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Categories: Explore: “This Day in History”
Jul 21, 2015 This Day in History

Today, we are commemorating The Battle of Bull Run (First), which occurred on July 21, 1861.

Read an excerpt from Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey: 

On the morning of July 21, 1861, William How­ard Russell [editor’s note: an Irish journalist with The Times] was running late for a battle. Confederate troops under Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, whom he knew from Charleston, and the Union Army under Gen. Irvin McDowell, whom he’d met several times, were now massed around a little rivulet called Bull Run near the Manassas Gap Railroad junction. Everybody in Washington seemed to think this first major battle would be a Northern victory. It might be the beginning of serious fighting. It might be the end of it. Whatever happened, there was no question, Russell had to be there to see it.

Since Russell’s return from the South to the Federal capital, nothing had gone right for him. While he’d been away, and despite his reams of reporting, Delane and the other editors of the Times of London had taken a stand of clear sympathy with the secessionists. They reflected the interests of an elite with commercial concerns about cotton and contempt for the American notion of a republic. They also embraced the idea that, because Lincoln and Seward in­sisted this war was not about freeing the slaves, then truly that was the case. And for the masses, there was the appeal of the Southern­ers as underdogs struggling against the subjugation of Washington. The Times editors had become just the apostles of the fait accompli that Seward had feared. So even though the paper still ran Russell’s articles about the inadequacies of the Southern military position, the arrogance of King Cotton, and the monstrosity of slavery, its editorials were such that Russell found the Times “assailed on all sides as a Secession organ, favorable to the rebels and exceedingly hostile to the Federal government and the cause of the Union.” The net result for its correspondent was that he no longer had the kind of access to the Union military that he’d wanted and expected. Seward would still see him, but War Department passes were hard to come by, and on the eve of combat no one would give him the countersign so he could get through checkpoints to see the battle begin at dawn.

Source: Library of Congress, wiki commons

Not until midday did Russell finally get close enough to the fighting to hear “the thudding noise, like taps with a gentle hand upon a muffled drum” of artillery in action. Among congressmen and other dignitaries, many of them accompanied by their wives, he watched from atop a hill above Centreville as distant wisps of smoke marked the opposing lines. He ate a sandwich. He drank some Bordeaux he’d packed in his case. By the time he drew closer to the fighting, the Union forces were pulling back; then, suddenly, they were fleeing in a rout so complete that he could hardly believe his eyes.

Russell was on a borrowed nag threading his way toward the action when he heard loud shouts ahead of him and saw several wagons coming from the direction of the battlefield. The drivers were trying to force their way past the ammunition carts coming up the narrow road. A thick cloud of dust rose behind them. Men were running beside the carts, between them. “Every moment the crowd increased, drivers and men cried out with the most vehement gestures, ‘Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped.’ They seized the heads of the horses and swore at the opposing drivers.” A breathless officer with an empty scabbard dangling by his side got wedged for a second between a wagon and Russell’s horse.

“What is the matter, sir?” Russell asked. “What is all this about?

“Why, it means we are pretty badly whipped,” said the officer, “and that’s the truth.” Then he scrambled away.

The heat, the uproar, and the dust were “beyond description,” Russell wrote afterward. And it all got worse when some cavalry soldiers, flourishing their sabers, tried to force their way through the mob, shouting, “Make way for the general!”

Russell had made it to a white house where two field guns were positioned, when suddenly troops came pouring out of the nearby forest. The gunners were about to blast away when an officer or a sergeant shouted, “Stop! Stop! They are our own men.” In a few minutes a whole battalion had run past in utter disorder. “We are pursued by their cavalry,” one told Russell. “They have cut us all to pieces.”

