American History

Abraham Lincoln: Youth to Civil War

President Abraham Lincoln fell victim to an assassin’s bullet on Good Friday, 14 April 1865 and died the next morning. Mark and Professor Gerald J. Prokopowicz discuss Lincoln from his youth and early career to the presidency and Civil War. They delve into some of the popular questions readers ask about the sixteenth president and explore other facets of Lincoln’s life that may be more obscure.

 

Replica of Lincoln's birthplace near Hodgenville, Kentucky

Replica of Lincoln’s birthplace near Hodgenville, Kentucky

 

March Events: French and Indian to Civil Wars

Mark covers some key historical events that took place in March, the month that comes in “like a lion” and goes out “like a lamb.” We see that this may depend upon where and when. George Washington in 1777, may have felt threatened by the British lion. Or the British soldiers in the French and Indian War had a rough St. Patrick’s day at Fort William Henry ten years earlier. In the Civil War, one might say Nathaniel Banks went into his Red River Campaign thinking he was a lion, but definitely finished as a slaughtered lamb.

Photo: “The Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West

Winter Events in History

Mark reviews some significant events that occurred at during winter in history. We go from the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century to Europe’s worst winter in history in 1940. The Civil War was brewing as the states of the Deep South seceded to form the Confederacy in 1861 and the last battle of the War of 1812 that took place right downriver from the city of New Orleans. We see Finland stand up to the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution and we even share a few notes about collaboration and treachery.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

Joel Bius’s new book, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em: The Rise and Fall of the Military Cigarette Ration, is a treatise on the relationship between the American Military-Industrial complex and the cigarette. Mark and Joel discuss the story of how the cigarette and the soldier relationship evolved, developed and devolved during the twentieth century—and the consequences.

About Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

The American military-industrial complex and accompanying culture are most often associated with massive weapons procurement programs and advanced technologies. Images of supersonic bombers, strategic missiles, armor-plated tanks, nuclear submarines, and complex space systems clog our imagination. However, one aspect of the complex is not a weapon or even a machine, but one of the world’s most highly engineered consumer products: the manufactured cigarette.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em describes the origins of the often comfortable, yet increasingly controversial relationship among the military, the cigarette industry, and tobaccoland politicians during the twentieth century. After fostering the relationship between soldier and cigarette for more than five decades, the Department of Defense and fiscally minded legislators faced formidable political, cultural, economic, and internal challenges as they fought to unhinge the soldier-cigarette bond they had forged.

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em is also a study in modern American political economy. Bureaucrats, soldiers, lobbyists, government executives, legislators, litigators, or anti-smoking activists all struggled over far-reaching policy issues involving the cigarette. The soldier-cigarette relationship established by the Army in World War I and broken apart in the mid-1980s underpinned one of the most prolific social, cultural, economic, and healthcare related developments in the twentieth century: the rise and proliferation of the American manufactured cigarette smoker and the powerful cigarette enterprise supporting them.

From 1918 to 1986, the military established a powerful subculture of cigarette-smoking soldiers. The relationship was so rooted that, after the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report warned Americans that cigarettes were hazardous to health, a further 22 years were needed to advance military smoking cessation as official policy, and an additional 16 years to sever government subsidies providing soldiers low-cost cigarettes. The role of wars and the military in establishing and entrenching the American cigarette-smoking culture has often gone unrecognized. Using the manufactured cigarette as a vehicle to explore political economy and interactions between the military and American society, Joel R. Bius helps the reader understand this important, yet overlooked aspect of 20th century America.

Christmas In Wartime

Christmas during wartime, just as in life, shines with a different glow than that in more peaceful years. Luxuries are often non-existent and even basics are scarce but soldiers and civilians find ways to celebrate. This week on History with Mark Bielski, I look at the holidays in difficult times from the crowning of William the Conqueror in 1066 to USO Shows for American soldiers.

Lewis & Clark

Image: Statue of Sacajawea in Portland, OR

We reprise the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Historian Hal Stearns. Recorded at Fort Clatsop near Astoria, Oregon, it gives a detailed narrative overview of that incredible explorative journey. But first Mark responds to a comment from a listener about General George B. McClellan; then as an added attraction, we close with a short history quiz and prize for the first with correct answers.

Louisiana Cabin

Louisiana Cabin

November Events in History

We review some significant November events in history from WWI to the American Revolution as well as the American Civil War and WWII. We include the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 and the 1918 Armistice that ended the bloodshed of WWI as well as the last action of the Civil War with the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah and a brief glimpse at one of the Confederate government’s most interesting characters. For WWII we have the scuttling of the French fleet in 1942 while the Germans watched their potential prize of warships sink to the bottom of the sea.

Photo: Marshall Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander during World War One.

CSS Shenandoah

CSS Shenandoah destroying Union whaling vessels in the Pacific.

