"Roundheads and Ramblings"
About this time last year, I was writing about the beginning of the
twentieth century in my first rough draft of the third volume of the Grenville Trilogy.
One notable event of the period was the assassination of President William
McKinley in 1901. Naturally I had to stop and do some historical research.
McKinley was in his second term of office. On September 6th, he attended
a public reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. A young
anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him at close range. Czolgosz was an American
citizen, a steel worker, and the son of Polish immigrants. The shot was not
immediately fatal, but the president died of gangrene eight days later, and was
succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt.
This year, as I read through the final page proofs of Yankee Daughters, I‘ve again been thinking about various current
events, and also wondering what my characters, who had also lived through the
assassination of Abraham Lincoln, would have thought about another act of
violence. But first, I needed to deal with creature comforts. It’s a cold, cloudy, damp morning, and although I know it's November, I'm not ready to
turn on the furnace and admit that winter is here. So I decided to switch on
the gas fireplace for an hour or two to take the chill off.
I walked into the
living room, as I've done thousands of times in the past twelve years. I
glanced at the mirror above the fireplace out of long habit. (Who doesn't sneak
a look when they pass a mirror once in a while—not my mother’s daughter,
Then it hit me. The mirror I was looking at once also reflected the image of
William McKinley. How did that happen? The story, once again, goes back to
those eight McCaskey sisters.
The McKinley family was from Canton, Ohio, which
you may only know as the location of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But for the
McCaskey girls, Canton was a tempting destination. It sits not far across the
state border from North Sewickley. It was a booming metropolis founded by a
bunch of wealthy steel magnates, while North Sewickley had remained a backwoods
settlement. It was where one went in search of fame and fortune,
apparently. One by one, most of the McCaskey girls found a way to move
Now we fast-forward to the nineteen forties. My mother had managed to marry the
boss, and for the first time in her entire life, she had money to spend. She
had left many of her friends behind, but there were always family members near
by. She was particularly close to her sister Florence's second daughter, Helen,
and the two of them enjoyed shopping sprees together.
had married a man who was related by another marriage to the McKinley family. (Helen’s
daughter Sharyn, my own cousin once removed, provided me with the hand-written family
documents that detailed the relationship.) Helen’s husband was a second-cousin-twice-removed
of ida McKinley, wife of President William McKinley. Since the McKinleys had only two daughters,
neither of whom survived past childhood, Ida's cousins were her only living
relatives. And that’s how Helen and my mother managed to wrangle tickets to the
auction where the McKinley mansion and its contents were being sold off.
Now my mother was one of the original "material
girls." Because she had grown up in great poverty, she valued THINGS. And
at that auction, she fell in love with an antique mirror. It's about four feet
square and surrounded by a frame of gilded (naturally! this was the Gilded Age)
plaster of Paris roses. So she bought it. I have no idea how much she paid for
it, or even how she managed to get the thing home. (Knowing my mother, I’d bet
she just batted her eyelashes at the nearest fellow with a truck.)
The mirror hung in the living room during my entire childhood. When my mother
died, I inherited it, and I entrusted it to a whole succession of Air
Force movers who shuffled us and our belongings back and forth across the
country. The plaster of Paris framework is cracked at all its weakest points,
but the cracks are clean and almost invisible unless you happen to grasp the
mirror at the wrong point -- in which case a rose will come off in your fingers
until you tuck it back in. The silvering on the back has held up remarkably
well. And here it still hangs, over a century old, providing a link between me
and a historical event I knew almost nothing about until last year.
My mother's niece's husband's second cousin (twice removed)’s husband.
. . Six degrees of separation, indeed.
On this Veteran's Day, I am headed off to a weekend meeting of a Lions organization, where my Vietnam veteran husband will be inducted into a Hall of Honor for those who have served the blind and sight-impaired in this four state area. For the past 75 years, the Mid-South Lions Sight and Hearing Service has been providing free vision and hearing treatments for those who cannot afford the help they need. Only nineteen other individuals have been so honored.
Mid-South was Floyd's second home. He served as a Vice President for Tennessee for four years and then as president of the organization. When his term was over, he went back to being a faithful and busy committee member and chairperson. He attended every meeting, worked on every fund-raiser, and donated as much as he could from his own pocket. When he was working out his own end-of-life arrangements, he asked that no one send flowers. He wanted such money to go to pay for surgeries to restore someone's sight.
So, yes, today is bittersweet. I wish he could have been here to receive this honor, although I suspect he might have asked that it go to someone else. That it happens on Veteran's Day Weekend is something of a coincidence, but maybe there are no such coincidences. The same need to serve others that took him into the Air Force also took him to Vietnam and then to a series of leadership roles among Tennessee Lions.
But let the occasion speak to you. Don't wait. Find that veteran who risked all and sacrificed more than you can know, and salute him for his service. Say thank you while you still can.
Today, November 7th, is an important date in the history of the Civil War, although many history books overlook its significance. On this date, the Great South Carolina Expeditionary Force achieved a quick victory at Port Royal Sound and made it possible for the Union Navy to enforce a blockade over the entire Atlantic coast of the Confederacy. The following excerpt from my "A Scratch with the Rebels" explains why the Battle of Port Royal was so vital.
