of it pilfered by the Brits during their colonizing centuries earlier and never returned. We mostly hung around the most ancient parts of the museum, which included a lot of Egyptian mummies, and then we wandered into even more ancient areas like the Sumerian Dynasty. We are looking forward to a few more days to spend exploring it.

Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly Circus – London’s Times Square hosts a hub on the London Underground and offers a variety of theaters and shopping nearby. No circus here, unless you mean what Brits call a circus, known in the states as a traffic circle or roundabout, and it’s a small one. If there is a center to London, it’s here although it’s actually in Westminster, not the official City of London.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square – If Piccadilly Circus is the center of London, Trafalgar Square is its heart. It’s a large open plaza with a huge statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, who is celebrated for his massive victory at Trafalgar off Spain in the 19th century. The epic sea battle led by Admiral Nelson largely destroyed the Spanish Navy and kept Britain from the threat of invasion until Hitler’s time. You can feel Britain’s soul here and probably hear some first class buskers playing on the plaza steps too. We did.

Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral – It’s worth a walk across the Thames to see this cathedral although St. Paul’s gets more attention. Constructed started in 1106, it’s still an active church, although it is Anglican now. You will find a Shakespeare here, not William, but the grave of his brother Edward. William does warrant a reclining statue and a stained glass window. Restored in the 19th century it’s quite impressive to visit even with so much competition.

Thames River
Thames River

Thames River – The river stretches for hundreds of miles but in London it’s a tourist attraction in itself, with its constantly moving rush of tidal waters and many bridges that carry both autos and foot traffic across it. River cruises with or without expensive dining options are available and are constantly chugging up and down the river. Many prime attractions are right along its banks including the Tower of London, the Parliament and the Eye (London’s large Ferris wheel). We had many opportunities to cross it during the day and at night and it’s always breathtaking.

St. Martin's in the Fields Church
St. Martin’s in the Fields Church

St. Martin’s in the Field – Silly me, I imagined this church somewhere in rural England, but it’s right next to Trafalgar Square. One of many very old churches it is still very active, liberal and caters to the poor. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, known for its exquisite classical music, is based here but mainly it’s a real church, just not terribly ornate. The Crypt in the basement is a good place to get hot, fresh and cheap food.

Tower of London
Tower of London

The Tower of London – Allot most of a day to see The Tower, which is in fact many towers and you can go through most of them. There are few places in London that are older than the Tower, or with a grislier history. You can see the exact spot where many of Henry VIII’s wives were beheaded, along with many other noblemen and women like Sir Thomas More. Outside the gates and near its underground you can see markers where lesser-known but still distinguished people met their grisly ends, often by drawing and quartering. If you don’t know what that is, trust me, you don’t want to know more; those were barbaric times. At least those in the Tower sometimes got reprieves and lived pretty well. There is more than death to sell the Tower. It’s primarily an armory and you can tour one building that attests to the how well it was defended. It also houses the crown jewels, and there are many to gawk at (and more at Windsor Castle, as we discovered). The Tower has never been captured. Primarily a pricey tourist attraction, today it’s well worth the entrance fee. After the first bombing of London, Hitler sent a surrender demand to the King. Replying for the King, the Queen Mum (Queen Mary) ordered Hitler to report to the Tower for punishment. The Tower has probably not seen its last prisoner.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey – A totally awesome church that’s more cathedral than church where Britain’s monarchs are ordained and most of the country’s highest nobles are buried. Elizabeth I (Church of England) and her predecessor Queen Mary (Roman Catholic) have coffins side by side in a crypt that you can walk right next to. Around the corner is the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots that Elizabeth I had put to death. You can also find tombs of notables like Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Darwin. You can’t take pictures inside which is a shame because it is spectacular. The outside pictures don’t do it justice. This is a must see attraction. The center of the English spirit surely must reside inside. It’s a short walk to Big Ben, the Parliament and Downing Street.

Extraordinarily large mammals at the British Natural History Museum
Extraordinarily large mammals at the British Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum – Similar to the British Museum, this museum is massively huge and requires more than a day’s visit to do it justice. You’ll find it in South Kensington, which was close to our hotel so we saved it for our final day. Footsore from walking 8-10 miles a day, we made a half-day of it and saw maybe a quarter of it. The earthquake simulator was neat, as was the Dinosaur exhibit and the Darwin Museum. Admission is free and there are plentiful places to eat inside.

