Friday, August 22, 2014

Storming the Capital

George R. Gleig (1796–1888)
From The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence

The President’s House [after the burning of Washington], c. 1815–16. Watercolor on paper by American engraver George Munger (1771–1825). A note in Art in the White House: A Nation's Pride (2008) explains the strange S-curved shape on the roof. “It is most readily interpreted as part of a lightning protection system. Not a lightning rod, given its length, but rather part of the metallic conductor that encircled the roof, now torn from its mooring." Image from the White House Historical Association website.
For our previous Story of the Week selection, which commemorated the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington on August 23–24, 1814, we showcased the letter Dolley Madison wrote to her sister just hours before she fled the White House with her staff, important artifacts, and a famous painting of George Washington. This week we present the recollections of that same event by George R. Gleig, an eighteen-year-old British officer who participated in the attack on the nation’s capital.

The first half of his account describes the Battle of Bladensburg, during which the overconfident and poorly organized American forces—which greatly outnumbered the invaders—were quickly swept aside. In a later version of his memoir, Gleig said that he was initially surprised by the sight of the Americans, who “would have been much more appropriately employed in attending to their agricultural occupations, than in standing, with their muskets in their hands.” During the months following the battle, news reports and poems ridiculed Madison and “his army,” referring to the hasty American retreat as the “Bladensburg races.”

The second half surveys the destruction of federal buildings (including the White House, the Capitol, and the Treasury), which began immediately after a British party bearing “a flag of truce” entered Washington to negotiate terms of surrender and were instead fired upon by riflemen hiding in a private home.

One incident is not mentioned in Gleig’s account. When British Admiral George Cockburn arrived in the city, he searched for the offices of the National Intelligencer, which had long been insulting and taunting him, and oversaw personally the destruction of the pressroom. Spectators overheard him denouncing the publisher “with much of the peculiar slang of the Common Sewer.” The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 mentions a contemporary report claiming that the admiral instructed soldiers to “take special effort to obliterate all of the c’s in the newspaper’s type racks” so that the publisher could no longer spell Cockburn’s name.

Notes: The first page of the selection mentions Isis, which is the section of the Thames that flows through Oxford. Page 518 refers to the siege during the Peninsular War by Wellington’s army of a large French garrison in the northern Spanish port city of San Sebastián. The siege lasted from July 7, 1813, to the surrender on September 8. During the final week British and Portuguese soldiers ransacked, pillaged, and burned the city, leaving only a few buildings standing.

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The hour of noon was approaching, when a heavy cloud of dust, apparently not more than two or three miles distant, attracted our attention. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, August 15, 2014

“Dear sister, I must leave this house”

Dolley Madison (1768–1849)
From The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence

George Washington [“Lansdowne portrait”]. Oil on
canvas, replica of a painting by Gilbert Stuart. This
particular replica has been in the White House since
1800 and was rescued during the evacuation by Dolley
Madison.It is usually attributed to Stuart himself—although
there is some doubt about its provenance. As can be seen
in the inset, “States” is misspelled on the spine of one of
the books. (The word is spelled correctly in the original.)
Dolley Madison was our nation’s first First Lady—that is to say, she was the first wife of a president to be known by that designation when Zachary Taylor referred to her as such in the eulogy he delivered at her funeral. During her husband’s two administrations, she became renowned both for her political acuity and her frequent sponsorship of social events (she oversaw the nation’s first official inaugural ball). When the War of 1812 intensified as the British raided coastal cities from Florida to Maryland, she refused to abandon Washington and reassured acquaintances that the enemy would never get within twenty miles of the capital. “I am not the least alarmed at these things,” she wrote to a friend.

Two hundred years ago, on August 17, 1814, British forces under Major General Robert Ross arrived at the mouth of the Patuxent River (a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay). “All President Madison could do,” writes historian Thomas Fleming, “was call out thousands of militia. The commander of these jittery amateurs was Brig. Gen. William Winder, whom Madison had appointed largely because his uncle, the governor of Maryland, had already raised a sizable state militia.” On the morning of August 23, the president sent the First Lady a short message saying that American forces were “in high spirits” and the enemy’s approach was of little concern. “The last & probably truest information is that they are not very strong, and are without cavalry or artillery, and of course that they are not in a condition to strike at Washington.” But that afternoon he sent off a second note retracting his original assurances. The next day the feeble American forces were soundly defeated at the Battle of Bladensburg, opening the road to Washington. On August 24–25, the British occupied the capital city and burned public buildings—including the White House.

In this week’s selection, a letter Dolley wrote to her sister late in the day of the evacuation, she describes her role in the rescue of an iconic painting of George Washington. This canvas, a replica of Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne Portrait,” is believed to be one of several copies painted by Stuart himself and it still hangs in the White House to this day. (There is some doubt about its provenance, in part because Stuart disowned this particular copy soon after it was purchased by Congress in 1800.) The original painting was commissioned in 1786 as a gift to William Petty FitzMaurice, who, as British Prime Minister in 1782–83, finalized the Treaty of Paris that brought the American Revolution to an end. He was then made Marquess of Lansdowne—thus the name used to designate the portrait.

The original of Dolley’s letter is actually lost; what survives is a transcription of what she called “an extract” sent to her biographer in 1836. In the decades following the incident, various and conflicting narratives of the rescue circulated; some of the more fanciful chroniclers reported that she had removed the painting with her own hands at the last minute and stuffed it into her suitcase—embellishments that her own account doesn’t support. Paul Jennings, a slave in the Madison household who was fifteen years old at the time, wrote his recollection of the event in a memoir published in 1865:
It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment.
Notes: Charles Carroll, mentioned in the letter, was “a gentleman intimate in the President’s family,” in the words of the doorman for the Executive Manson. Many years later, various counterclaims arose about the rescue of the Stuart portrait and Carroll’s son insisted that his father had rescued the painting. The two gentlemen of New York are Robert Gilbert Livingston de Peyster and financier Jacob Barker.

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Japanese Hamlet

Toshio Mori (1910–1980)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

“Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA” (c. 1940). Serial #6771, printed by E. C. Kropp Co. Image courtesy of
During the 1930s Toshio Mori persistently wrote short stories and submitted them to mainstream national magazines, which just as persistently rejected them. Finally, in 1938, two stories were accepted for publication by the small magazine Coast, and one of them (“He Who Has the Laughing Face”) was reprinted in the influential annual, New Directions in Prose & Poetry. By 1941 his stories had appeared in a number of other literary periodicals and, more important, had come to the attention of William Saroyan. The small press Caxton Printers accepted his first book collection, Yokohama, California, the editors scheduled it for publication in early 1942, and Saroyan agreed to write the introduction—and then the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. Because of the subsequent anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S., the book’s publication was cancelled.

Caxton did finally publish Yokohama, California, with Saroyan’s introduction, in 1949—when it quickly vanished into oblivion. For the next three decades, Mori managed a nursery or sold flowers for a wholesaler, yet he continued working on his craft until, in the 1970s, his debut collection was rediscovered by a new generation of Asian American writers and critics. During the last two years of his life, a novel (Woman from Hiroshima, 1978) and a second story collection (The Chauvinist, 1979) appeared.

One of the selections in Mori’s final book is “Japanese Hamlet,” which was actually written some forty years earlier. Literary scholar David Palumbo-Liu notes that, while the story “seems to offer a very simple message,” it masks an underlying tension from “a faith in the power of Art to transcend race, ethnicity, and history.” With the conspicuous exception of its title, however, the story does not even mention race or ethnicity as an issue. Nevertheless, Palumbo-Liu elaborates, “In a world of racial difference, to be Hamlet, Tom cannot be Japanese; to be Japanese, Tom cannot be Hamlet. Yet the myth of universal art denies that there is any contradiction since, in being an artist, Tom can do both.” In a sense, the hero of the story is much like Mori himself: an artist who perseveres, in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, in the hope of reaching a wide American audience.

(The first page of this week’s selection includes additional introductory remarks by James Shapiro, editor of Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now.)

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He used to come to the house and ask me to hear him recite. Each time he handed me a volume of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, August 1, 2014

No Room in the Cemetery

Anonymous [published in 1966]
From Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959–1969

Fifty years ago, on August 2, 1964, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was on an intelligence-gathering mission off the coast of North Vietnam when it engaged in a firefight with three torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the ensuing battle, all three North Vietnamese boats were damaged and four sailors were killed; there were no U.S. casualties. Two days later the Maddox and another destroyer reported a second, four-hour engagement with North Vietnamese vessels. Quoting a cable sent later that day from the Maddox, a secret chronology prepared at the end of August for President Johnson concluded that a review of the second incident made the “many reported contacts and torpedoes fired ‘appear doubtful.’ ‘Freak weather effects’ on radar, and ‘over-eager’ sonarmen may have accounted for many reports.” Commander James B. Stockdale later wrote, “There was absolutely no gunfire except our own, no PT boat wakes, not a candle light let alone a burning ship.”

Immediately after the second incident, Johnson responded by ordering the first U.S. airstrikes against North Vietnam and by submitting the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to Congress, which on August 7 authorized the president to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Southeast Asia. (Johnson later joked that the resolution was so broadly worded it was “like grandma's nightshirt. It covered everything.”) Most historians regard this weeklong series of events as the crucial turning point in American involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

Two years later, in May 1966, nineteen-year-old Jimmy Williams was a member of one of two U.S. battalions assigned to “Operation Hardihood,” a sweep of the countryside in South Vietnam’s Phuoc Tuy province, where the Australians had a key military base. While troops were preparing for the operation, his company encountered enemy forces. Australian Captain Robert J. O'Neill recalls in his account:
They knew that they were being followed by a Viet Cong rifleman carrying a radio, but they did not know that in their path was a Viet Cong company who were being guided by the man with the radio. The Americans were caught in deadly cross fire of a box ambush to which were quickly added 60mm. mortar bombs. By the time that they had extricated themselves they had lost eight killed and twenty three wounded—a heavy blow for an infantry company to sustain.
PFC Jimmy Laverne Williams;
photo from the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial Fund’s Wall of Faces
Williams was among the eight Americans killed in the ambush. “His buddies, black and white, helped carry the wounded 173rd Airborne Brigade soldier to a medical evacuation helicopter, where he died,” reported Rubén Salazar in The Los Angeles Times at the end of May. “All of Williams’s buddies killed with him were resting this Memorial Day where their survivors wanted them to be. All but Williams.” What happened to Williams’s body when it arrived back home is described in the following anonymously written article that appeared on the front page of The Afro-American [Baltimore].

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PFC Jimmy Williams's uniformed body was lowered in a grave in the piney woods of South Georgia Monday while a grieving mother pondered the fates which denied him a final resting place in his hometown. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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