George Washington’s Heroism at Valley Forge

by Tom Clavin

Some people think there was a Battle of Valley Forge. There could well have been, because 2,000 American soldiers died there. Or what we know about Valley Forge is an illustration we saw in middle-school Social Studies textbooks, one that showed a few guys freezing in the snow and George Washington on a horse looking at a few guys freezing in the snow. The much bigger story of that event, told in my book Valley Forge written with Bob Drury, is that it was the turning point of the American Revolution. At no time before or after was the flame of independence flicker so slightly. If George Washington and his ragged, starving, and freezing Continental Army had not survived that horrific winter encampment, Great Britain would have won the war and the United States would have been stillborn.

Washington at Valley Forge

For the Americans, the Fall 1777 campaign had been one gut punch after another. That September, British troops paraded triumphantly through the streets of Philadelphia, having taken the young country’s capital city and sent into exile the few delegates left in the Continental Congress. Washington’s attempts to retake the city and administer the knockout blow, the cause of liberty so desperately needed, met with failure at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. Most humiliating was the Paoli Massacre, in which dozens of  American troops were bayoneted by the British as they slept. When Washington’s men staggered into winter quarters at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania on December 19, they were a beaten army that could soon cease to exist.

“As the days dragged on, Washington periodically reined his horses by the road to linger and bear witness as his  ghost of an army straggled past. First, the officers on horseback led their stumbling and footsore regiments, then the juddering baggage wagons, and finally the 400 or so ‘camp women’ with their untold children bringing up the rear. These were primal moments. As the commander in chief beheld so many of his soldiers, ‘without Cloathes to cover their makedness—without blankets to lay on—without Shoes,’ Washington later wrote. It must have crossed his mind that the preponderance of his hungry and half-clad were present in  a great part out of great loyalty to him. Nor could the irony be lost on him that his days as the leader of this army might well be numbered, through either political perfidy or, as seemed more likely at the moment, the complete dissolution of his vagabond force.”

Once in the encampment, Washington had his men build cabins to shelter them for when the worst of the winter arrived. This was not easily done because many of the men were too weak for the massive construction effort to house 12,000 men and they had few effective tools, like saws and hammers. Day after day they struggled until finally by Christmas most of the cabins were done. Just in time too, because their present for Christmas was a three-day snowstorm.

This had to be the worst holiday of George Washington’s life. In the days leading up to it, he felt abandoned by the Continental Congress, governors of states, and some friends who were beginning to call for his ouster. Most of all, though, he despaired for his men. Though most of his correspondence was dictated to his aides Alexander Hamilton and Tench Tilghman, late one night Washington himself wrote a plea to Henry Laurens, the new president of the undermanned Congress.

Continue reading “George Washington’s Heroism at Valley Forge” on the Unknown History channel at Quick and Dirty Tips. Or listen to the full episode below.

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Railroads, the Chicago World’s Fair, and George Pullman

by Jack Kelly

The year 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental rail line. The explosive growth of railroads had, by the 1890s, created the world’s greatest transportation system and made American railroad corporations the biggest businesses in the world.

In the summer of 1894, the employees of those railroads joined in a sympathy strike that virtually shut down the roads, especially in the West. They were supporting workers who made Pullman cars in Chicago, but, according to The New York Times, the real struggle was “between the greatest and most powerful railroad labor organization and the entire railroad capital.”

Chicago World’s Fair, Excerpt from The Edge of Anarchy

They came by the millions and tens of millions. Almost one in every five Americans made the trek to  Chicago that summer for the world’s fair. Their reaction to the spectacle was summed up by a diarist who wrote: “My mind was dazzled to a standstill.”

Almost all who came, came by train. Those who could afford it rode a Pullman car, the epitome of luxurious travel. A Pullman sleeper offered room to spread out, elegant service, and the delicious pleasure of status. Fairgoers were headed to Chicago to shake hands with the future, and in the Pullman car the future seemed to be reaching out to greet them.

Those who had not had the privilege of riding on one could take in all the latest models at a display mounted by the Pullman’s Palace Car Company in the fair’s Transportation Building. The carved rosewood, Axminster carpets, polished brass, fringed valances, and cascades of curtains and draperies beloved by Victorians all made Pullman travel an adventure in hedonism. By day, a Pullman was a fantastic parlor room on wheels. When night came, a smiling porter turned a pair of facing seats into a bed and produced a second berth from a compartment along the ceiling. He arranged heavy curtains, pristine damask sheets, and mahogany partitions, transforming the car into a comfortable dormitory.