London, Part 2 (Ancient London)

The Thinker by Rodin

Not a whole lot is known about London prior to the arrival of the Romans. Even most Britons don’t pay much attention to their history prior to the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans from France in 1066. Which means if you want to discover really ancient London, you will need a guide, because it is hard to find. My wife’s friend Helen turned out to be one of the few Britons interested in this period. As such last week she made it her business to show us ancient London, or what’s left of it.

Most of it disappeared more than a millennium ago. What’s left of it is mostly inaccessible, or buried deep underground. Modern London was built on top of previous incarnations of London. If you know where to look though you can find scattered Roman ruins and get an experience few tourists and Londoners ever get. You can find a lot more of Anglo Saxon London, which generally built on top of whatever the Romans left.

Londinium as the Romans called it was established around AD 50, about seven years after the Romans invaded Briton. It doesn’t appear that the Celts and other inhabitants of the island were much interested in cities or conquest so the Romans pragmatically picked a place that facilitated commerce (the Thames River) but was wide enough but not too wide for a Roman bridge, hence London’s birth. It’s unclear why it was called Londinium, but the speculation was that Londin and Lundin were common Roman names at the time.

Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London
Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London

If you visit the Tower of London, you will discover that this infamous tower was built on top of Roman ruins at the sight. Some of it can still be seen, but it’s hard to discern which part the Romans built and which the Saxons built. (Hint: the Roman part is closer to the ground.) In the City of London itself, Roman ruins are few and far between but can be found by the adventurous traveler.


Roman wall in London
Roman wall in London

Perhaps the best-preserved portion of the old Roman city wall can be found next to what is now the Grange City Hotel on Cooper’s Row. It suggests that the entire wall was quite impressive in Roman times.

For much of the rest, look underground. At St. Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, if you venture below ground and into the crypt you can see Norman walls and arches. You also can glimpse (through a mirror) at a portion of the old Roman wall. Fleet Street by the way is over the Fleet River, which still flows into the Thames, but is now well below the pavement. It used to be London’s principle and smelliest open sewer.

It’s easier to find Norman architecture. While visiting the crypt at St. Bride’s Church make sure to check out the church upstairs too because you are visiting what is arguably London’s oldest church, at least of those still standing, but with still an active congregation. The Normans liked semicircular arches, which makes their structures easy to identify. The first stone walled St. Bride’s Church goes back to AD 600. In 1205 the church hosted the Curia Regis, a precursor to parliament. The Tower of London also has some remnants of the Norman Conquest visible in its architecture.

St. Brides, arguably London's oldest church
St. Brides, arguably London’s oldest church

Nothing quite this old exists in the United States of course, which is why I was drawn to it. There were various Indian civilizations of course, but they left little for archeologists to marvel at. Probably the oldest structure in the United States can be found in St. Augustine at the Castillo de San Marcos, which didn’t become a proper fortress until 1695, but had earlier wooden variations. By that time of course the Normans were long gone from England and St. Bride’s could already trace its origins back a thousand years.

Proper British history seems to begin around the reign of the Tudors. I’ll be looking at some of the many places impacted by the Tudor reign in subsequent posts. Get ready for some very bloody stories.

Book Review: The First Salute, by Barbara Tuchman

The Thinker by Rodin

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912 – 1989), a noteworthy historian and author, churned out eleven histories in her career. I have read a couple of them over the years. Some, like A Distant Mirror can be challenging reads but all are flawlessly researched and illuminate periods of history that generally need illumination. Her last book, The First Salute is ostensibly about the American Revolution. In fact, the American Revolution feels sort of shortchanged in this 347-page book published a year before her death. It’s still interesting reading, but it’s just not what you expect from the subtitle: “A View of the American Revolution”.

And a view it is, principally from the Dutch perspective. I certainly had no idea that the Dutch had anything to do with our revolution. So I didn’t get quite what I was hoping for in learning about the American Revolution. Many battles of that war are at best alluded to, such as the Battle of Brandywine, rather than covered. Only the last year or so of the war is covered in any real details. You do get a new perspective of the war. The book’s main contribution is to illuminate who funded our Revolutionary War, and that turned out to be not just the French but also indirectly the Dutch.

