A Fun Start to the Year

2019 started out with a bang. Last week, I fell in the bathroom and landed in a seated position. I don’t have much padding there, just back and crack. I severely bruised my tailbone but worse than that, I jarred my existing spinal injuries really badly. Severe pain doesn’t begin to describe it. But I got a 9.5 from the Russian judge. I’m not super religious, but in times like these I recall a line from a hymn that says “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”

This isn’t quite how I wanted the year to begin, but fear not. I’ll improvise, adapt, and overcome. It takes more than pain to keep this mick down.

Seeing it on the Radio


Dear Readers,

I have previously written about my affection for the spoken word of the radio for sporting events over that newfangled television contraption. I have a collection of old game broadcasts, old time radio shows, commercials, news, etc from the Golden Age of Radio. It actually proved quite useful to me when I was working on my novel as I could listen to what the news was on any given day. Things like that you can work into the novel as background noise, as it were. To me, the greatest radio call of all time was in the second Schmelling v Louis fight. When the announcer proclaims “Schmeling is down! The count is five!”, you can almost here the collective gasp of millions of Americans on the edge of their seats wondering if he’d stay down. (Spoiler alert: He did.) You can listen to the exact same broadcast from that night in 1938 here. Now, my personal favorite is from the final out of the 2004 World Series. As a Red Sox fan, I am a bit biased. Hearing Joe Castiglione with the final call: “It’s a ground ball stabbed by Foulke. He underhands it to first and the Red Sox are world champions! For the first time in eighty-six years, the Red Sox have won baseball’s world championship! Can you believe it!” I still get goosebumps just thinking about it.

It should come as no surprise then, reader mine, that I also enjoy old time radio programs. I’m a big fan of the Radio Classics channel on SiriusXM (and no, this is not a paid advertisement.) So I got to thinking about which OTR programs are my favorite and why, and I thought I’d hit you with another of my favorite things lists. So here we go. My favorite OTR shows.


My all time favorite program is Tales of the Texas Rangers. Each episode details a case which takes place anywhere from the 30s to the early 50s. It details the actions of Ranger Jayce Pearson as he tackles crime across the State of Texas. It is a bit formulaic, as many OTR programs were. He’s usually called in to investigate a case beyond the abilities of the local authorities. There’s at least one scene where he rides off on his trusty steed Charcoal. Many episodes end in a fight or shootout, and he seems to get shot quite a bit, but don’t worry, he pulls through! I’m not sure why I like this one so much. It was only on for a couple of seasons. Maybe it is because I live in Texas. Maybe it is because I’ve known some actual Rangers. Who knows? One thing I can say is that it is great entertainment.


A publicity still of the radio cast. Note it is not the TV cast.

What can I say about Gunsmoke that hasn’t already been said? It’s the granddaddy of all OTR westerns. It launched the TV series and, in fact, continued to air on the radio for a while even while the television version was gaining traction. It could be because I have something of a crush on Miss Kitty. Anyway, what I like about this show is that it does not always have a happy ending. Sometimes, bad things happen and bad people get away with it. Furthermore, it does not shy away from controversial topics. (Alcoholism, spousal abuse, prejudice, etc) It was billed as an “adult” western. By that, it means it was for the enjoyment of adults, not that you had to go into the backroom of a seedy video store to listen to it. I urge everyone to listen to at least one episode. Odds are, you’ll get hooked.


Just the facts, ma’am.

Dragnet. Joe Friday is the man! Fighting crime and selling cigarettes! (Dragnet was brought to you by Fatima, America’s best long cigarette.) The radio program started in 1949 until 1957. It launched two television versions (50s and 60s) with Jack Webb playing Joe Friday on screen just as he did on the radio. It’s a noire=esque program with dark nights and dark deeds commonplace. It also tackles serious issues, such as the tragic episode about a young boy who finds his Christmas present early (a .22 rifle) and accidentally shoots and kills his friend. One thing that I find of great interest is that during the first season, each episode was dedicated to a police officer who died in the line of duty. The episodes signed off with giving the officer’s name, agency, and date of death. (Mostly during the 30s and 40s). I wonder why they abandoned that format going into the second season.


Tired of the everyday grind? Want to get away from it all? Do you dream of a life of romantic adventure? We offer you…..Escape! (cue dramatic music) That’s how this great action/adventure series begins. It rain from 1947 until 1954. Most episodes start with a person in a serious life or death situation and explain how they got there and how they extracted themselves. Many episodes were based on short stories, so if you listen, you’ll see some familiar story lines if you know your literature. It really is a great show to kick back and listen to, and it definitely lives up to its name. You’ll find yourself lost in exotic locales and, at least for twenty-five minutes, it provides you with some Escape!

