Veterans Day 2022

Cat on the HMAS Encounter sitting in a ship's gun barrel
The feline mascot of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Encounter during WW1

Since the beginning of armed conflict, soldiers have had to find small comforts where they could. Sometimes that comfort has come in the shape of cats and other furry pets.

Soldiers’ and sailors’ cats often had jobs — killing vermin, acting as mascots, and so forth — but as this piece by Nick Barnett put it,

Why does a soldier in the trenches make a pet of a cat? Sure, a playful cat can relieve boredom, and in a setting where hugs generally aren’t going to happen, it can provide a warm little body to cuddle.

Tucking a cat into the crook of your arm, feeding it, giving it life amid wreckage and danger, would have been a way of reminding themselves that there was reason for going home, and that they were still human.

That, to me, is the other great job – alongside the mousing – that cats have played in war zones. They’ve lifted men’s spirits and reminded them who they are.

On this Veteran’s Day 2022, we are 104 years past the end of the “war to end all wars” — that expression of a hope doomed to be left unfulfilled for the foreseeable future. Thus, cats still find themselves in war zones and in the care of soldiers, although nowadays the cats of war sometimes have Instagram accounts.

Of course, the cats are not the center of any war — just a sideshow, really. Give a thought to those who have found themselves in war, that uniquely inhumane yet all-too-human circumstance.

Also, Слава Україні!

Labor Day 2022

Luna supervising the production of this very blog post

I think that Labor Day can be a slightly ambiguous holiday for a computer technologist such as myself.

On the one hand, although I am not a member of a labor union and my profession infamously resists being organized, I enjoy many of the benefits of past union efforts, including the weekend and subsidized health insurance. I was not forced to work as a child, nor could I have been legally employed as one, and I have recourse if I were to lose my job.

On the other hand, one of the points of computers is that they can perform certain kinds of tasks more quickly than any human could. This often gives people the opportunity to do more interesting work and promotes economic growth. In my particular niche, library automation, the computer taking care of the recording of checkouts means that fewer people are needed to do things like send out overdue notices, in principle freeing up staff time to do more interesting things like run children’s story hour.

Now, new technology does not inevitably mean that the robots instantly take over all the jobs. While on the face of it ATMs are an obvious threat to a bank teller’s job, between 1970 and 2010 the number of bank tellers actually increased. Why? While fewer tellers were needed per branch, banks had various reasons to open a lot more branches (which nowadays are largely sales offices that somewhat grudgingly also accept small business deposits and convert coins into more useful cash). But with the rise of mobile banking and the decline in number of branch banks as the industry consolidates, the prospect for bank teller employment is looking grim.

However, sometimes the robots really do quickly take over. When’s the last time you’ve encountered an elevator operator?

Let’s get back to libraries. Computers have allowed the creation and maintenance of big global databases that gather together the efforts of lots of library catalogers. Let’s say your public library just received a box of the latest James Patterson novel and needs to get it into their catalog. It’s been decades since your library — and each and every one of its 9,000 peers in the U.S. — had to enter the record from scratch and figure out what subject headings to assign. Grabbing a record from one of those big databases and adapting it (or not) suffices. Thus, you don’t need a full time professional cataloger in each and every library because technology facilitates sharing the work. There’s still a lot to be done with library metadata, so library cataloging (viewed broadly) isn’t about to disappear.

However, that can be cold comfort to somebody whose job actually does disappear or gets radically changed because of a new computer system. Computerization, if nothing else, leads to change. Sometimes that change is good, but often it is indifferent or negative for somebody who just wants to work their way to a dignified retirement.

Thus, the ambiguity: computerization doesn’t necessarily lead to destroying entire occupations (though sometimes it does), but it is often the cause of change, or at least the avatar of it. And that means that the computer technologist is sometimes not the friend of labor, whatever other public benefits their work may provide.


Some reading:

  • Erik Loomis is a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. Sometimes frustrating, but always interesting, he regularly blogs at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. I recommend his “Erik Visit an American Grave” series.
  • Barbara Ehrenreich passed away this week. Her book Nickel and Dimed remains essential.

July 4th, 2022

Flag of the 3rd US Colored Troops

The flag in today’s post is the banner of the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the of the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War. It was designed by an African American artist, David Bustill Bowser, who also designed flags for at least 10 other African-American regiments. It reads, “Rather Die Freemen, Than Live To Be Slaves.”