The lucky few, railroad magnates or politicians, might be given a guided tour of the exhibit by the man himself, George Mortimer Pullman. The sixty-two-year-old progenitor of these marvels was one of Chicago’s richest entrepreneurs. Many fair visitors could remember the stagecoach days when no man traveled on land faster than the pace of a team of horses. Long train trips had demanded new technology—and Pullman had provided it. The sleeping car had become so closely associated with one company that it was coming to be called simply a pullman. The understated booklet distributed by the company gushed a bit when it called the inception of the Pullman firm, now valued at $60 million, “one of the century’s great civilizing strides.”

Pullman’s name and face were well known across the country—he had made sure of that. His wide, nearly unlined features were those of a tired baby. His hair had gone white and he wore on his chin a goat-like tuft of beard, which boys of the day called a dauber. His imperious eyes were always sizing up.

George Pullman represented a relatively new type in America, a “businessman.” He was a man of affairs, a man on the lookout for the new. A businessman’s key skill was organizing an enterprise and raising the money to fund it. Pullman knew how to gather resources, command men, and negotiate deals. Early in his career, he had begun to list his profession simply as “gentleman.”

The assertion by his publicity machine that George Pullman had invented the modern sleeping car was less than accurate. Most of the credit went to a man named Theodore T. Woodruff, an upstate New York wagon maker. But the mechanics of the car had evolved over decades, and Pullman had introduced his share of innovations.

What was beyond doubt was that Pullman had devised the most efficient system for making money from the sleeper. He saw each car not as a product but as a revenue stream. He retained ownership and allowed the various railroads to haul the cars under contract. The railroads profited because the luxury cars attracted customers. Pullman profited even more as each passenger paid him a hefty fee for the upgrade.

Pullman also understood that monopoly was the path to profit, and by 1893 he was well on his way to absorbing all other sleeping-car manufacturers into his company. A Pullman brochure boasted that the company employed fifteen thousand and ran its cars over enough track mileage to stretch five times around the circumference of the earth.

Pullman asserted that he was free of “the fever of rapid wealth-getting.” He could afford to be. He and his wife, Hattie, floated among the highest tiers of Chicago’s social heaven. An observer called him a lordly man. Reserved of speech, he let his possessions speak for him.

* * *

In 1831, the year George Pullman was born in a remote hamlet in the western end of New York State, a group of Americans at the other end of the state were taking a ride on America’s very first steam-powered passenger railroad. It was the beginning of the most stunning transformation in the nation’s history. During Pullman’s lifetime, private corporations laid more than 175,000 miles of rail, including five transcontinental lines.

“Americans take to this contrivance, the railroad,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had observed, “as if it were the cradle in which they were born.” In the three decades since the Civil War, the railroads had proliferated into a great tangle of trunk lines and branch lines through the East and Middle West. When builders pounded the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, they tied together a continent. The New York Central main line ran from the Atlantic coast to Chicago. The mighty Pennsylvania system extended an arm across the Keystone State and spread its fingers into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and beyond. The Southern Pacific, the Union Pacific, and the Santa Fe had erased the frontier. Enormous combines had gobbled individual rail lines, and the railroad corporations had become the most extensive business enterprises in history.

The needs of the railroads had led to an explosion in the production of iron and steel, of coal, copper, oil, and machine tools. The corporations’ thirst for capital had established Wall Street as a national money market. The access to far-flung markets that the railroads made possible fueled the rapid growth of other businesses on a scale previously inconceivable.

Chicago was the “Rome of the railroads.” Lines converged on the city from every direction. Fair visitors from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington boarded the Exposition Flyer to skim across the continent at eighty miles an hour, barely pausing in the headlong rush toward what trainmen called the “boss town of America.”

Chicago’s elite citizens had made a mighty effort to win the Exposition for their town. George Pullman had pledged $100,000 to finance the corporation that would mount the fair. Chicagoans were proud of the town’s lusty greatness. “Here of all her cities,” wrote author Frank Norris, “throbbed the true life—the true power and spirit of America.”