So there you have it, Dear Reader. These shows are all over the internets, so you can find it for free to listen to if you are so inclined. But I’ll make another proposition. For those of you who watch football, try listening to the Super Bowl on the radio instead of watching it. I will. Even if my Saints are in it. Especially if my Saints are in it. When baseball season finally starts up again (seriously, can it start already), try listening to one game for every four that you watch. I think you’ll enjoy it.


The Greatest Game Ever Played

In 1958, the NFL was no where near the mega sport that it is now.  College football reigned supreme, especially in the South where there was a lack of NFL teams.  This was two years before Lamar Hunt created the rival AFL that would one day merge to give us the modern NFL.  Baseball still ruled as America’s pastime having surpassed boxing for our most popular sport by the late 1930s.  All it took was one game to capture the imaginations of the country, and damn, what a game.
NBC carried it live throughout the country though, for some reason it was blacked out in New York City!  An estimated 45 million people watched the New York Giants battle it out with the Baltimore Colts.  (For you new football fans, I’ll try to explain briefly.  The Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis and became the Indianapolis Colts.  Then the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens.  Then Cleveland got a new team also called the Browns!)
Both teams stumbled through the first half which ended with the Colts up 14-3.  It looked like they would cruise to an easy victory in the second half.  But the Giants had other plans.  They stormed back and took the lead late in the game.  While up by 3 points with two minutes left on the clock, the Giants punted the ball and the Colts took over deep in their own territory.  Unfortunately for the Giants, the ball was now in the hands of the great Johnny Unitas, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever sling the old pigskin around the gridiron.  The Giants defense, led by famed linebacker Sam Huff, forced a 3rd and 11.  Unitas completed a pass and then followed it up with a few more.  With seconds left on the clock, the Colts kicked a field goal to tie the game and force overtime.
And therein lies the problem!  No NFL playoff game had ever been decided by overtime, much less the championship game!  The captains met at mid-field for the toss, just like they had at the beginning of the game.  The Giants won the toss and received the ball, but could do nothing with it.  They punted and the Colts took over.  Again, Unitas put on a football clinic as he drove 80 yards in 13 plays.  The Colts faced a third down on the Giants one yard line.  They called a simple play, really, the old fullback dive.  Alan Ameche took the ball and plunged across the goal line as camera bulbs flashed.  The image (seen at the top of the post) is one of the most iconic photographs of any NFL game.  Ever.
The NFL had arrived.  The merger of football and television was as significant as the merger between baseball and the radio.  Though it took time, the NFL would take over as America’s dominant sport.  The 1958 NFL Championship Game would go down in history as the “greatest game ever played”.
Though no full game video is out there to watch, you can listen to the complete game here along with seeing some of the game footage matched up with the radio call.

What If You Don’t Know?


Dear Readers,

I took my first creative writing course as an undergraduate student at Sam Houston State University way back in the spring of 1998. That’s twenty years ago this semester, though I prefer not to dwell on the amount of time that has passed. On the first evening of class, the professor stood in front of us and repeated the words that all aspiring writers have no doubt heard repeatedly. Said he, “Write what you know.” “Cool!”, said I. “I’ll write about what I know.” But how do you write what you know when you don’t know?

The class went downhill from there. Of course, you are going to be more comfortable writing about topics that you have some personal knowledge of, be it fiction or non. I write historical fiction. I have not lived in any time period but my own, at least not that I’m aware of. I’ve never been through a bombing raid. I did not take part in the Civil War. So how well do I truly know these subjects if my knowledge was all derived from books?

I can’t really answer that. It’s true, as my last post indicated, that I spent an immense amount of time researching my most recent novel, but that research isn’t the same as living through it. Still, as I began work on my book on 10 MAR 2017, I found myself drawing from some of my own experiences. As a firefighter, I know what burning buildings look like. I’ve smelled roasted flesh. I’ve heard the screams of injured people. And I guess in my own way, these experiences made their way into my novel and I hope will make it a stronger one.

