Political commentators should leave historical observations to historians.
When writing political commentary, it’s always walking on shaky ground to engage in hyperbole, but it’s doubly problematic to employ historical analogies, especially when you don’t know what you’re talking about. Case in point: in a recent political rant in Esquire, Charles P. Pierce wrote:
“The Republican Party as it is presently constituted is the greatest threat to the American republic since Appomattox.“Charles P. Pierce, Esquire, Dec. 3, 2018
I’m sure Mr. Pierce thought he was making a clever observation about the American Civil War, but Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865 represented the end of the war, not the beginning. Did he really mean the end of the Civil War and the surrender of the CSA represented a threat to the American republic? I’m pretty sure he thinks the exact opposite of that.
His Civil War analogy is even more awkward because it was President Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party who prosecuted the war to its conclusion and the Southern Democratic Party that tore the country apart with secession. Oops.
But that’s the danger when someone with a cursory knowledge of history tries to make a historic analogy.
In June, President Trump’s pick for our representative at the United Nations, Heather Nauert (then State Department spokeswoman), cited D-Day as part of our long history of close relations with Germany. Of course, we were at war with Germany when Allied soldiers landed on the Normandy beaches during the D-Day invasion.
While Nauert might be forgiven for making a stupid observation while speaking off the cuff, it’s hard to give Esquire’s Charles Pierce any leeway because he had time to sit down and think through his argument while writing it. His column has been up on the website for over a week without any correction.
Pierce’s rabidly partisan column contains so much exaggeration, fear mongering, and wild accusations it’s hard to take seriously anyway, but his tenuous grasp of American history tells this history buff he engaged in zero fact checking before hitting the “submit” button, and you know the editors at Esquire are asleep at the wheel.
Fort Ontario has a rather exciting and complicated history. It saw action in three wars: French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, and War of 1812. Held by the British from 1755 to 1796, it passed to the Americans in the Jay Treaty, which resolved disputes stemming from the Revolutionary War. The fort was one of three guarding the mouth of the Oswego River at Lake Ontario. Today, it is a State Historic Site and museum.
In 1755, the British built a wooden stockade at that location called the Fort of the Six Nations. French General Marquis de Montcalm destroyed it and other surrounding forts in August 1756 during the French and Indian War. Three years later, the British rebuilt the fort and named it Fort Ontario. During the Revolutionary War, in July 1778, Colonial soldiers found it abandoned and burned it.
At the Battle of Oswego, May 6, 1814, during the War of 1812, British Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fischer and a force of 550 soldiers and 400 marines attacked Fort Ontario and its garrison of 242 regulars and 200 militia. The British suffered 80-87 casualties to the Americans’ 69-119. They succeeded in destroying the fort after its capture.
For more than a century, a ghost has haunted this lonely stretch of Route 146, formerly known as “Dug Hill Road,” in rustic Union County. Although sightings have become less frequent in recent years, the ghost of Provost Marshal Welch has earned an iconic place in the folklore of Southern Illinois.
Like many of its kind, this ghost story preserves the memory of a real event, an event that took place at a traumatic time in the history of our state and our country. But the details of this event have become murky and distorted. While Provost Marshal Welch was actually killed in 1863, every recent retelling of the tale places his murder in 1865.
At some point during the story’s reprinting, authors changed Route 146 to “Highway 126,” which has created a very confusing state of affairs for anyone wanting to visit the location. There is no Highway 126 anywhere in Union County. Complicating matters further, a quaint country lane off Route 146 is now the only feature in the area named “Dug Hill.”
To picture what this road must have once looked like at the time of the hauntings would take an active imagination, since the banality of its flowering fields, woods, and serine pond seem to evaporate any sense of foreboding.
According to Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s Haunted Heartland (1985), it is “the most notorious ghost in Southern Illinois.” As they described the incident, Union army deserters ambushed and killed a provost marshal named Welch in 1865.