After a while there was nothing the world’s greatest war corre­spondent could do but fall in with the tide of men fleeing the fight­ing. In all his battles, he had never seen anything like this: “Infantry soldiers on mules and draught horses, with the harness clinging to their heels, as much frightened as their riders; Negro servants on their masters’ chargers; ambulances crowded with unwounded soldiers; wagons swarming with men who threw out the contents in the road to make room; grinding through a shouting, scream­ing mass of men on foot, who were literally yelling with rage at every halt and shrieking out, ‘Here are the cavalry! Will you get on?’” They talked “prodigious nonsense,” Russell said, “describing batteries tier over tier, and ambuscades, and blood running knee-deep.” As he rode through the crowd, men grabbed at Russell’s stir­rups and saddle. He kept telling them over and over again not to be in such a hurry. “There’s no enemy to pursue you. All the cavalry in the world could not get at you.” But, as he soon realized, he “might as well have talked to the stones.”

It was a long way back to Washington that day. But after sev­eral brushes with violent deserters, drunken soldiers, and more panic-stricken officers, Russell made his way in the moonlight to the Long Bridge across the Potomac and into the capital. He told anyone who asked him that the Union commander would regroup and resume the battle the next morning. But when he awoke in his boardinghouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, he found the city full of uniformed rabble. “The great Army of the Potomac,” he wrote, “is in the streets of Washington instead of on its way to Richmond.”

The Federal capital was essentially defenseless. “The inmates of the White House are in a state of the utmost trepidation,” Russell wrote, “and Mr. Lincoln, who sat in the telegraph operator’s room with General Scott and Mr. Seward, listening to the dispatches as they arrived from the scene of the action, left in despair when the fatal words tripped from the needle and the defeat was already re­vealed to him.”

For the South, “here is a golden opportunity,” said Russell. “If the Confederates do not grasp that which will never come again on such terms, it stamps them with mediocrity.” But the rebels stayed where they were, and the fact that they did not march on Washing­ton suggested this would be a long war.

As Russell studied the city, its politicians, and its dispositions in the aftermath of the battle, he did not agree with “many who think the contest is now over.” He figured the Northerners had learned a lesson about “the nature of the conflict on which they have en­tered” and would be roused to action. But when the Times ran Rus­sell’s article on the battle, his balanced judgment about the lessons learned got no play. The whole effect of his account of the rout was to reinforce the editors’ image of a South that not only would fight, but that could fight better than the North and, therefore, should soon be free of it.

Read more about the American Civil War and the untold story of the Robert Bunch: an unlikely Englishman who hated the slave trade and whose actions helped determine the fate of our nation in Our Man in Charleston.

“A perfect book about an imperfect spy.” —Joan Didion

Jun 10, 2015 This Day in History

Today, June 10th 2015, would have been Saul Bellow’s 100th birthday. In celebration of his of his life, we reached out to Beena Kamlani, Bellow’s editor, to reflect on the writer’s life and influence.

Bellow @ 100: Some Reminiscences and Thoughts

To read Bellow is to be struck. As by a meteor, a thunderbolt, or something from some indefinable source. You are suddenly in possession of knowledge that comes from elsewhere—as if gifted. Stunned and blessed—how often does this happen to us in our lives? I speak from experience. I read him when I was eight. The book was Herzog. We preferred to read because TV in Bombay, India, was grainy and unpredictable. From the Hardy Boys to Enid Blyton, from Jane Austen to H. Rider Haggard—there was nothing that was considered unacceptable, and nothing that turned us off. But the world opened up for me when I came to Herzog. For it spoke about things no one had ever spoken about before. Its openness bowled me over.

Beena Kamlani
Saul Bellow’s editor, Beena Kamlani

I was eight. It was a hard book to read as a child. The intellectual discourses in the letters Moses Herzog wrote were confusing and frustrating, for one didn’t know any of the references. But its truth was unassailable. Perhaps a child can grasp such things more easily than an adult for here was Moses remembering his childhood, the youngest in a family of four children, an immigrant family struggling to make it in immigrant Chicago, describing the helplessness of a child who sat in full knowledge of the struggles and challenges that faced them. These challenges colored his experience of childhood. Persistent failure rubbed shoulders with success; dashed dreams and thwarted ambitions made near impossible lives already brought low by sickness, the deaths of close family members, and sheer survival. Simple existence had to be constantly redefined, rearticulated, reimagined.