I would say that you don’t have to have in depth personal knowledge of something in order to write about it so long as you are willing to spend the necessary time to get to know the subject or to get to know people who do have that knowledge. Though I’m loathe to call myself a historian, though technically I am, I have conducted numerous interviews over the years doing that very thing. When approached respectfully and in a non-judgmental manner, people may be more willing to talk than you might think. You don’t have to be a detective yourself to write a mystery novel. You don’t have to be a reincarnated Civil War soldier to write a Civil War novel. Just ask the right questions. Read the right books. And talk to the right people. How do you know which of these are the right ones? Well, you’ll know. Have faith in yourself.


Graveyard of Empires: Britain’s First Afghan War



Remnants of on Army by Elizabeth Butler


If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white

Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight

Just keep open order, lie down, and sit tight

And wait for supports like a soldier


In the mid 19th Century, both the British Empire and the Russian Empire vied for control in Central Asia. With their base in India, the British pushed their imperialist banner northward towards Afghanistan in an attempt to keep the Russians out. The Russians, in the meantime, had a handy alliance with Persia and backed an anti-British ruler in Afghanistan. The British decide to oust him. Their cover story was that they were not invading, but merely aiding the legitimate ruler. Typical British Imperialist nonsense.

European countries, and the United States, held imperialist ambitions for a couple of reasons. First, they sought raw materials to feed their growing economies. Second, they needed new markets for finished products. Finally, there was a racial component that we cannot deny. Europeans felt that they had a right to any territory formerly held by people who were black, brown, yellow, or red. Consider, for example, Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”. At the same time the British were fighting their First Afghan War, they were also fighting the Opium War with China in an attempt to force the Chinese to trade with them. Hell, if you’re gonna fight a war, opium is as good a cause as anything else! To the victor belongs the………pipe.

In 1839 a large force of around 16,000 British and Sepoy (Indian) troops marched through the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan. They brought a staggering 35,000 or so camp followers with them. They included merchants, journalists, cobblers, blacksmiths, and, of course, prostitutes. I believe it was General Sherman who said a soldier who won’t f–k won’t fight! They reached Kabul and deposed the pro-Russian ruler and replaced him with one more friendly to the British government, or at least one who was under their control. The British wisely decided not to attempt to pacify Afghanistan since that would be impossible. Instead, they just used their puppet ruler to keep Russian influence to a minimum. But they made a tragic mistake. Custom dictated that the local ruler in Kabul pay monthly tribute to the Pashtuns who controlled the mountain passes. The ruler cut the tribute in half with no warning. Angered by this insult, the Ghilazis closed the Khyber Pass and cut Afghanistan off from India. This dilemma was made worse by the fact that the British sent the majority of their troops home the previous year since they didn’t think they would need them anymore. I believe we call that an “Oops”.


Khyber Pass


At around 9am on January 6, 1842, the Kabul garrison consisting of 4,500 British and Sepoy troops and around 16,000 camp followers set out from the city, marching through deep snow. Along the way, Afghan snipers took shots at the column whenever the opportunity presented itself. Given the difficult terrain which favored irregular warfare, the British were unprepared for what they faced. 3,000 of them died in the Khurd-Kabul Pass. At one point, their commander ventured out to meet with the Afghan commander and was taken hostage. The Afghan’s offered to take all of the married officers and their wives into their camp for “protection” which they did, but they became hostages instead. The column marched on, or tried to, and was slaughtered. Near Gandamak, the 44th Regiment of Foot mounted a desperate last stand. With only a handful of men with a few rounds each, they responded to a demand to surrender with “Not bloody likely”.  Only one man, Dr. William Bryden, reached Jalalabad with the scene immortalized in the painting at the top of the post. Later, around 150 other survivors would be rescued or would straggle in to British outposts. All told, this was a disaster of epic proportions and not a very good day for the British Empire.


The Retreat From Afghanistan by A.D. McCromick


The British rarely respond well to getting their asses kicked by people they consider to be inferior, and this is certainly the case here. The raised a new army in India, calling it the Army of Retribution. They set out for Kabul to bring vengeance upon the heathen who had so thoroughly trounced them before. When they arrived in Kabul, they destroyed the city’s Great Bazaar and the soldiers went on a rampage of looting, murder, and rapine, all done with the sanction of the British commanders. Things settled down for a while as the British were again content to simply control enough to keep the Russians out. This allowed them to meet their objective and also to grant the Afghans a nominal amount of independence. A little over one hundred years later, the Russians would enter Afghanistan on their own and find the Afghans to be just as fierce fighters as the British had during the 19th Century.

