The Tornado That Saved America


In August 1814, during the war with the British, much of Washington, D.C. was burning. image from Smithsonian magazine
In August 1814, during the war with the British, much of Washington, D.C. was burning. image from Smithsonian magazine


Although sometimes very destructive, tornadoes do not always bear completely bad news. In fact, there is one weather incident that may have changed the course of American history. This event occurred during the war og 1812 and probably included a series of severe thunderstorms, as well as embedded tornadoes. The end result from Nature’s destructive forces may have been responsible for driving the British troops out of our newly formed national capitol, located on the north shore of the Potomac River, just a few miles upstream from George Washington’s plantation in Mt. Vernon, Virginia.

The Event

Today August 25, 2015 is the 201st anniversary of the tornado that helped save Washington, D.C. from British invasion. To put it mildly, on this date in 1814, the new nation was in dire straits. The new capitol was burning and all naval activity on the Chesapeake Bay was controlled by Her Majestry’s Service. The British troops had arrived the day before and set fire to many buildings, including the White House. The Madison’s were forced to vacate the newly-built property at Pennsylvania Avenue and retreat to nearby Georgetown. On the night of August 25th long term British occupation of the new capitol seemed like a certain thing.

That is until a line of thunderstorms, partially fueled by daytime temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, approached the city. The torrential rain doused many of the fires and one (or more) tornadoes tore through city, uprooting trees and sending British cannons flying through the air. Dozens of British troops were killed in the tempest, mostly by collapsing buildings. The next day, the British forces left the city and the place has not been militarily attacked or occupied since.

The Result

According to many historians, the evacuation of Washington may have figured in the end of hostilities between the two nations (America and Britain) and provided the groundwork for a peaceful settlement that ended the war and re-established a sovereign nationhood for the U.S., Great Britain, including the British territory located to the north (now called Canada).

National Tornado Day

Perhaps, August 25th should be declared National Tornado Day, not only to celebrate the survival of Washington during the War of 1812, but also to acknowledge that there aspects of natural disasters that are beneficial to mankind. Hurricanes bring rain, forest fires help regenerate certain types of forests and tornadoes may possibly aid in the continuation of some grasslands. None of these disasters are man-made and may certain long-term benefits, despite their immediate destructiveness.


A tornado cab cause great destruction and misery, image from wikipedia
A tornado cab cause great destruction and misery, including lost of life and property.  image from Wikipedia


A Few Words On Writing Historical Fiction


Fact or Fiction

Fact and fiction are a strange pair of bedfellows. One might think that fictional episodes might provides the strangest stories, but in reality, it is often true episodes that provide the most bizarre tales.

Spoofing History

When I was in grade school, I acquired a Smother’s Brothers LP, where they did a short sketch on the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Though short, the routine was hilarious and may have provided a bit of inspiration to this story. Looking at the success that these two brothers had in spoofing America, one can only conclude making fun of our past might lead to some success.

Getting Your Facts Straight

Just because you are presenting an alternate history to the mainstream version, does not mean that you can skimp on the little details of everyday life. Things like dress, architecture, mannerisms and even language should fit the times as best you can. This may take some research and in the process you may surprised as to some of the information that you might come across.

When writing Colonial Capers, I wanted to use the type of Elizabethan English that might have been used by the Pilgrims. During my inquiry, I found out that by the time of the Revolution, this style of speaking had all but died out, so I dropped all the thees and thous. Nonetheless, I did come across some very colorful Colonial slang that was used in the years just prior to the Revolution.

My Venture

My venture consists of a short story, based on events surrounding the Boston Tea Party, which occurred in December of 1773. The tale is called Colonial Capers and is set before, during and after the famous action. The story is meant as a satire on the Colonial era and American history in general. Presently, it available through Smashwords. Here is the link.

 In a darkened boathouse on the edge of Boston Harbor, Phineas Phillips and a small band of dissidents sit                   quietly watching two British ships that are at anchor along the Pearl Street Wharf. Soon a band of heathen              Indians will board the two schooners and toss all the tea into the harbor. With advance knowledge of what                may happen, Phineas and friends have a different plan in mind.



Redskins, Pumpkins, Pilgrims, Wild Turkeys and does anybody have a beer?

Recent New Yorker Magazine Cover questions the reality of a pro football team in our nation's capitol that is named for the "redskins"
A recent New Yorker Magazine Cover questions the reality of a pro football team in our nation’s capitol that is named for the “redskins”

A Tumultuous Journey and Landing

To say that the pilgrims had a tough time of it in their early goings in the New World, might be a gross understatement. First, there was the oceanic crossing, which occurred in the autumn months, when the North Atlantic is at its stormiest. Although many were seasick for days on end, only two people perished during the tumultuous journey. But from here, things only got worst, as during the first winter at Plymouth, half of the 100 colonists died before the winter was out.