We only know what seven of Bowser’s flags look like. There once were originals kept at the museum in West Point. However, they were thrown out in 1940. Or destroyed in a fire.

We really ought to keep better track of the symbols of the ongoing fight for our freedom.

July 4th, 1863, marks the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi to General Grant. African Americans had been joining the fight at Vicksburg well before the town surrendered, but recruitment continued afterwards. There was another 3rd African American regiment, the 3rd United States Colored Calvary Regiment. It was raised in October of 1863 in Vicksburg and saw quite a lot of service. By 1864 it was getting encomiums like this in the Vicksburg Herald:

We learn the black horse cavalry (U.S. 3rd colored) under their gallant leader Maj. Cook, captured the three pieces of artillery which where brought here as the trophies of the late fight near Woodville, Miss. It has been the custom of some “white folks” to underrate the courage of the negro soldiers, but we have heard officers and men of white commands who have been in action with the 3rd colored cavalry say that they are as good fighters as there are in the U.S. army, and under the lead of the chivalrous Cook they will charge to the cannon’s mouth.

The tone of that newspaper piece didn’t reflect general sentiment of many in Vicksburg. For example, the whites of that town stopped celebrating Independence Day. It wasn’t until 1945 that they got back in the habit, and not until 1947, when Eisenhower visited, that the practice really took off.

The African American’s of the Vicksburg area had no such compunctions, and in 1864 notably celebrated in the “House that Jeff Built”: i.e., the plantation where Jeff Davis kept 131 slaves in 1860.

While some people complain that Black people had no cause for celebrating the Fourth of July in the nation’s past, Black military history researcher Bennie McRae of Trotwood, Ohio says the Black people celebrating that first July 4 at Davis Bend were entitled to celebrate because of their involvement with the war effort.

“It was not a white thing, because when Vicksburg fell Black soldiers at Milliken’s Bend and in other battles over in Louisiana and Mississippi had made it possible,” he said.

The most noteworthy battles fought by Mississippi Black troops to liberate themselves, their families, and the entire nation are the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign; two battles in or near Yazoo City, February and March, 1864; Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864; Brownsville, MS, April, 1864; Brice’s Crossroads, June 1-13, 1864; Tupelo, July 5-1864, and Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864.

“That was a heck of a cause for celebrating the Fourth of July in 1864 and in the years since, because their people assisted in bringing down the Confederacy,” McRae said. “There’s an abundance of documentation on that coming from the soldiers and sailors and the contraband (ex-slaves) themselves.

May we continue to be able to preserve our union without having to design new regimental flags. But remember, not all battles for liberty for the U.S. and its people were fought solely under the Stars and Stripes, and the stories of those flags matter.

Juneteenth 2022: readings and a question

[Picture of general orders made by General Granger in Galveston, Texas on 19 June 1865]

Emancipation from slavery in the United States was a process, not an instantaneous transformation. Consider General Order No. 3 made in Galveston, Texas, on 19 June 1865:

Galveston Texas June 19th 1865.

General Orders

No. 3.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

By order of Major General Granger

F.W. Emery

Major A.A. Genl.

This was of course made well after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the formal end of the Civil War. By that point in time, many slaves had been freed and many had freed themselves. All had to grapple with what freedom meant, both abstractly and in very concrete terms: how to keep body and soul together when the harvest waited for no one, the former slave owners largely resisted any fundamental changes to the relations between whites and African Americans, and wartime promises of land came mostly to naught.

In 1873, the New York Times published this piece on successful farming cooperatives organized by former slaves:

Some of the largest plantations in Colleton County, South Carolina, are now owned and successfully conducted by colored people, who have united their resources and combine in their labor. Their manner of operation is thus described by a South Carolina paper: “A number of them, in some cases as many as fifty, form themselves into a society, elect their officers, and adopt by-laws. They have regular meetings, at which the officers report, and a specified amount is paid into the treasury by each member. When sufficient is accumulated in the treasury a suitable plantation is selected and the purchase made; usually the payments are in one, two, or three years, a good portion being paid at the time of the purchase. The land is equally distributed by the officers elected for that purpose among the members of the society, or so much as they may wish to cultivate. Each is free to work as suits him, and each can dispose of his crop as he deems proper. The only thing required is honesty and a prompt payment of all dues, which are usually very light. Any one willfully failing to meet his dues, or convicted of dishonesty, has all amounts previously paid by him for the purchase of the place refunded, and is required to move off the plantation, all his rights and claims having been forfeited.