To cast light on this part of our history, Tuchman takes us deep into the Dutch empire at the start of the Revolutionary War. You might think the Revolutionary War revolved around Lexington, Concord and Yorktown but much of the action actually happened out of country. Tuchman’s tale takes us frequently to St. Eustatius, a tiny island of just eight square miles in the Dutch West Indies, on the far eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

It was at St. Eustatius that the Dutch became the first government to salute a U.S. Navy vessel, thanks to its free-market governor. It was an act that effectively thumbed the Dutch nose at the British government. The Dutch were notorious free traders and St. Eustatius was the principle trading point for vessels of all sorts, mostly going between Europe and the Americas, and hence a strategic location that knitted together its empire. If you know anything about the Revolutionary War, you probably learned that colonists were upset by the British government’s taxation policies. It required that colonists buy British imported goods only. Living in the colonies was expensive, but doubly so when you had to pay usury rates for goods from the British East India Company. Americans involved in commerce quickly used their wide geographical disparity to run around these rules, mostly through smuggling as I noted in 2005 in a review of To Rule the Waves.

Since the Dutch didn’t like the British, but tried not to go to war with them, American vessels found it convenient to trade goods at St. Eustatius, often under the watch of British ships. The British tolerated St. Eustatius for many years but it eventually became too much for them. Sir George Rodney, a British admiral, eventually was given the task of invading St. Eustatius and other Dutch islands in the area, principally to help cripple this illicit trading with the United States. These acts though started a war between the Netherlands and Great Britain, a war Great Britain thought it could win but simply proved to show how overextended its empire had become as it fought wars with many great powers simultaneously.

Great Britain was at least empowered by the weak Dutch government and which had off and on again wars with Spain, which claimed territory nearby. Still, trade was the lifeblood of the Netherlands. Having its trade with America reduced made them angry and caused their economy to tank. The British were liberal boarding its vessels looking for contraband, and these actions too caused a lot of resentment.

Eventually the French allied with America but the Revolutionary War nearly sputtered to a halt simply from lack of funds to feed it. Funds bought what the Colonial Army really needed: basics like guns and gunpowder. Pay for troops was sporadic at best. The American public itself was divided on the war, roughly half supporting those wanting a new nation and half wanting America to remain a colony, but few willing to risk life and limb to achieve it. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was to learn just how precarious our army was, which was mostly a ragtag group of militias and volunteers frequently hungry and impoverished.

The first half of the book sets the stage for the second half, which finally takes us mostly into America and follows George Washington as he tries to maneuver his troops intelligently across the colonies. This was a time that preceded the railroads. Moving troops by sea was usually not an option due to the British blockade, so troops had to walk, often surreptitiously around British strongholds like New York City. With often little more than cattle tracks between cities, movement of troops took a lot of time. Lots of volunteers found it too much and simply went home. Intelligence was spotty at best. It took a lot of British bungling, good fortune and Washington’s strategic thinking to bring the war to its end in Virginia with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. It also took the French, and French General Lafayette’s help to neatly box the British inside the Chesapeake Bay, to end the war and start a new nation. It’s curious how few of us know that the French army and navy helped win our independence.

Tuchman’s major accomplishment is this backstory, particularly how important the Dutch turned out to be in our revolution. It was not through much in the way of overt aid but in how the British discovered that bloodying the Dutch proved counterproductive, and engaged other macro forces that found it to their advantage to support America. George Washington and his colonial troops (plus troops supplied by Lafayette at the end of the war) certainly won the war in the United States, but it’s unlikely it would have succeeded had not engagement with the Dutch kicked off all sorts of events elsewhere in the world. This would move so many pieces on the chessboard that these actions far from America’s shores would prove pivotal in our eventual victory.

Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

I don’t often write about the universe. It’s been ten years since I wrote about the physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Universe. It seems that I cannot get enough of the story, at least when it can be brought down to the terms a layman like me can understand. Some months back Cosmos returned to television, a sort of sequel to the series of the same name hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan broadcast on public TV in 1980. This series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and showed up, curiously enough, on the Fox Network, a network known more for its lowbrow entertainment than this nerdy stuff.

I’m catching up on the series now on Netflix. I find it compelling in a strange way, so compelling that I am putting aside other really compelling shows like House of Cards and Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts to give it precedence. It tickles my curiosity and sense of wonder. The more you explore what we know about the universe, the more wondrous it becomes. deGrasse Tyson does a great job of conveying the immensity and the wonder of our universe. The series is aided by wondrous CGI as well, the sort that was simply unavailable when Carl Sagan hosted the series (although for the time his CGI was quite sophisticated). The combination of CGI, storytelling and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious way of story telling makes it a very compelling series.

It brings out the natural pantheist in me. Natural pantheism is sort of a religion that simply expresses reverence for our universe the way it is. As you finish episodes of this version of Cosmos, you should feel the pull of natural pantheism too. Most of us who are religious tend to appreciate the faiths that we have been brought up in, in part perhaps because its message is much simpler to grasp than the amazing immensity and complexity of the cosmos, to the extent that we can understand it. Traditional religions also tend to concentrate on people and our needs, aspirations and questions. They are human centric. Studying the cosmos as it is, is not human centric at all except of course that we are self-aware creatures. We also have developed a scientific method that allows us to continually gain in understanding of the cosmos and our part in it.

deGrasse Tyson does a great job of explaining how we came to understand how the universe actually works. This too is a compelling story. In it certain scientists like Newton, Faraday and Einstein become something like secular saints, because they each solve great mysteries. In the process they reveal not just what is, but how the master clock works and sometimes how we can work it to our advantage. It’s a story of great detective work spanning thousands of years.

The series is spawning new thoughts within me, particularly in the area of evolution. It is clear to me that evolution does not exist merely here on Earth, but across the universe as well. The universe evolves too, creating more and more complex elements that make life possible. Is there life in the universe, aside from our planet, of course? Now the answer seems simple: yes. Life doubtless exists elsewhere, in many forms. In fact it probably permeates our galaxy and much of the evolved universe. This is because all the building blocks are there, particularly carbon and heat, which is hardly unique to the Earth. In addition, as deGrasse Tyson points out in Episode 11, it is probable that microbial life travels between planets and between solar systems, seeding life itself across the galaxy and the universe. It just happens so slowly and over so many millions of years it is hard for us to see.

To me it gets much simpler. The universe itself is a living creature. The universe does not necessarily think or breathe, attributes that we associate with life but at least to our understanding is something done very quickly. But it is clearly evolving and becoming more complex with time. It is unfolding and through nuclear processes and gravity it is creating the complex, like carbon molecules, from the simple: the collapse of hydrogen gases by gravity into stars and their subsequent explosion. And like all living things, the universe seems destined to die. Like our body though it does not all die at once. It will take billions of years to die as the forces of the big bang move objects further and further from each other. The universe will catch a bad case of pneumonia and then pass on. With the big bang so powerful that no contraction of the universe seems possible, its energy will dwindle out, much like a firework. Whatever happens after that takes us to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

So yes, the universe is alive and it is also a vast system. Systems by nature are complex entities, and the universe is complex almost beyond our fathoming. Systems imply rules and order and some understanding, which if you believe in God suggests your belief is not unfounded. Systems also are comprised of many pieces that interrelate with one another. Our universe interrelates with itself. Forces like the nuclear forces and gravity are the means that enforce an interrelationship. It also means that everything is connected to everything else. We sometimes suffer the illusion that we are alone. We may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We are always intimately connected with everything else simply because we are all a part of everything else.

It is individuality that is an illusion, although as deGrasse Tyson points out not only are we part of a universe so immense that few of us can understand it, there is also a universe within ourselves. Within a breath of air that we inhale, there are more atoms inhaled than there are stars in the universe. If there is a miracle, it is that we have evolved to self-awareness. We have a pretty good idea how it all fits together now, and our part in it.

With life must come death. On the universal level, our life is like the lifespan of a bacterium on a bar of soap: very short indeed. By nature we cannot maintain such complexity for that long and even if we could the universe will shift in ways that would kill us. It’s no wonder then that universe seems cold, heartless and unfathomable. We are destined to die, and die very quickly on a universal time scale. However, we remain part of the fabric of something far more immense and alive: the universe itself.

