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.
In mid-October 1859, a wild-eyed, white bearded man and 21 accomplices seized the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), in a misguided attempt to ignite a slave revolt. The man was John Brown, whose fanatical visage likened him to a Biblical prophet.
Brown was already known as an abolitionist who fought against pro-slavery elements in the Bleeding Kansas conflict of 1856, but the failed raid on Harpers Ferry made him a martyr and foretold the American Civil War.
Brown was tried for treason and hanged on December 2, 1859. The brick fire engine house where his followers and he made their last stand, later known as John Brown’s Fort, is now a popular tourist destination and interpretive center telling the story of the raid. It was relocated several times and now sits 150 feet from its original location.
The Battle of Cedar Creek (or Battle of Belle Grove) was fought in Frederick County, Shenandoah County and Warren County, Virginia on October 19, 1864 between Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley and Union Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah in the American Civil War. The battle resulted in approximately 8,500 total casualties.
Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park was created in 2002 and encompasses over 3,700 acres, 1,500 of which are preserved and administered by partner sites, including the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, Belle Grove Plantation, and Hupp’s Hill Civil War Park.
Belle Grove Manor House was built between 1794 and 1797 for Isaac Hite, Jr. and his bride Nelly Conway Madison. Hite owned a general store, grist-mill, saw-mill and a distillery. 276 slaves lived at Belle Grove between 1783 and 1851.
In May 1668, Captain Robert Searle and 70 English buccaneers arrived at St. Augustine to sack the city. In the process, they freed Henry Woodward, first settler of South Carolina, from Spanish prison. In response to the daring raid, Governor Francisco de la Guerra y de la Vega ordered construction of a stone fort on the western shore of Matanzas Bay.
That fort was the Castillo de San Marcos, today the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. It was built between 1672 and 1695, and changed hands five times between 1763 and 1862.
The Castillo de San Marcos was designated a national monument in 1924 and is currently managed by the National Park Service. In addition to preserving a rich historical legacy, the fort offers beautiful views of Matanzas Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.