In our family, too, there were deaths, divorces, and the effects of failure. Illness and sudden loss were common. Mourning bore witness but the questions multiplied. No one said a word in the mistaken belief that children ought to be protected from the truth. But there, in the kitchen of Moses Herzog’s home on Napoleon Street, in immigrant closeness and proximity, there are no secrets and the children come to know everything because it’s happening in front of them. It is the source of his intimate knowledge about a child’s world, filled with uncertainty, frustration, knowledge that is useless in the present but becomes part of our psychic calibration later, and the constant threat of abandonment. “We were like cave dwellers,” Moses says. We, too, become cave dwellers with him as we hear his pain about losing a beloved wife to a best friend, about the terrible longing for his daughter, and listen to him rage in loneliness against the world. There is the unforgettable scene in that kitchen when Father Herzog comes home robbed and beaten after a bootlegging expedition. “’Sarah!’ he said. ‘Children!’ He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters, and the white of his body under them. Then he turned his pockets inside out—empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him—a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. I thought I would die of it. Whom did I ever love as I loved them?” Beckett, writing about Proust, said, “Yesterday is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably part of us, within us, heavy and dangerous.” In Herzog, Bellow shows us how to record our pasts, how to transcribe them, how to live with them, even when they threaten to wreck us.

Bellow
Photo credit: Beena Kamlani

Bellow concerned himself with what affected people, in the way they lived their lives, and in the way they dealt with the struggles of the heart. He had a real feeling for it, which is why his work leaves such a mark. He taps corresponding notes in another’s life. He is able to articulate what we know but cannot decipher for ourselves. “Every writer’s assumption is that he is as other human beings are, and they are more or less as he is. There’s a principle of psychic unity. [Writing] was not meant to be an occult operation; it was not meant to be an esoteric secret.”

Memory becomes the key to unlocking those crossover truths from writer to reader. You not only become a cave dweller in that kitchen but you also recognize the truth of what’s happening when the older Moses takes you into the kitchen of his home where these struggles took place. You trust the sensibility and the mind of the older Moses, remembering, seeing his family again, and as a reader you find equivalent emotional hotspots in your own life, hotspots that take you right into the heart of Saul’s work.

In the world I grew up in, girls are handed knowledge in breadcrumbs. It is a privilege, a gift. Boys can expect it by the sackful, for it is necessary to live life, to bring forth families and to support them. What Bellow does is to hand us all this gift.

herzog

When I was working with him, every night, weary with the challenges and exhilarations of the work, we would wind down for the day and hand the manuscript to his wife, Janis, for safekeeping. He had gone, as usual, close to the fire, and it had taken a lot out of him. We worked on hard copy, and it was the only extant copy of the manuscript. The vault she placed it in was none other than the freezer, for this is the last place to be attacked by fire. That act of reverence and preservation was necessary—for the present, yes, but also for posterity. For those words, cooling in their frozen vault, would become jewels for readers in the future, illuminating and warming them as we ourselves had been.

Years later, I told him I’d read him when I was eight. “It was Herzog,” I said. He looked at me incredulously. “You don’t say!” he said. Then he put his fingers on the table where we were working and playfully drummed them against the wooden surface. “And here we are!” he said.

-Beena Kamlani

Browse through all of Bellow’s work here.  

May 25, 2015 This Day in History

This feature will highlight books and authors on certain significant dates in history. 

Today, May 25th, is Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s birthday. Born in 1803, Emerson is known best for his essays and for spearheading Transcendentalist thought in the United States. Read more.

Emerson’s writings influenced thinkers such as Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. He is perhaps best known for “Self-Reliance” and “Nature”.

After attending the Harvard School of Divinity and acting as a minister in the 1820s, Emerson went abroad to Europe and on his return began giving talks about spirituality and ethics. Read more.

Did you know?

[Emerson’s] “concept of the Over-Soul—a Supreme Mind that every man and woman share—allowed Transcendentalists to disregard external authority and to rely instead on direct experience.” Read more.

This focus on individuality goes hand-in-hand with Emerson’s urges to American writers to find literary independence and a writing style of their own. Read more.

“The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

emerson

Browse through Emerson’s works here.

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