Does Anybody Have a Beer?

The first encounter with the Native population was even more surreal, as it occurred in the early spring after so many had died. In early March, an Indian by the name of Samoset, proudly walked into the Pilgrim settlement and promptly asked in understandable English, if anybody had any beer. To make things worst, Samoset and some of his Wampanoag friends had been living nearby for the course of the winter and so they must have been aware of the settlers severe decline.

So Maybe the New World Wasn’t So New After All

As it turned out, Samoset’s taste for alcohol and limited use of the English language came from his home on Monhegan Island, just off the coast of Maine. Here, English traders had been stopping by on this remote island for at least a decade and trading many items with the Natives for fresh supplies of food and water. A few unlucky souls had even been taken capture and transported across the Atlantic, where they were sold off as slaves. Squanto fell into this category, so maybe the New World wasn’t so new after all.

Divine Guidance Or Just Plain Lucky

In some ways the pilgrims were very lucky, for their new home occurred in a part of the America that had just  been ravaged by small pox. Actually, this could have turned out really bad, if the local inhabitants had viewed the new arrivals as harbingers of the dreaded disease. But as it turned out, this was not the case. Instead, the English transplants were seen as suitable replacements, for the nearby village, which had been wiped out by smallpox.

Not only did Samoset and his associates help the pilgrims survive, but also, the newcomers formed a mutual defense alliance with various Wampanoag villages that existed in what is now eastern Massachusetts. This became known as the Mayflower Pact and the agreement lasted, for as long as the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit was alive. In fact, the Mayflower accord became a realistic model for the many treaties that were created between Indians and Whites in the following centuries.

Origin of the term “Redskin”

The main objection to using Redskin as a team mascot, in the NFL (or anywhere else), comes from its use as a term for a scalp, which is taken from an American Indian during warfare. Some scholars have pointed out the term originated among the American Indians to differentiate themselves from Whites and Blacks and so it is no more offensive than those terms.  This may be true, but would anybody suggest changing the name of the Washington Redskins to the Washington Caucasians or the Washington Blacks.




It Takes More Than a Few Malcontents To Start A Revolution

Washington Crossing the Delaware, painting by Emmanuel Leutze
Washington Crossing the Delaware, painting by Emmanuel Leutze

Washington at Valley Forge
‘Twas bitter cold and up spoke George
Vo do do, vo doe doe de o, doe.
No–you don’t say?”

from Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes – lyrics by Irving Aaronson

Happy Birthday America

Today marks the 248th anniversary of the signing of  the Declaration of Independence. Hooray for hot dogs and hamburgers grilled outdoors, but let’s not forget that the Revolutionary War dragged on for many  years until Lord Cornwallis finally laid down his sword at the battle of Yorktown. Then there was the French Navy, who at the time of surrender, had blockcaded British ships from coming to the aid of their landlocked general. During this time period, the Revolutionary Army had very few victories. In fact, you might say that the deck was pretty well stacked against them. During the conflict, the fledgling new nation had many enemies besides the most obvious, the imperial motherland of Great Britain.

How Popular Was the Revolt?

In the initial stages the effort of the Colonists to obtain independence from Great Britain was quite popular. This can be seen in events at Concord, Bunker Hill and the Boston Tea Party. However as the war dragged on the war effort lost appeal to many Colonists. On top of this there were a substantial number of New World residents, who saw many economic advantages in retaining close ties with England. After the war, many Loyalists, as the Tories were sometimes called, chose to relocate to other parts of the British Empire, such as Canada or the Caribbean. It is estimated that during the war, as much as 20% of the white population remained loyal to the crown. Still, the war effort would not have been successful without widespread support throughout the Colonial population. To complicate matters for the British, many European powers, including the French, Spanish and even the Dutch, ended up supporting the birth of a new nation on the shores of the New World.

Myths of the American Revolution

Here is a list of seven myths compiled from a Smithsonian article by John Ferling.

1. I. Great Britain Did Not Know What It Was Getting Into
2. Americans Of All Stripes Took Up Arms Out Of Patriotism
3. Continental Soldiers Were Always Ragged And Hungry
4. The Militia Was Useless
5. Saratoga Was The War’s Turning Point
6. General Washington Was A Brilliant Tactician And Strategist
7. Great Britain Could Never Have Won The War

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, painting by John Trumbull
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, painting by John Trumbull

Happy Fourth of July and enjoy those hamburgers, hot dogs and beers.

The Day That Custer’s Luck Ran Out


The battle of the Little Bighorn as recorded by Chief Red Horse
The battle of the Little Bighorn as recorded by Chief Red Horse

Just The Facts, Please

On June 25th in the year of 1876 General Custer met his maker when he lead the Seventh Calvary on an attack of a large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne. During the ensuing battle 268 U.S. Soldiers died in a short-lived conflict that only lasted a hour or so.

The Immediate Effect

The news of Custer’s humiliating defeat ripped through the Eastern US like a shock wave. The general public was in shock and awe as to how a whole command of soldiers could be eliminated in one battle that didn’t even take up a whole afternoon. In population centers, such as Washington, New York and Chicago, the general public was distraught at the outcome of the battle, for it was never realized that the US Army could possibly lose such a battle.

Out On the Great Plains

The Plains Indians should have been rejoicing on their thrilling victory against one of the most foremost military commanders in the US military. They celebrated, but their were many among the Native population that could see the handwriting on the wall. The “Old Ways” were coming to the end and the future was not all that bright, especially for the colorful lifestyle that had evolved on the Great Plains for the Sioux, Cheyenne and other nomadic tribes of the region. Life on the reservation was becoming inevitable.

A Modern-day 180

When I was a youngster growing up there was a popular frozen custard eatery, named after the famous battle. “Custard’s Last Stand” was a very popular place to eat in suburban Baltimore. Our family would occasionally drive by the place on our Sunday drives, but we never stopped to enjoy the frozen treat, despite strong protests by me and my younger brother. Finally one day, our father relented and our small family got a chance to enjoy the custard delight. For me, it was a “coming of age” moment, when I was at last old enough to be a patron of “Custard’s Last Stand.”

Little Big Man has a one on one encounter with General Custer
Little Big Man has a one on one encounter with General Custer

A Book and a Movie Lampoon General Custer

Since the sixties tn has been popular to make fun of the General and famed Indian fighter. Johnny Cash accompanied by Buffy Saint Marie did a nice job on Cash’s variety hour, when they performed a singing number, entitled “The General Don’t Ride So Good Anymore.” But even more angst came with a book called “Custer Died For Your Sins”, written by Vine Deloria Jr. and of course the Hollywood classic, “Little Big Man”, where George Armstrong is humorously portrayed as a narcissistic warrior, obsessed with becoming president of the USA. This may be great entertainment…..but is it true.

Maybe Custer Was Just Unlucky

As a military man, General Custer was always a cunning and brave risktaker. On that fateful day in the grasslands of Wyoming, Custer may have been only doing what he had always done….and that is leading a small elite group of soldiers on a surprise raid against a strong enemy. His strategy had worked against the Confederates during the Civil War and it was also successful against the Cheyenne down in Oklahoma, but for some strange reason, this technique lead to disaster on the Little Bighorn. As one Lakota writer has suggested, the reason this attack failed was that a lone Sioux rider just happened across the advancing war party and was successfully able to warn the nearby encampment. Perhaps, it can be said that the fate of many an important battle has hinged on something so small as this. History is full of little ironies.


Some Thoughts On Turkey Day

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall
Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, oil painting by William Halsall, from Wikipedia

Thanksgiving Day

The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Fe, NM, when I overheard two men discussing the upcoming holiday in Spanish. To them it was a secular “Anglo” holiday, which could be enjoyed by anybody, who appreciated a well-cooked turkey and a day off. In fact, a little research into the popular national day of rest revealed that Thanksgiving is only widely celebrated in the United States and Canada with the Canadian holiday coming in early October instead of late November. Fixings are about the  same for both nations, but in Canada, Thanksgiving is a three-day (Sat., Sun., Mon.) holiday instead of the normal four in the U.S. Furthermore, in Canada, the popular feast is not tied to any narrative history, like it is in the United States.

Thanksgiving grace in Pennsylvania
Thanksgiving prayer before the meal, Pennsylvania 1942, photo from Farm Security Administration

The Spanish Main
Some historians and cultural commentators are quick to point out that similar feasts or expressions of thanksgiving exist in other parts of North America that predate the 1621 celebration in Massachusetts. Harvest type celebration are cited as having occurred in Florida, Virginia and Texas, years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Despite these observations, the New England meeting of European colonists and Massachusetts Native still remains the common told tale of Thanksgiving and thus serves as the philosophical background for the holiday.