Chicago was in a continual hurry. Rudyard Kipling said that its inhabitants swore by the “Gospel of Rush.” The city had not existed when the century opened—now it was the sixth-largest metropolis on earth. Its densely packed commercial center pulsed with activity. “Compared to the bustle of Chicago,” a visitor said, “the bustle of New York seems like stagnation.”

The Columbian Exposition celebrated the acceleration of progress. Fairgoers could hardly wait to get home and describe the technology of tomorrow. They marveled at light bulbs, electric motors, generators, vacuum tubes, neon signs. They made some of the first long-distance

Telephone calls, listened to a phonograph, rode a moving sidewalk, and gazed in amazement at Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, which displayed pictures that moved.

The fair was an enormous store window on the productivity of American commerce. The nation’s output of gold and silver, of telephones and electric lights, lumber and locomotives, sewing machines and pianos, could not be matched.

“The old nations of the earth creep on at a snail’s pace,” Andrew Carnegie declared, “the Republic thunders past with the rush of the express.”

* * *

But like the Gilded Age itself, Chicago had a dark side. Urban squalor was spreading there as it was in most American cities. Filth, disease, vice, and abject poverty had become the norm in districts crowded with pestilential tenements. The city, a reporter wrote, was both the “cynosure and cesspool of the world.” In 1891, two thousand citizens had died of typhoid.

Entering Chicago by train, travelers saw ugly stretches of smoky factories, slaughterhouses, freight yards, and slag heaps. An English visitor noted the “unrelieved ugliness” of the city. The working-class slums were swept by clouds of coal smoke and intersected by open sewers. The river that ran through the city’s heart was caked with “grease so thick on its surface that it seemed a liquid rainbow.” A Chicago newspaper complained that the city was permeated by a “solid stink. The river stinks. The air stinks. . . . No other word expresses it so well as stink.”

The filth and indigence coexisted alongside the crass opulence of the city’s parvenus. George Pullman’s home on fashionable Prairie Avenue sat at the center of what a journalist referred to a “the very Mecca of Mammon.” Kipling, although impressed by the city’s bustle, was put off by the many “terrible people who talked money through their noses.”

George Pullman thought he had found an answer to the city’s problems. His manufacturing operation was housed in one of the largest factories in the world, which he had built fourteen miles south of Chicago near Lake Calumet. He needed housing to induce skilled workmen to move to the remote location. Rather than leave the matter to the market, Pullman built a planned community that he called Pullman, Illinois.

The all-brick town, a company brochure stated, might be “the culminating product in its  enduring benefits to mankind, of the principles on which the entire Pullman fabric is reared.” Those principles included the idea that “money could be safely invested in an elaboration of the utilitarian into the artistic and beautiful.”

Fairgoers were encouraged to make the fifteen-minute trip to see the unique urban village. They could stroll the grid of streets, take in the neat lines of houses, the town square, the elegant parks, the elaborate Arcade Building, theater, and library. It was a town where order and cleanliness were sovereign.

The model town was one of Chicago’s premier tourist attractions. Like the White City of the fair, it stood as a rebuke to Chicago’s squalid tenements. In Pullman, garbage was picked up, sewage pumped away, lawns neatly mowed.

The buildings of the White City were temporary, mere sheds dressed in overcoats of plaster and whitewash. Pullman was built of brick and mortar. Experts confirmed that the model town might well represent a hope-filled future for industrial workers. Yet just as the White City’s splendor was a false front, the enchanting surface of the model town hid problems that would, in less than a year, bring about a national crisis.

* * *

Although to Chicago’s boosters the Exposition was an occasion for unqualified optimism, others were skeptical. The explosion of marvels and conveniences that swelled the exhibit spaces marked the victory of rough-edged capitalism. Most industrial workers, making less than $10 for a sixty-hour week, could not afford to visit the fair. Almost three-quarters of the nation’s wealth was in the hands of two hundred thousand citizens.

The skeptical historian Henry Adams commented, “Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving.” Edward Bellamy, author of the popular utopian novel Looking Backward, declared that the motive of the exhibition “under a sham pretense of patriotism is business, advertising with a view to individual money-making.” Another observer called the fair a “triumph of materialism.”

The coming of the railroads and the instant communication of the telegraph had, in one generation, ruptured the isolation of rural communities. Before the Civil War, America had been a country of small towns with local business owners, local markets, local credit, and local news. Now every village was exposed not only to markets and opportunity but also to the inequality and dissatisfactions of the wider world.

The 1890 census had revealed that the frontier, the line of settlement that had been pushing west since the nation’s founding, no longer existed. During the fair, the scholar Frederick Jackson Turner would declare that it was the frontier that had shaped the American character. The availability of free land had allowed pioneers to turn their backs on rapacious landlords or demanding employers and head west. In the process, Turner asserted, they had developed a sense of self-reliance and practicality, along with the confidence, impatience, energy, and egalitarian morality that were distinctly American.

What would shape and inspire citizens now that the West was settled? What would happen to workers who could no longer escape urban slums? Were Americans destined to follow Europeans into a society in which an aristocratic upper class ruled over dependent laborers?

“The free lands are gone,” Turner wrote, “the continent is crossed, and all this push and energy is turning into channels of agitation.”

Abraham Lincoln had evoked a bygone era when he mused about a “penniless beginner” who at first works for wages, gradually saves a surplus, buys tools or land, and “then labors on his own account awhile, and at length hires another new beginner.” This early version of the American Dream was a hollow myth by the waning years of the century.

The labor scarcity of the first half of the century, which had enhanced workers’ power and freedom, had been erased by mechanization and mass immigration. The majority of workers were permanent hirelings, not budding entrepreneurs. In the workplace, independence— the defining feature of American society—had given way to the autocracy of bosses.

As industry grew without regulation, the bonds that connected workers to increasingly remote capitalists frayed. Railroad corporations were the first really big businesses in America and have been called “the seedbed of the American labor movement.” A series of strikes, beginning with a spontaneous railroad upheaval in 1877, had jolted the country with increasing frequency through the 1880s. During the past seven years, Chicago alone had seen more than five hundred work stoppages. The revolts rattled the moneyed elite. Ordinary citizens found themselves ranked among the “dangerous classes,” a common term for workers when they asserted collective rights.

Among those who would later attend and give a speech at the fair was a young union organizer named Eugene V. Debs. Lanky and energetic, the thirty-eight-year-old Debs had spent years promoting the interests of the firemen who stoked the boilers of the nation’s locomotives. He had come to see that traditional trade unions were inadequate in the face of consolidated railroad monopolies. Like George Pullman, Debs had a vision of a brighter future for industrial workers, but one that was far more radical than the paternalism of the model town. That summer, he planned to gather all railroad employees into a single, potent union. Once organized, they would demand their rights—he was determined that they would get them.

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A Clue to a Secret Love of George Washington

by Mary Calvi

Those who read Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. 550, in March of 1896, would have seen an illustration on page 572 depicting a romantic moment between George Washington and a woman who wasn’t Martha. It is paired with an article, Colonel Washington:  “In New York, he fell into a new ambush,” the publication reads, “from which he did not come off without a wound. His friend Beverly Robinson must needs have Miss Mary Philipse at his house there, a beauty and an heiress, and Washington came away from her with a sharp rigor at his heart.” Washington’s first visit to New York occurred in February of 1756.

The article was likely a tantalizing read for the day. Its author who later became President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, explored a George Washington in his early 20s on the precipice of greatness. “There was that in his proud eyes and gentleman’s bearing that marked him a man to be made friends with and respected,” writes Wilson. “A good comrade he proved, without presence or bravado, but an ill man to scorn, as he went his way among them, lithe and alert, full six feet in his boots, with that strong gait as of a backwoodsman, and that haughty carriage as of a man born to have his will.”

The woman who caused this sharp rigor at his heart was one of the richest belles in all of the colonies; her family owned miles of waterfront property from Manhattan northward along the Hudson River. She herself owned more than fifty-thousand acres, a rarity for an unmarried woman of the day.

Mary Eliza Philipse is the reason the journalist who is writing this article searched for the original 1896 Harper’s publication. When the search turned successful and after purchasing it and after it arrived in its shipping package and after uncovering it and after turning the pages quickly, albeit gently, the image I had always believed existed, left me awestruck for it added a layer of affirmation to what I longed believed— young George Washington had a relationship with the New York heiress.