A sort of rivalry seems to spring up between them, which is productive of economy and thrift. These societies are located in the low country east of the Savannah and Charleston Railroad. We do not presume to say that only the colored people who have formed themselves into these societies show thrift and the accumulation of property, for a number who, six or seven years ago, were not worth a dollar now carry on successfully large rice and cotton plantations, and are becoming heavy tax-payers. But in the particular section in which these societies are formed, more property exists among their members than among those who are now fighting the battle of life and death on their own account, while from the formation of these societies they are enabled to purchase more valuable property and secure greater privileges than they could if each laid his money out in a separate purchase, in which case ten or twenty acres of poor land would be all he would be able to buy, as no planter would consent to cut off and sell small tracts of his best land and retain himself the poorer portion. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons of their success, as on nearly all the plantations in this section a large proportion of the land is almost valueless.

By securing the whole plantation they obtain sufficient good land for their purposes, while he who purchases for himself generally gets such land that it is impossible to make more than a poor subsistence from.

(I first found the news article on the educator resources section of the After Slavery exhibition. A summary of emancipation in Georgia that I ran across can be found here.)

It’s of course easy enough to guess that the co-ops had troubles after the post-Reconstruction imposition of white supremacy in South Carolina in 1876 and beyond, but the specifics are not readily showing up via web searches. The website of the Colleton County Historical and Preservation Society happily mentions that many Tuskegee Airmen trained at an airfield in the county but is entirely silent on post-Reconstruction history.

So my question remains: I wonder what happened to those co-op plantations.

Memorial Day 2022

Vietnam Memorial

I

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.

A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

From “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa.

II

Grandfather died in 1919 and it would be a number of years before the graves of World War I veterans appeared. Meanwhile the white cemetery from our back door to Chapel Hill Road and beyond was filled with the Confederate dead. Every Memorial Day or Decoration Day, the cemetery was dotted with crossbarred Confederate flags. As a Union veteran, Grandfather was entitled to a Union flag for his grave, so every May I walked proudly through a field of Confederate flags hugging my gold-pointed replica of Old Glory. I crossed Chapel Hill Road to the Fitzgerald family burial ground and planted it at the head of Grandfather’s grave.”

From Proud Shoes, a memoir by Pauli Murray, civil rights activist and first African American woman to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.

III

The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulfull call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.

“Ashbah” from Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, veteran of Bosnia and Iraq.

Presidents’ Day 2022: Marginalia

Portrait of George WashingtonPortrait of James Monroe

The 1790’s was a complicated period for U.S. diplomacy, with the young republic having to navigate relations with two great powers, Great Britain and France. Washington’s neutrality proclamation of 1793 expressed a desire to stay out of European wars, but neutrality did not mean that there were no choices to be made. The American Revolution was still in living memory, of course, and pro-French feelings were often strong. On the other hand, Great Britain was the biggest trading partner of the U.S. and was perhaps culturally closer to the U.S.

How to treat with France and Great Britain became a fault line in early partisan politics, with the Federalists leaning toward’s Great Britain and the Democratic-Republicans towards France. James Monroe was nominated by Washington to be the U.S.’s chief diplomat to France in 1794. He was a Democratic-Republican.

Things did not go well, at least from Washington’s point of view. After the Jay Treaty with Great Britain was announced, France expressed its displeasure. No particular surprise there. However, Monroe also made his displeasure known, and subsequently was perceived as being a bit too much in France’s court.

Washington had Monroe recalled in 1796. Monroe came back home, nearly got into a duel with Alexander Hamilton, then in 1798 published A View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States as a defense of his actions. Washington was out of office by then, but arranged to get a copy of Monroe’s book.

I can imagine Washington reading it with an ever-growing fury. Why I can I imagine this? Because he wrote in its margins.

Here’s a taste. The first sentence of the book is “In the month of May, 1794, I was invited by the President of the United States, through the Secretary of State, to accept the office of Minister Plenipotentiary to the French republic.”

Washington’s annotation: “After several attempts had failed to obtain a more eligable [sic] character.

And it goes on like this for many more annotations well worth reading in full. Who knew that Washington had a snarky side?