Roast Turkey
Roast turkey is the most common meat served at a Thanksgiving dinner, Photo by M. Rehemtulla, from Wikipedia

About the Food
Though the original feast is reportedly to have had many types of wild game (i.e. fish, lobster, eels, goose and deer), the turkey has become the dominant meat symbol for the November get-together. Although wild turkeys were found in many parts of North America, they were quite abundant in Colonial New England, and so became an important part of the diet for the new arrivals from the Old World. Also important to the American colonists were the Native grown foods of corn, squash, beans and pumpkins. Originally developed in Mexico and Central America over several thousand years ago, these agricultural staples were readily adopted by the early explorers and those who followed after them.

Squanto teaching
Squanto (Tisquantum in the Native tongue) was one of the local Indians, who taught the Pilgrims how to survive, from Wikipedia

The Mayflower and the Massachusetts Indians

The travelers aboard the Mayflower were headed for Virginia, but forced to land at Cape Cod because of bad weather. Many of those on board were enraged at having to spend the winter in snowy Massachusetts. Between the November landing and March, when the local Indians first visited the outpost about half of the Pilgrims died. However, because of contact with previous explorers some of the local Indians could understand English and were glad to teach the new colonists how to survive. This was an event that was always repeated in other parts of the New World.

Veterans Day In America

This Veteran’s Day sign was blown down by the wind, photo by author

Veteran’s Day In America

This year Veteran’s Day falls on a Sunday. This is a good deal for Vets, for some businesses (such as restaurants) that offer free services – or gifts – on Veteran’s Day, may wait until Monday, while others will observe the 11th as the true holiday. Either way active and inactive servicemen can enjoy the best of both worlds and enjoy a free meal – or whatever – on two days instead of one. No matter what you choose to do on this national holiday, thanks for serving the country. Special thoughts go out to those who have risked (and sometimes lost) their lives in foreign conflicts. Today, we still have Afghanistan ongoing as a military conflict, while Iraq, which claimed over 4,000 American lives, has been complete and silent  for almost a year. Hopefully, no new military venture surfaces in the near future, but the world is a dangerous place, so no telling what may happen.

Solemn Reminder

And here is a solemn reminder – in the form of a color photograph – about how much grief and sadness a long war can bring down upon a nation. The picture is of a replica of the  Washington Vietnam War Memorial, as it was displayed at Old Orchard Beach on Memorial Day, maybe ten years ago. The shadows and reflections were only partially visualized at the time the picture was shot, but they definitely give the photograph an eerie quality.

A replica of the Vietnam Wall Memorial
A replica of the Vietnam Wall Memorial on display in Old Orchard Beach, Maine at Memorial Day, photo by author

Colonial Capers

Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party as depicted by Nathaniel Currier in 1846

Colonial Slang

Instead of making our world richer (at least in the use of colorful language), the modern years of the 20th and 21st century seem to have ushered in a narrowing of linguistic diversity within the English language. Just look at how often modern speakers resort to the ever-so-popular F-word, when they could be using such descriptive terms as fart catcher, flaybottomist, kinching morts, jerrycummumble, sluice your gob, crinkum crankum and apple dumpling shop.  When translated to modern English, these 18th century vernacular witicisms respectively mean; a valet or footman that walks behind his mistress or master, a schoolmaster, a crew of women, to tumble about, to take a hearty drink, a woman’s commodity and last but not least a woman’s bosom. Many thanks to Cooper Fleischman and his fascinating online article, 38 Vulgar Terms from Colonial Times That Need to be Brought Back, for this partial list.

Rum Grog
A glass of rum grog, from Wikipedia

18th Century Alcohol Consumption

To paraphrase our newfound historical lingo, residents of the original thirteen colonies really liked to “sluice their gobs”. Nowhere is this more evident than in the colorful names applied to some of the cocktail mixtures, which more often than not were just as colorful as the names used to insult the Colonist’s fellow man and woman. So next time you head into a Philadelphia or Boston bar, you might ask for a Rattle-skull, a Mimbo, a Bombo, a Whistle Belly, a Syllabub, a Sling, a Bogus or a Stonewall. If you think that pre-Revolutionary America was thrilled by alcohol consumption, you’re right. With rum and whiskey leading the way, Colonial America was perfectly capable of enjoying their liquor. And for those of you who might like to sample one of these drinks from the past, try making a Rattle-skull. All you have to do is add 3/4 of an ounce of rum and 3/4 of an ounce of  brandy to 12 ounces of dark beer. Then add a half a lime and garnish with nutmeg. Sounds delicious…..and perhaps a bit potent. By the way many a 18th century drink consisted of mixing the hard liquor to beer.

End of Elizabethan English

When the first English Colonists arrived in the New World (approximately 1600), Shakespeare was still alive and uses of such words as thee, ye, thou, thine, hither, thither, morrow, naught, yonder and n’er were abundant. If one could be magically transported to the early settlements at Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay, use of these words would abound with everyday speech along with some interesting slang.  Curses were common and came in the form of such phrases as “a pox upon thee”, “Devil take thee”, “beshrew thee” or “fie upon thee”. Petty insults to another person might include such words as Cocklorel, Runagate, Cur, Jackanape or Coxcomb.  When uttering slang in everyday speech, one might use such gems as trull (whore), varmint (vermin), palliard (beggar), jordan (chamber pot), hooker (thief) and cuttle (knife).  Even though much of this language had fallen out of use by the mid 18th century, a few of these  colloquialisms are still understood today. Life may have been tougher back then, but the language seems to have been much more colorful.

Oglethorpe’s Savannah

Telfair Museum In Savannah, Georgia
Telfair Museum In Savannah, Georgia

This past Saturday I had the privilege of visiting the charming Southern city of Savannah, Georgia. The occasion was the 4th Annual Savannah Book Festival, which was held at Telfair Square in the old historic district. Here in the historic district of the city, organizers had arranged literary speakers to give talks not only at the above pictured Telfair Museum, but also at the Trinity Methodist Church, Jepson Museum and a tent that was set up on the public square. Also on the square were a couple of book tents, where visitors could purchase both fiction and non-fiction titles.

Besides from the gathering of readers and writers, there was also the walk through the old city from my streetside  parking spot to the festival site. This stroll was most informative, for it took me right through one of the largest historical districts in the country. Savannah has a most interesting history for it was built in the early years of  the 18th century to give British debtors, a second chance in life.

To understand Savannah, it is necessary to take a look at the city’s founder, James Oglethorpe, a British citizen, who was born in 1696. James Oglethorpe served in Queen’s Anne War, returned home and was incarcerated in a British prison for killing a man in a brawl. After five months of confinement, Oglethorpe was released from jail and immediately elected to Parliament. His prison experience became paramount it the man’s successful attempt to recommend changes for the system. Of utmost concern was the British custom of imprisoning those who went bankrupt.

Savannah, which was begun as a British settlement in 1733, was created to give those imprisoned for debt a second chance in life. From this unusual beginning arose a prosperous city, which has survived the tests of time, and remains an important place of commerce today.

Savannah Today
Savannah Today

Honoring George

George Washington painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772
George Washington painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772

Today is President’s Day which is kind of a conglomeration of  Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday, both of which occur relatively close to each other during the second month of the year. This holiday always brings opportunity for presidential antidotes. This year is no exception and thanks to a recent gaffe committed by one of the rising “Tea Party” political stars, slavery is in the news today, especially in the way it relates to the founding fathers.

Many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves including George Washington, who owned slaves, but also willed that they be given their freedom after both he and his wife had passed away. In fact this was a mildly popular sentiment that was common at the end of the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the beginning of the 19th century saw an increase in the slave traffic from Africa. This created much strife in the USA, a fact of life, which did not get resolved into the Civil War.

In years gone by, I use to enjoy railing against our first president, not so much because he owned slaves, but because the site of our nation’s capitol was named for the first general of the War for Independence and might have possibly been built on land that he once owned.

However, a quick bit of research, proved that this was not quite the case.  Though close to the present day District of Columbia, Mt. Vernon never included the land along the Potomac that is now the nation’s seat. Nonetheless, Washington did choose the sight for the new capitol, based on excursions he had once made along the Potomac in the years prior to the war. And the site was chosen because our first president considered to be one of the most beautiful locales in the original thirteen.

From this brief bit of research came another fascinating tidbit about Washington’s life. And that was his ideas on religious tolerance and separation of  church and state, a new concept that ranked very high in George’s attitude. Thanks to modern-day historians we know that Washington attended many different services, including Episcopalian, Quaker and Roman Catholic. When George was at home he did not attend church every Sunday, but often spent the Lord’s day writing letters, conducting business or fox hunting. When he did attend church at home he went to the local Anglican church, where he used to sit with the other Virginia gentry as was the custom of the day. Though once the war ended, George would always sit with the commoners and never did return to his respected place among the privileged.

And finally, it is fairly common knowledge that our first president definitely enjoyed his spirits.  Mount Vernon annually produced a large amount of whiskey, which was sold and traded throughout the region. In fact so much was produced that today the old plantation site is now part of the American Whiskey Trail.

Life of George Washington - The Farmer, lithograph by  Junius Brutus Stearns, 1853
Life of George Washington - The Farmer, lithograph by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1853

A Night In Old New Orleans
A Night In Old New Orleans