Shortly after Fort Sumter fell, Lincoln had officially
declared a blockade of all states that had seceded and dispatched the Niagara to hold Charleston Harbor. Her arrival, to be
sure, had caused some initial consternation; on 9 May 1861, Miss Emma Holmes, a
Charleston resident, worried: "Old Abe has at last fulfilled his threats
of blockading us by sending the Niagara here.
...The Niagara is a splendid steam propeller, so
contrived that she can withdraw the wheel from the water & thus use either
steam or her sails at pleasure, and is probably the fastest ship in the U. S.
navy. It carries 12 guns, is manned by 600 men, and fully supplied with
provisions, implements & munitions of war. She has already warned off two
or three vessels . . ."
Concern soon gave way to nonchalance, however; within days
the Niagara was gone. The same resident wrote in
her diary for 18 May, "Since last Tuesday, the Niagara
has not been seen anywheres [sic] along our coast . . . So, the much talked of
blockade is at an end, not having done us any harm, but plenty to Old Abe . .
Blockading the South Carolina coast was no easy task. If the
North planned to maintain an effective blockade against the Confederate States,
their overriding need was for a safe southern harbor from which to operate. The
international understanding was that other countries would respect a blockade
only so long as it operated effectively. The English, in particular, had
questioned the validity of the Northern blockade, and understandably so, since
they were in large part dependent on southern cotton to keep their textile
mills in operation. English lawyers probed the clauses of the Union's Blockade
Act, pointing out that an absolute blockade had to be effective before it could
be legal. If some ships could penetrate the blockade, no foreign government was
bound to observe it. The withdrawal of blockading vessels for repairs or
supplies would be interpreted as abandonment of the effort; it was therefore
essential that Union ships have quick and easy access to a supply depot.
In late October, Harper's Weekly
speculated that there were only three southern harbors deep enough to let large
ships enter. Beaufort, South Carolina; Brunswick, Georgia; and Pensacola,
Florida were all possible destinations for the Expedition. Naval intelligence
had already focused on Port Royal, South Carolina, as one of the more important
southern harbors. From Port Royal, blockading vessels would be less than a
day's sail from such important Confederate ports as Charleston and Savannah. It
was further hoped that from a naval base at Port Royal, it would be possible to
take and hold these vital harbors. As Lieutenant Daniel Ammen, commander of the
Seneca, explained in his memoirs, a blockade from
within a harbor could be effective with only one ship. If the blockade had to
be maintained outside the range of coastal guns, it could take up to thirty
ships to achieve the same degree of effectiveness.
I've always had a soft spot in my heart for this anniversary. Several times I contrived to be in Hilton Head of this date so that I could look out over the water and imagine the Union fleet. But this year, the event takes on a special significance for me because my next book will involve the blockade and the attempts of Confederate blockade runners to break the Union control of the coast. Stay tuned!
Everybody’s talking about the World Series today, and i’m no
exception. Despite the fact that I usually don’t watch sports on TV, I was
glued to the screen last night from the eighth inning on. And when I finally
went to bed, the thought in my mind was: “All is right in the world, at least
for this moment.”
This morning, as Facebook is overrun with
congratulatory messages and reminders
that the Cubs had not won a World Series for 108 years, several people have
commented that last night’s win was a “return to the good old days.” My
historian’s mindset, however, has been reminding me to think about what the
world was really like 108 years ago.
Now, as it happens, the book proof I sent off to the
publisher this morning deals with exactly that question. My upcoming “Yankee
Daughters,” due out in early December, covers the years from 1886 to 1920. And,
with an apologetic shrug to the nine real women who inspired the story, it does
not paint a pretty picture. Here’s the blurb that appears on the back cover:
How do you raise old-fashioned 19-century girls
who must face the challenges of an
-- natural disasters such as
earthquakes and hurricanes
-- institutional failures that cause
economic panic and bank closures
-- the unthinkable disasters of assassination
and the sinking of an unsinkable ship
-- worldwide conflict and the
horrors of trench warfare
And how do you prepare them for the changes they will face
in the 20 century:
--from dirt roads and horse-drawn wagons
to highways, airplanes, and automobiles
--from political bosses to women’s
suffrage and prohibition
--from one-room school houses to
state-controlled public education
--from family farms to assembly
lines and labor unions
--from geographic isolation to worldwide
As for the year 1908 itself, here’s what my story has to
say about it:
crisis Jamey had been worrying about reared its head early in 1907, and by
October and November, there was a massive run on regional banks, as several
brokerage firms, including the Knickerbocker Trust, went broke. Jamey now
refused to discuss the crisis, but he was distracted, pale, and frightened. In
1908, the local bank foreclosed on the Grenville farm. A sheriff’s deputy
nailed the notification to the door early one morning."
Of course, the Grenville sisters would not have been
following the 1908 World Series. If they had known about it at all, they would probably
have been rooting for Detroit. Still, looking back, I can imagine that many baseball
fans—then as now—really needed something to make them feel good about
themselves for a little while.
So, thank you, Chicago Cubs, for once again providing the smiles on our