We are a part of something immensely grand and complex indeed, with our part to play. We have the privilege, thanks to shows like Cosmos, to understand our what it is and our part in it. And that is awe-inspiring and for this agnostic a fitting and satisfying part to play.

Review: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

The Thinker by Rodin

Some books you cannot put down, some you plod through half heartedly, some you put down after a few pages and some you read for a while, put down for a long time, then strangely pick up again and actually finish. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie fell into the last category for me.

This was in part because the book was a gift. My wife knows that I like histories, and as usual this came from a recommendation by one of her friends. I’ve plodded through all sorts of unlikely histories. I enjoy the occasional history about a famous woman, such as my review of a book on Queen Elizabeth I. Catherine the Great came along about a hundred and fifty years after Queen Elizabeth I. She ultimately does make for an interesting read through the pen of historian Massie. First you must plod through a whole lot of backstory, and I got stuck in the middle of it.

Catherine ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, a remarkably long span of time for a monarch of her age. Her story is interesting because she was an unlikely monarch. To start with, she wasn’t even Russian. She was born in Prussia, now Germany, as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She did have noble blood in her, but just barely. In many ways by today’s standards her upbringing was quite middle class. Her second cousin was Peter III, a man she widely detested but was convinced to marry. This was because Prussian Emperor Frederick II needed a more lasting alliance, of the biological kind, between Prussian and Russia. Peter was distantly related to Empress Elizabeth and Catherine to Frederick II. Her conniving aunt helped arrange the marriage.

Catherine at least knew to make the most of opportunities. Married to Peter there was at least the prospect that she would become an empress. If not, living a life in a Russian court beat being married to some minor nobleman back in Prussia. She and Peter, who she barely knew, moved to Russia at Empress Elizabeth’s urging and her aunt’s insistence. Empress Elizabeth, the successor and daughter of Peter the Great, made sure they quickly were married. Her goal was grandchildren, but in that sense Peter III was a failure. He was completely clueless on how to consummate a marriage, and Catherine remained clueless as well. Moreover, Catherine detested Peter, who drank heavily, bore pox marks, hated Russia but admired the Prussian military. Upon reaching Russia, Catherine went right to work learning Russian, reading widely, and making friends at court. Catherine was not only unusually intelligent but she was socially gifted as well, agile enough to keep out of the way of the domineering Empress Elizabeth, but clever enough to make the contacts and demonstrate a key grasp of affairs and to win admirers in Elizabeth’s court.

Nonetheless, her primary value was not intelligence but her breeding value. Both she and Peter eventually had to be taught by others how to make love. It’s unlikely that she and Peter actually ever had sex, but she produced an heir nonetheless, courtesy of one of the many lovers during her life.

Those who like a sexy historical romance will find plenty to enjoy in this biography. For once Catherine learned the art of love, she quickly mastered the art of lovemaking. Her royal status allowed her to be quite particular with her lovers. As empress, she had a steady stream of favorites. Her favorites were men who were basically her exclusive lovers. Screwing the empress was not necessarily as fun as it sounded since in addition to putting out like a stud, you basically served as her constant companion as well. Having lovers was by no means scandalous. She was hardly alone among European royalty. In fact, most of the monarchs, male or female, had a steady stream of favorites and consorts that amused them and provided bedroom delights. These lovers also produced children, children she bore and largely did not see.

What had me stop reading the book for many months were the many pages devoted to her husband Peter III. He was, to say it kindly, a most unusual man. Mostly he was a very annoying person: insensitive, thoughtless, ugly, persecuted and incurious but given his backstory and the cruel way he was raised, it was not surprising. You get to see him through Catherine’s eyes and the view is not pretty. Their life, such as it was together, is hard to read. When Empress Elizabeth finally died of a stroke, Peter III ascended to the throne, but only for about six months. He was so detested that his suspicious death after Catherine took over as monarch in a coup was likely from poison. His death was also completely understandable, as he seemed interested in surrendering Russia to the Prussia he felt at home in. Catherine at least knew how to govern as a Russian and work in the best interest of the state.

For her time, Catherine was amazingly progressive. She believed in monarchy but many things about Russian society appalled her, including the conditions of serfs, who were basically slaves. She tried quite hard to institute a constitutional government in Russia by calling together all classes of Russian society to draft such a document. It proved futile and certain things like the relationship between nobility and serfs proved institutionally impossible to change. In most other ways though she governed with amazing aptitude. Russia expanded its territory in wars against Prussia and Turkey. She did not believe in capital punishment, although one exception was made for a traitor. During her reign Russia became about as enlightened as the rest of Europe, a major feat. She opened hospitals in a country that had virtually none, staffed them, set up a system to take care of homeless mothers and orphans, and through trusted aids like Grigory Potemkin managed to turn large parts of Russia, which resembled the Wild West, into peaceful and prosperous territories. She even won Russia a warm water port on the Black Sea.

And yet she was a passionate woman, not just in bed, but also in temperament. She worked long hours, liked to hear differences of opinion and ruled with unusual enlightenment for her time. She wrote of her own foibles to intimates. She was also not infatuated with herself. This was probably due in part to her humble upbringing, and the way that it grounded her in real life.

Catherine turned out to be the last empress Russia would ever have. Many did not approve of Peter the Great’s decision that each monarch could choose their own successor. That is how his daughter Empress Elizabeth got the crown. The men who would follow her, including those who were assassinated like her son, would prove generally inept in a way she was not.

Readers can be forgiven if they skip over many of the chapters involving Catherine’s husband Peter III. If you like history though this is informative. This is my first exposure in any significant depth to Russian history. If the rest of Russian history is as interesting as Catherine’s life and her time as monarch, I’d gladly become a Russian history enthusiast. Moreover, if you are fascinated by examples of great women in power, it is hard to find a better example of a wise and beneficent ruler than Catherine the Great.

A week of preventable tragedies

The Thinker by Rodin

Last week was a good week to stick your head in the ground. Unfortunately, we are not ostriches so we were left to endure two major tragedies instead: the Boston bombings and an explosion of a fertilizer factory in West, Texas. The former got disproportionate attention, but the latter actually caused more deaths.

Last Monday’s twin bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon murdered three people including a boy, left at least thirteen people with severed limbs, and more than 178 people were treated at local hospitals. It was arguably the first major case of terrorism within the United States since September 11, 2001. For some of us who were in or around the events of 9/11, these bombings evoked visceral reminders of that day. I was one of the people caught in Washington, D.C. that day. My way of coping last week was not to watch videos of this event, but otherwise the news was inescapable. The total deaths were really four if you include the MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was killed by gunfire from the bombing suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev early Friday morning. Police killed Tamerlan, the elder brother on Friday morning. His brother Dzhokhar is now in hospitalized and in custody after a wild manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding areas for much of Friday.

The visceral reaction to this incident was understandable, given that the Boston Marathon is a huge public event and perhaps the premier running event in the United States. In a sense it was an attack on all of us because it was so indiscriminate. The chaotic reporting of the event did not do credit to the media, social media or crowdsourcing. What was impressive was the effectiveness of law enforcement at city, state and the federal levels. Within three days of the event officials had identified two suspects from thousands of images in and around the event, and within four days one suspect was dead and the other was captured wounded in nearby Watertown after an extensive and scary manhunt that shut down the Boston area. Less noted by the press was what had not occurred in the twelve years in between these events. We know of some of the planned terrorist events that were thwarted by law enforcement over these years, and there are doubtless many more that we do not know about. This incident also demonstrated that when these events occur we can marshal the right resources to effectively manage and contain the event. We have also put in place an infrastructure that is generally effective at preventing most of these incidents. Our law enforcement community deserves applause from all Americans for their forceful and effective response to these tragic bombings. The citizens of Boston proved their resilience as well, by offering assistance to victims of the bombing and by keeping their cool while neighborhoods swarmed with SWAT teams.

Adding to the surreal nature of these events was the rejection by the U.S. senate of expanded background checks for gun purchasers last week. The legislation would not have stopped the bombings themselves, which were wrought by low-tech pressure cookers placed in backpacks. However, had the law been in effect it might have kept the Tsarnaev brothers from acquiring weapons in the first place. During the shootout with police Thursday night, the brothers outgunned the police, at least as far as the number of bullets exchanged. As the nearby Newtown incident demonstrated, it’s not hard to buy lots of bullets in this country. Both brothers were able to acquire guns that were used to kill Officer Collier. Authorities had previously interviewed the elder brother Tamerian because the Russian government believed him to have Chechen sympathies. If they appeared on any watch list, it did not appear to have kept them from getting guns.

While the news from Boston riveted our attention, arguably the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas near Waco on Wednesday was more newsworthy. While it’s unclear if the Boston bombings could have been prevented, the incident in West was eminently preventable and exacerbated by the Texan stubbornness not to allow zoning laws. Currently there are fourteen confirmed deaths and more than 160 people injured, mostly residents of this small Texan town. The town’s volunteer firefighters made up a plurality of those killed. They first successfully evacuated residents from a nearby nursing home before the plant exploded. OSHA had not inspected the plant itself since 1985. The Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to regulate fertilizer factories like this one but depends on these factories to self identify themselves never was notified. The destruction amounted to sixty to 80 homes completely destroyed, including a fifty-unit apartment building. Fifty to 75 additional homes were damaged. The only good thing about the explosion is that a fire started at the plant before it exploded, allowing responders to get the elderly out of a nearby nursing home and residents from neighboring homes before the explosion. It’s hard to imagine what the death toll had been had there been no warning.

This incident is a prime example of a wholly preventable accident. Even if the accident could not have been prevented, zoning laws could have kept industrial areas far away from residential areas, as is common in the vast majority of states except for states with something prickly up their rears, like Texas, who think “freedom” trumps basic public safety. The state of Texas is hostile to zoning regulations of any sort, so it’s perfectly okay to put major industrial plants like this fertilizer storage facility close to residential areas. An incident like this would normally have state legislatures scrambling to enact zoning laws to give jurisdictions authority to put public safety first. This is unlikely to happen, so something like this is bound to happen again.

In fact, it has. Texas, known for its refineries as well as many other hazardous industries, has a sorry history of large and preventable industrial accidents. In 1947, the Texas City Disaster killed at least 581 people and left only one person alive in the city’s fire department. The culprit was a ship loaded with ammonia nitrate, the same stuff that blew up in West Texas, except it was on a ship and 2,300 tons of the stuff went up at once, creating an explosion so powerful it had the force of a nuclear bomb. Also in Texas City in 2005 the Texas City Refinery exploded, killed 15 people and injured 170 others, making it roughly equivalent to this latest incident. If you feel somewhat ghoulish, check out this slide show of large Texan industrial accidents. They will have a familiar ring to them.

Since 9/11 we have done a lot as a country to reduce terrorist incidents like the Boston bombing. We obviously could do more, but we could clearly do a lot more to prevent large-scale industrial accidents such as occurred in West, Texas last week. Like terrorism, it requires putting the public good ahead of private profit and convenience. Let’s hope we learn some new lessons here at least, but like the NRA’s successful effort to get the Senate to turn down legislation for expanded background checks of gun purchasers supported by ninety percent of Americans, it seems that Texans will put stubbornness ahead of public safety once again.

Thoughts on the Civil War

The Thinker by Rodin

Mission accomplished! I have now completed reading a comprehensive history of the Civil War, specifically Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume, 2,968 page, 1.2 million word tome, The Civil War: A Narrative. This war is now about a hundred and fifty years in our past. It remains a source of considerable interest, at least to a small subset of Americans into history, primarily because it happened right around us instead of in some distant land. As a percent of our population killed or injured in a war, the Civil War is unlikely to ever be exceeded unless there is a nuclear war. It touched pretty much everyone in our nation.

This post is not so much a review of these books, which are well written and meticulously researched by Foote, as it is to provide some of my thoughts and observations about the Civil War, particularly things that surprised me or are simply not well known to those with only a casual knowledge of the conflict.