Here’s your reminder that the Founders were not plaster saints.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Versus the Insurance Companies

Car pooling during the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Photograph by Don Cravens/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

A thorn in the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. in September of 1956 was… several auto insurance companies. From a letter that he wrote to Bayard Rustin that month:

We are still confronting pressure from reaction forces. For instance there is still the attempt to block our transportation system. The policies have been cancelled on more than half of our station wagons, and we have confronted insuperable difficulties trying to get them reinsured. You can see what it means to our transportation system to have about ten station wagons out of operation. We have had these station wagons out of operation for more than a week simply because they are not insured. This seems to be the major problem confronting us at this time.

Say what?

In order for the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama to be effective, African Americans need alternative transportation. A carpool was organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was formed shortly after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. The MIA’s president? Martin Luther King, Jr.

In addition to private cars, local churches provided 22 station wagons for the carpool. Then as now, cars cannot be legally driven without insurance policies, and at one point the local insurance companies had cancelled the policies on 17 of the 22 station wagons. As King noted, the cancellations were done that the behest of the Montgomery White Citizens Council:

Formal objections to the car pool included the charges that the cars were improperly insured and the drivers were “morally unsuitable.” It is true that for a time some cars were without insurance—since the White Citizens Council brought pressure on the insurance companies to cancel the policies on cars being used in the pool. But this was remedied long before the court case, when Lloyds of London insured each car to the amount of $11,000. As evidence of the moral unfitness of the drivers, the city listed the numerous traffic tickets with which it had harassed us from the beginning. Despite this strange justice, we decided to comply with the court order.

Despite the rescue by Lloyds of London on the insurance front, the court order King refers to put the car pool out of commission on 13 November 1956 — the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court first struck down segregation on public transportation. So, they walked until the last appeal by the city was denied and bus service in Montgomery was desegregated on 21 December 1956.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, but that dream was not realized with a snap of the fingers or a single speech. Both segregation and the efforts to lift it involved many quotidian details.  That’s my focus for today: few get the opportunity to stand in front of a microphone in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands, but many, many more of influence in the realm of the small detail and can use that influence wisely… or poorly.

For further reading: the King Paper Publications at the The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford, which has many writings by King available online — and not just the big speeches. Sometimes it’s good to look at the little ones, too.

Thanksgiving 2021

Galen here, once again borrowing Marlene’s blog to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving!

This time around, let me tell you about one of the things I’m thankful for: the historian Bret Devereaux’s blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. Devereaux, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializes in ancient Mediterranean history with a focus on how ordinary people were both affected by and influenced the economy and warfare.

His blog marries popular culture and ancient military history and tactics but is grounded in current, rigorous historical thinking that doesn’t lose sight of the common people — but is always entertaining to read. He seems incapable of writing briefly, but the result are pieces that you can really dig into. He generally posts on Fridays, and it’s always a pleasure to see one of them show up in my feed reader. If you read historical fiction, particularly books set in ancient Rome or Greece, or epic fantasy, I highly recommend checking his blog out. Likewise if you’re interested in ancient military history; Devereaux‘s pieces on warfare are quite interesting, but he never forgets that war is a terrible thing.

Some of his hits include:

There’s much more, including pieces on the intersection of video games and history, historiography, and advice if you’re considering becoming a historian yourself.

Looking for something to read while the turkey roasts? Dig in!

Or just look at the upside-down Hecate:

Hecate the tortoiseshell cat lying on the floor, looking at the camera, upside-down

(Not Exactly the) Fourth of July

Today is, well, not exactly the Fourth of July. Obviously. But it is part of a long holiday weekend in celebration of U.S. Independence Day.

Making it feel like a holiday post is in order, especially since the actual holiday was on a Sunday this year, and there’s a meme or two for Sundays. Honestly, if I didn’t do the Sunday Post/Virtual Nightstand I’d be a bit lost for the entire week. Instead, today will be a bit of a lost day as there isn’t anything that particularly HAS to be done today.

Today will be an excellent day to read. But then, aren’t they all?

 

MLK Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the MLK Giveaway Hop hosted by Caffeinated Reviewer &  Mocha Girls Read !

In honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, observed on the third Monday of January each year – that’s today although his actual birthday is tomorrow, January 19 – Caffeinated Reviewer and Mocha Girls Read have created this giveaway hop of books celebrating Black authors. As book reviewers and book bloggers, we are celebrating diverse reading and drawing attention, we hope, to the richness of a more diverse reading experience.

To that end, this week I’ll be reviewing books by Black authors, no matter what their genre. And we’re all giving away books that express that diversity and/or gift cards so that our winners can read what’s available for themselves.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

For more terrific recommendations and more chances to win, be sure to visit the other stops on this hop!

You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter