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How Disobedient Confederate Generals Saved America

November 4, 2014

The South didn’t have to surrender in 1865, at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Its armies had lost, but Confederate soldiers could’ve taken to the hills and forests to fight a guerrilla war. Southern generals had plenty of role models — including the American guerrillas who’d frustrated the British during the Revolution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to do the same. Had they obeyed, the Civil War might have dragged on for years, darkening America’s character. Guerrilla combat often degenerates into terrorism, with both sides targeting civilians and killing for revenge. Democracy itself could’ve suffered. The Confederacy might even have won, since many in the exhausted North already wanted to give up in 1865. (Imagine the 20th Century without a unified America to oppose totalitarianism.)

Robert E. Lee surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, April __, 1865

Robert E. Lee surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865

The Confederacy’s senior commander, Robert E. Lee, led the way. When his army faced defeat at Appomattox, some of his officers recommended fading into the hills. Lee feared the cost for all Americans, and he surrendered instead. A week later, he began gently advocating peace, exercising a moral authority far greater than President Davis’. Soon, General Joe Johnston disobeyed Davis and followed Lee’s example, surrendering the South’s largest remaining army. The other Confederate generals followed Lee and Johnston, not Davis.

Abraham Lincoln deserves much of the credit. He called for reconciliation and ordered honorable surrender terms, making the South’s choice easier. And that policy survived his assassination, even as the new administration fumbled and growled for revenge. But truly it was the Confederate generals who chose peace and Union and saved America.



Painting: Surrender at Appomattox, by Thomas Lovell (cropped) — provided through Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Alaskan Dude

© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


History of the Fortune Cookie

November 3, 2014

The first record of fortune cookies comes from Japan in the early 1800′s, not from China, according to Rude Dude’s Book of Food, by Tim Myers. The Japanese flavored their treats with ginger and miso — not exactly the cookies we know — but they did squeeze written fortunes into the crease. The owner of San Francisco’s famous Japanese Tea Garden, Makoto Hagiwara, apparently introduced the concoction to America. Both Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans saw an opportunity, and soon both community’s shops and restaurants offered fortune cookies. Neither culture had a major dessert tradition, so fortune cookies helped feed the American sweet tooth, particularly as they evolved from the Japanese ginger and miso treat into the cookies we know today. Read more…

Polynesian Canoes Reached the Americas

October 31, 2014

Research on sweet potatoes suggests the Polynesians reached the New World centuries before Columbus. Read more…

Dracula’s Dungeon Found?

October 30, 2014

Cool: CNN video.

We Evolved to Eat Vegetables and Meat, Not Grains and Dairy

October 29, 2014
Some bad history (or prehistory) from the U. S. Department of Agriculture

Some bad history (or prehistory) from the U. S. Department of Agriculture

MyPlate is a graphic from the USDA that advises Americans how to eat. But I think it’s based on bad history (and bad biology too). It tells us to get almost half of our calories from grains and dairy. Yet through almost all of our history (or prehistory), we fed ourselves by hunting and gathering, and that didn’t involve grains or dairy. Read more…

Did Hobbits Live among Us Recently?

October 27, 2014
Homo floresiensis

Homo floresiensis (reconstructed)

The Indonesian island of Flores and its neighbors host two unusual languages, called Ke’o and Ngadha. They have extremely simple grammar — surprising for Austronesian languages, which generally have complex grammar. Languages often simplify when they share land with foreign-language speakers, and the two groups communicate through a “creole” or simplified dialect. (English simplified that way after the Vikings invaded.) But until recently, Flores history hasn’t offered an obvious candidate for the foreigners in question. In 2004, however, anthropologists discovered fossils on Flores from a species they named Homo floresiensis: a small relative of ours often called “hobbits.” (See my post on hobbits and other pre-humans.) Linguist John McWhorter has suggested these hobbits provide Flores’ missing linguistic link. Read more…

Britain Does Something Noble

October 25, 2014
Commodore Sir George Ralph Collier, Baronet, commander of the West Africa Squadron from 1818 to 1821

Sir George Ralph Collier, Baronet, Commodore of the West Africa Squadron from 1818 to 1821

In 1807, the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. Then the government did something truly unusual—possibly with no precedent. It spent military resources solely for the sake of other people. The Royal Navy assigned a squadron to patrol the coast of West Africa, hunting for slave ships—a.k.a. pirates—to make sure no one else captured and transported human beings. By 1860, the West Africa Squadron had captured 1,600 slavers and freed about 150,000 people. Read more…


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