One of the primary lessons I took away from these books is that effective leadership and passion can surmount seemingly impossible odds. At the beginning of the war, most Confederates who graduated from West Point realized that the South could not win the war. At best Confederates held out hope that the Union would simply tire of the conflict and sue for peace. This was not an unrealistic expectation, but Abraham Lincoln was not an ordinary president. He ineffectively but doggedly continued to pursue the war. The North had all the odds in their favor, principally the resources, money and population. However, the South had leadership and passion, and this combination of forces prolonged the war and gave hope to a weary South. The South succeeded for so long, particularly in the first half of the war, primarily because of the brilliant General Robert E. Lee of Virginia and the many talented commanders who worked under him such as General Stonewall Jackson. However, they were also blessed by a series of ineffectual Union generals, most of whom did not deserve their rank. The Confederate Army proved amazingly agile and determined. Time and again this gave them the upper hand, often with half the army that the Union had at its disposal. They were the Spartans of this war. They depended on wile and guts and mostly it worked.

I knew the Civil War was bloody but I did not appreciate just how bloody it was until I read these books. Its bloody battle at Gettysburg gets a disproportionate amount of the press, but there are other battles that were arguably equally as bloody and in many ways far more horrifying. Two of General Grant’s early battles here in Virginia stand out in my mind, battles I had not even known about but whose descriptions by Foote had me wondering if any battle preceding it had ever been so nasty and bloody. I speak of The Battle of the Wilderness followed by The Battle of Cold Harbor. In some way these battles were reckless. Grant chose to throw massive amounts of Union troops into these battles, at a huge cost and for no appreciable gain.

In any war there are battles that turned out to be game changers. In the western theater, it turned out to be the Battle of Shiloh that brought Grant into prominence and was the first step in eventually bringing the Mississippi River under Union control and thus Balkanizing the South. In the east, arguably it occurred in Georgia at The Battle of Chickamauga. It was in some ways the straw the broke the Confederacy’s back. The Battle of Gettysburg is notable not just for being the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, but also for being the first major victory by the Union Army, although it was arguably a pyrrhic victory.

One of the great strengths of Foote’s books is not so much the meticulous documentation of the battles themselves, but it allows the reader to get an intimate understanding of the men who were central to the whole conflict, and the various tensions that existed between them. There were plenty of third rate generals, mostly on the Union side. Arguably the Confederacy had some as well including Beauregard and Johnston. In some ways Johnston and the Union general McClellan were two peas from the same pod: hesitant to engage, quick to withdraw and ready to blame others for delays and when problems emerged. Both were very popular with their men, perhaps because of these deficiencies. There were also notable generals who arguably deserve more attention than they got, Union general Thomas, for instance, arguably the most effective general of the war in that he never really lost a battle, although he was often slow in starting them (such as the Battle of Nashville, the last major battle of the war.)

One thing that struck me was just how undeveloped the United States was at this period of history. Roads were bad and largely impassible during the wet season. They weren’t paved but some of them were planked, so armies often hoofed it over muddy fields, trailing wagons by the thousands and cannons across frequently difficult terrain. Bridges were constantly being blown up and rebuilt. Railroads were the primary means of quickly moving soldiers and supplies, which made them very strategic. An occupying army’s first job was often to tear up railroad track. When you don’t have much in the way of roads, cavalry becomes vital. Toward the end of the war Union general Sheridan showed that the Union could have an effective cavalry, but mostly this was an area wherein the South excelled, principally J.E.B. Stuart in Virginia and Bedford Forrest in the south.

As with any good history, you will learn little nuggets that are just fascinating but not widely known. There was a battle in New Mexico, and some Confederates briefly occupied a town in Vermont. The Confederate Army briefly occupied part of Washington D.C. One assault on a Confederate ship took place off the coast of Brazil, and was arguably illegal under international law. Another took place off the coast of England in international waters with most Britons cheering for the Confederates. Months after the Confederates has surrendered, a rouge Confederate naval ship was attacking whalers in the Bearing Sea.

Foote’s history overall is quite engaging, although some shopworn terms (“butternut soldiers”) get endlessly repeated. It would be hard not to do this with so many battles to document, and even with three thousand pages some of them get just a casual mention. Overall the Civil War was intense, bloody, and often reckless and much of it seems unbelievable. It seems crazy that so many people would fight in such a bloody, intense and disruptive war.

It is also a war that is still underway, just being battled now in generally nonviolent ways, such as in voter suppression or gerrymandering. The reluctance of many Americans to embrace any gun control at all does not have its roots so much in the Second Amendment, but in the Civil War, and the ability of a gun to foment insurrection against the established government. I hope I am wrong, but a new Civil War may be in our future.