America’s Jello War

Have you ever made Jello? The process is pretty simple: mix jello packet with water, place in molds, let set. The setting process is critical – if you jump for the treat too soon it will lack any firmness and wiggle; you’ll basically bite into thick fruit punch. Jello is an excellent metaphor for America during the first years of its nationhood. After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, America was far from the firm consistency of Jello; there were many forces which wanted to prevent the setting process.

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Domestic and international threats were constantly trying to undermine the Constitution and the office of the presidency. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, was a famous advocate for a hybrid-monarchy and wanted America to mirror components of British government. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was constantly paranoid that a King would take over the states or that the New England colonies would secede to the Brits. We look back at those years with 20/20 hindsight but people were freaking out about the state of their “Jello-Nation.” So when did the Jello finally set?

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The United States really didn’t become a unified nation until the War of 1812 – America’s Jello War; the War of 1812 is always skimmed over in History Class but it was the war that gave America its familiar consistency. To learn more about this important-congealing period, I read 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman.

In the years that led up to 1812, America was in a constant struggle with Britain over their policy of “Impressment.” Impressment was the policy of British ships stopping vessels at sea in order to search them for British citizens – the captured Brits would be forced into military service. America didn’t like being pushed around on the seas and especially didn’t like when American citizens were unjustly impressed to serve the Royal Navy – more than 10,000 by 1812. Added to these grievances, the British restricted international trade as a way to counter Napoleonic France – this was ruinous for American exports.

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The seas were foaming with anger between the two countries but the problems also extended to the terra firma. America was trying to expand westward but the British were slow to exit forts which were lost during the American Revolution and were quick to help Native Americans fight for contested territory. These territory disputes were constant and many westerners were salivating for more land – Canada looked like a low hanging fruit. Everything came to a head in 1812 after impressment searches led to American vessels being militarily attacked – James Madison reluctantly declared war on Great Britain.

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The war was fought on land and sea. Battles took place along Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the western frontier. Many battles were small skirmishes that pitted a weak American militia against a veteran British regiment; Native Americans many times joined the British or fought on their own. By the end of the war America had 35,000 troops compared to nearly 50,000 British troops with casualties of 2,200 and 1,100 respectively.  At the beginning of the war, many thought it would be simple to annex Canada, but after several failed attempts the American forces realized it would be much more difficult. The Americans and British kept swapping victories and the war seemed to be at a permanent stand still – the Americans were unorganized and the British were under resourced due to concurrent wars in Europe.

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James Madison had in theory the power of a united nation but in reality was a bystander to a conglomerate of individual states. Men were hard to recruit and funds were no where to be found – hence, the fighting kept puttering along with each nation only putting a toe into the cold water of  war. It all came to a head with the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 which saw for the first time support for the War by the New England states. This victory ended any thought of the British increasing their fleets in the Atlantic and became a rallying cry for the entire nation – Francis Scott Key would write the Star-Spangled Banner during the battle.

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A peace treaty was soon signed and America was reborn in the eyes of the world as a “real” nation that could hold its own. The War of 1812 birthed the national careers of two future presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. It stopped any talk of New England succession, led the way for the Monroe Doctrine, expedited westward expansion, increased federal power, and was the catalyst for the future sale of Alaska from Russia. After the War of 1812, the Jello Nation was set and molded. Or in the words of the then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to Thomas Jefferson…

“The people now have more general objects of attachment with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more American; they feel and act more as a nation and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby secured.”

 

The Confederate Battle “Cry”-ing

On Friday, I went to see the fireworks in Baroda, Michigan to celebrate the Fourth of July. To my dismay, I saw several large Confederate flags flying in the back of excessively large pickup trucks. I found this perplexing because these were Michiganders who, during the Civil War, fought against the south; in one example, the entirety of males in Flint, MI, with the mayor as their commander, signed up do defend the union during America’s bloodiest war. What does the Confederate Flag represent in today’s age? State’s rights? Racism? Heritage? Pride? I believe it is a combination of all those things with groups emphasizing certain meanings to suit their agendas (think the KKK with racism and the state of South Carolina with heritage).  I wanted to know more about the Confederacy and the Civil War in general so I read The Civil War by Geoffrey Ward. I highly recommend this book because it not only goes over the war in understandable detail but it also has essays that explain why the war came about, who freed the slaves,the politics of war, the views of the men who fought, and what the war did to shape US history.