The actual drawing by Howard Pyle commissioned for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, I later learned, has been sitting in a storage unit at Boston Public Library for the past fifty or so years. It appears to show a date between George and this belle of the North. Of course, in the mid-1700s, this date would have been called an “interview” for polite society sake. Pyle drew the heiress holding a teacup as she is dressed in a fashionably flowing gown with cherries embroidered into it and wearing a small veil upon her upswept hairdo, along with a thin black necklace. Washington is a gallant figure costumed resplendently, complete with ornate coat, breeches, tricorn hat, and gold-buckled shoes. The illustration presents an image of the two sitting in an elegant parlor, facing each other, with the sun’s rays coming through a window. If only the reader could have been fly on the wall for this affair, or maybe the two of them wanted their time together kept private. It certainly appears the latter is the case for their relationship has been buried in oblivion with history hiding it from prying eyes.

Count this author in as one of those sets of prying eyes for once I began my research which spanned years and consisted of digging through documents in dusty attics and basements, I couldn’t stop until I found what I firmly believe to be the truth about Mary and her relationship with George.

Now years after purchasing this original 1896 publication and after examining mountains of documents comes this author’s theory: Long before tea was tossed into Boston Harbor, unrequited love helped to spark a flame that ignited a cause that became the American Revolution.

What I found through primary sources revealed that not only Washington wanted to seize her surrender, so did a group of British men made up of officers, Colonels, even the Commander-in-Chief of the His Majesty’s Army in North America. This tight-knit group took great lengths to keep Washington, a Virginian, and the heiress apart.

Washington’s bitter resentment toward the British Army may have been cemented the moment she chose a British officer who was part of that group, a resentment that seemed to never sway in the years that led up to the Revolution.

Enter for a chance to win 1 of 5 hardcover copies of DEAR GEORGE, DEAR MARY!

Mary Calvi is a television news anchor in New York City. Her debut novel, DEAR GEORGE, DEAR MARY: A Novel of George Washington’s First Love is based on her years of research studying thousands of pages of historical documents. The book will be published on February 19, 2019.

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The Life and Death of Wild Bill Hickok

by Tom Clavin

Their names are legends on the American frontier: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Wild Bill Hickok. We probably know the least about Wild Bill Hickok. Why is that? During his lifetime, no one’s fame burned brighter than his, yet today, Wild Bill’s life and times are a mystery to many. In Wild Bill, my new book about Wild Bill Hickok, the largely untold story of the greatest gunfighter of them all is finally revealed.

Wild Bill Hickok

James Butler Hickok was born in May 1837 in Illinois. The Hickok family originally hailed from New England and were fierce abolitionists. On their Illinois farm, Hickok’s father not only sheltered runaway slaves but in daring nighttime rides transported them via the Underground Railroad to safety further north. Young James and his brothers went on many of these rides to fool bounty hunters and were sometimes shot at while making a desperate escape. Ironically, when the Civil War began, James would be the only Hickok family member to serve in the Union Army.

Before the war, though, James left the farm for Missouri and Kansas and points west. “I am a pilgrim and a stranger and I am going to wander til I am twenty-one and then I will tarry a little while” the young James Hickok wrote to his mother Polly.  He became a wagon driver, a teamster, and occasional scout with the U.S. Army. On one of the wagon trains west Hickok met a boy named Billy Cody. As the trek progressed, Cody met one of the drivers, who identified himself as James B. Hickok, “a tall, handsome, magnificently built and powerful young fellow, who could out-run, out-jump and out-fight any man in the train.” One evening, Cody ran afoul of “a surly, overbearing” teamster twice his size, who knocked the boy down with one swat. Cody got up holding a pot of coffee, and he threw the scalding contents in the face of the man, who in turn “sprang at me with the ferocity of a tiger, and undoubtedly would have torn me to pieces.”

What prevented this was the appearance of Hickok, who knocked the teamster down. He warned, “If you ever again lay a hand on that boy—little Billy there—I’ll give you such a pounding that you won’t get over it for a month of Sundays.” Hickok may have saved Cody’s life—an act that would be reciprocated a decade later.

When the Civil War broke out, the anti-slavery Hickok signed up with the Union Army. His activities included scouting and being a member of a unit of sharpshooters. But his most effective role was as Union spy disguised behind enemy lines. Time and again Hickok risked his neck to glean important information about the Confederate Army. One time, while dressed as a Confederate officer with General Marmaduke’s rebel division.

To learn more about The Life and Death of Wild Bill Hickok, check out the article on the Unknown History channel on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. Or, listen to the entire episode below:

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