Autumn Events in History

On this week’s podcast, I take a look at some events that happened in autumn during WWII and the Civil War, as well as WWI and the American Revolution. I discuss the 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive by the America Expeditionary Forces and the French army. Launched against the Germans on the Western Front, this final campaign led to the Armistice. I also look at the momentous events that took place at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. Again, with the aid of the French, this battle proved to be the final military blow for the British in the American war for independence.

Photo: By John Singleton Copley – First Foot Guards, Public Domain

Seven at Santa Cruz

Mark’s guest is Ted Edwards, whose new book, Seven at Santa Cruz, is a riveting biography of WWII pilot, Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa. It is an up-close look at the battles of Santa Cruz and Coral Sea and how Vejtasa became a naval hero fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. He flew from aircraft carriers Yorktown and Enterprise and became the only dive-bomber pilot to be awarded Navy crosses for both bombing and aerial combat.

For more information or to buy this book click here.

 

July History: WWII and Civil War

Some cursory but analytical looks at a few key July historical events. We discuss WWII, including the Einsatzgruppen SS mission in the Soviet Union, as well as the Civil War battle of First Manassas (Bull Run). We also take a look on the lighter side—how Louisiana took an innovation from the 1930’s and raised it to a higher level.

(Above photo: P.G.T. Beauregard, formerly at City Park, New Orleans)

Beauregard, a Louisianan whose first language was French, graduated second in his West Point class of 1838 and served with distinction in the Mexican War.  He briefly was commandant at West Point when the war began, but left the post for his home state.  Beauregard was in charge at Fort Sumter when the first shots were fired. As said above, he commanded the forces at First Manassas where the smoke and haze of the battlefield made it difficult to distinguish the Confederate National Flag from the Stars and Stripes.  Afterwards, when home in New Orleans, he designed the battle flag, using the St. Andrew’s Cross on a field of red with thirteen stars.  This became what is generally thought of as the “Confederate Flag,” and first flew over troops at Shiloh in April 1862.  Here Beauregard served and took the reins as senior field officer after Albert Sidney Johnston died shortly after a mortal wound.  After the war, Beauregard returned home and worked for civil rights and reconciliation.  After the war he wrote, “With regard to the suffrage of the freedmen, no matter how objectionable it may be at present, it is an element of strength for the future.”

1941

17 July – USSR. SS Gruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich gave the orders for four SS Einsatzgruppen to follow the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union with the invasion. Their purpose was not tactical nor military, but part of Nazi party ideology.  They were to exterminate Jewish and Roma/Sinti or Gypsy communities as well as any political opposition. This especially meant any communist party members.

One of the effective players in this operation was Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski.  He would fly from town to town and have his aides gather up records from city halls.  There they would find a listing of officials as well as classification by ethnicity of local citizens.  The good record keeping made the job much easier for the SS.

1942

31 July – Moscow. As the German armies pushed toward Stalingrad and into the Caucasus, Stalin gave the orders that no Red Army units were to retreat.  “Not one step backwards,” the orders read. “Commanders, commissars and political workers who abandon a position without an order from higher headquarters are traitors to the Motherland and will be treated accordingly.”  The communist party news organ, Red Star, emphasized that any soldier who fails and does not do his duty “on the battlefield instead of standing to the death will be condemned as a traitor selling his country into Germany slavery.”

“Accordingly” apparently translates a “shot” in the original Russian.  This brings to mind the quote from Joseph Stalin, “It takes a brave man to be a coward in the Red Army.”

Leningrad was already in the eleventh month of its 900-day siege.  It began on 8 September 1941 and lasted 2 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 5 days, until 27 January 1944.

1943

17 July – Solomons Islands. In the Pacific, the Allies staged a heavy 12-hour air raid on Japanese naval and air positions.  Wave after wave of Liberators and Flying Fortresses bomved the Kahili airfield and paralyzed or destroyed the enemy planes on the ground.  Torpedo bombers, the Avengers, attacked ships at Bougainville while their support fighters tangled with the Japanese Zeros. The Allies sunk seven ships in the harbor, including a light cruiser and two destroyers.  After shooting down nearly fifty Japanese aircraft, all but six Allied planes returned safely home.

1944

20 July – Wilczy Szaniec or Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in NE Poland, what was East Prussian, was the scene of the famous von Stauffenberg plot to kill the Fuhrer.  At 12:42 pm in the Conference center of the compound, Hitler was poring over maps with his General staff when a huge explosion blew the room apart.  Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg had been in the meeting and left his explosive-laden briefcase strategically placed under the conference table.  By all logic, this should have done the trick.

Hitler and Mussolini

Hitler shows Mussolini the bomb damage from the assassination attempt. July 1944.

Von Stauffenberg had excused himself from the meeting and had plans to proceed to Berlin to carry out the plot.  In the meantime, one of the officers moved the valise, having accidently hit it with his foot.  Although four officers died from the explosion, Hitler was relatively unscathed considering the impact.  He was left with temporary deafness and physically shaken, but was able to receive his ally, Benito Mussolini, later that day.  The famous photo shows the two inspecting the aftermath of the blast together.