The Civil War began on April 12th, 1861 when Fort Sumter in South Carolina was taken by the Confederacy. The first shot of the war occurred in the first state that seceded from the Union. Actually, South Carolina seceded on December 20th, 1860 as a direct result of Abraham Lincoln being elected one month prior; seven states would secede before Lincoln was even inaugurated. Why did these state’s hate Abraham Lincoln so much? The answer is complex but Lincoln was the first president in the history of the United States who had a political agenda to prevent the spread of slavery. He did not want to initially abolish slavery but he did not want it to spread to the new territories acquired by the Mexican-American War. Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually extinguish itself in the south and that there was no need to abolish it during his term. The South, felt threatened by this very moderate platform and believed that a Republican administration would lead to a world where slave holding would be stigmatized as morally wrong, slaves would be encouraged to rise up against their masters, and racial equality would exist. The newly formed Confederate States of America adopted the US constitution but made one major amendment-slavery could never be abolished. This one fact makes it quite obvious that the Confederacy was formed because of slavery and nothing else. The argument of State’s Rights is a hard sale because the Confederate government made no concessions in their adopted US constitution to increase State’s Rights and it actually infringed upon State’s Rights by enforcing the first draft in history. Furthermore, the North had just as many “State’s Rights” transgressions related to slavery with the enforcement of the Fugitive-Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision which essentially said slavery could not be prohibited in any of the “Free States.”

To simply put it, 11 southern states ran away from the union, crying like spoiled children, because they “believed” they wouldn’t be allowed to enslave people anymore. This tantrum led to the death of over 600,000 people to restore the Union and to finally force the end of slavery. So what does the Confederate flag represent? It represents the continuation of slavery at all costs-including the death of it’s citizens and the once great Union that it broke from. Is this the “Heritage” that Confederate flag supporters are talking about? Are you proud of a heritage of ignorance, political paranoia, and innumerable-citizen deaths for the continuation of slavery? I’m not, and that is why the Confederate flag should not be associated with any government institution today. We are the United States of America and the only flag we should be flying is the one with 50 stars-promoting the idea that we are a synergistic union of states which strives for freedom and equal treatment of all its citizens. Happy Fourth of July 🙂

The General, The Tank, The William Tecumseh Sherman

After quite a long moving process, I am finally settled into my “Moby Dick” house and quite happy. The process of furnishing, organizing, and copious hours of cleaning left me without much time to read or write. Thankfully, the project is winding down and I have been masterfully avoiding my wife’s “To-Do” list that was placed on the refrigerator like a black spot of death. Tomorrow, I am going to a Civil War reenactment in celebration of the 150th anniversary since the bloody war ended at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9th, 1865. My high school education on the Civil War was quite shallow and I believe we spent about a week on the entire subject. Desiring to expand my knowledge before the reenactment, I checked out Fierce Patriot:The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L O’Connell. I picked this book up because the cover looked cool and I knew absolutely nothing about General Sherman and his role in the Civil War.

Sherman was a West Point graduate with fiery-red hair and a strong sense of pride in the ever expanding United States. He took many different jobs throughout the country and displayed a sense of desire for adventure and career advancement. When very young, his father died and was subsequently adopted by the wealthy Ohio senator-Thomas Ewing. He ended up marrying his foster sister Ellen Ewing but spent most the time away from her because she preferred being in Ohio with her father. Sherman was first appointed to colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment and with his brave performance at the First Battle of Bull Run was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers by Abraham Lincoln. After a nervous breakdown and a bout of mental illness while in Kentucky, Sherman was able to find his military-sweet spot working under Grant’s command in the battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta among others. Sherman is best known for his fierce psychological warfare against the south in his March to the Sea campaign. After burning most of Atlanta, Sherman marched through Georgia foraging, burning, and looting civilian property. This march culminated with the capture of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina-both capitols burned and ransacked to crush all confederate hopes. Sherman was a strategic genius and ushered in a new era of warfare in which civilian supporters were fair game in the hazards of war (think Hiroshima during WWII). Beyond just strategy, Sherman was a gregarious general who was given the nickname “Uncle Billy” because he was extremely approachable and friendly to all his soldiers. His later life was filled with a celebrity untainted by the smearing affects of politics (unlike the fate of Ulysses S. Grant) and a quite prominent career completing the transcontinental railroad.

Sherman by no means was not a perfect man: black equality was not a concern to him, he wanted all the buffalo extinct so that the Native Americans would be forced to move to reservations, and he had a fair share of affairs with various women. I admire Sherman in his career accomplishments more then his personal accomplishments. The man knew how to get the job done and was extremely confidant in himself while not being overly pretentious. Thankfully, he had a strong desire to keep the Union together because if he fought for the Confederacy the outcome of the Civil War may have been different; this being a strong possibility because he actually was the founder of a military school in Louisiana when the war first broke out. Sherman in the end helped shape the physical and ideological America we know today-uniting North, South, East, and West with an uncompromising vision of progress.