When your wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains

And the women come out to cut up what remains

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

And go to your God like a soldier

–“The Young British Soldier” by Rudyard Kipling


A Bloody and Treasonable Doctrine: An Urban Insurgency In the Midst of the Civil War


This is a reworked article that first appeared on my old blog in 2014.


Let us travel back in time to New York City during the hot summer of July 1863. It consisted only of Manhattan as Brooklyn was a separate city across the East River. A million people crammed into its narrow confines. A large percentage of them were foreign born, Irish and German mostly. Politically the city was solidly in the Democratic Party folds. Modern New Yorkers would be shocked to learn that the city voted 2-1 AGAINST Lincoln in 1860 and again in 1864. This was due to the fact that Tammany Hall and the likes of Boss Tweed controlled the city with an iron fist. The immigrants were loyal to the Democratic Machine and the Irish remembered the fact that prior to the establishment of the Republican Party, many prominent Republicans had been Know Nothings, an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic organization. The fact that there were anti-Catholics/anti-Irish abolitioninsts often gets glossed over in the history books, but I digress. Given the very close business relationship between New York City and the South, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed seceding from the Union and declaring NYC to be an “open city”, free to trade with either side. New York City business leaders were afraid that they would lose a tremendous amount of money if the war kept them from doing business or if the slaves were freed and their cotton imports dried up.

And what of the city itself? We have a wonderful portrait of the city by virtue of a book called Sunshine and Shadow in New York written by an English visitor in the immediate post war period. It is out of print but you can download it for free on the internets. The population of Gotham doubled between 1825 and 1845 and that is BEFORE the Irish Potato Famine brought hundreds of thousands of poor Irish men, women, and children flooding into the city. By 1860, they made up a quarter of the population. They were crammed into some of the worst urban slums on the planet at the time. While they lived in squalor and extreme poverty on the Lower East Side, a few blocks to the north, the wealthy lived in opulent mansions seemingly oblivious to the plight of so many of their fellow New Yorkers. Crime and poverty go hand in hand and the city was known as a home to every vice imaginable. They city boasted 600 houses of prostitution and scores of other “houses of assignation”. Then you had saloons, lots of saloons. Some of the saloons on the East Side had “waiter girls” which shocked the sensibilities of the English author of the book. He said “waiter girls are not of the highest moral order”. Seeing as how my redhead was a waitress when I met her, I will not comment on that.

The NYPD and the Fire Department were overwhelmingly Irish, a fact that did not escape the notice of the wealthy Protestants in the city. They feared an urban uprising. When the day arrived, would they city’s protectors side with the rioters? Or would they protect the lives and property of the wealthy? No one wanted to find out for sure, though in the summer of 1863, they would. The Fire Department officially carried about 4,000 volunteers on the rosters but only about half of them were active. The police department, led by Superintendent Kennedy numbered around 2,100 men. Both had received plenty of bad press in the 1850s. Their manpower was down due to the number of men enlisting in the Army at the outset of the war, but by 1863, enthusiasm had grown very thin. Whereas other cities had made the switch to professional firemen with horse drawn apparatus, New York City still relied on volunteers who pulled their hose carts, steam engines, and hook and ladder trucks by hand.


Superintendent Kennedy

That diminished enthusiasm, along with heavy losses is exactly why Congress enacted the Enrollment Act. It was signed into law in March of 1863. Each Congressional District received a quota that they were to fill from the ranks of men between the ages of 20 and 45. It was widely unpopular for two reasons. To escape the draft, you could pay a substitute to go in your stead, something only a wealthy person could do. Or if not substitute could be found, you could pay the princely sum of $300 which represented the average annual wage of a working class person. One thing that often gets left out in the discussion of the draft is why it was needed in the first place. People often ignore the effect that the Emancipation Proclamation had on recruitment. Notice that after the Proclamation was announced, they suddenly needed to institute a draft.  Likewise, when the Confederate Congress passed their draft law the previous year, it exempted those who owned 20 or more slaves or those who worked as overseers on plantations and Confederate enlistments dropped and desertion rose. In both cases, this was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. In New York City, the ability of the rich to hire substitutes or pay $300 is ultimately what would cause this unrest.

Rumors ran throughout the Sixth Ward (aka: Bloody Sixth) in the days leading up to the draft days. On Saturday, July 11th, the first names were drawn, slightly over 30. The crowd gathered to listen were somewhat boisterous. They made jokes as the names were read aloud, mostly Irish. Not a wealthy man among them. “Well a nice vacation from the wife, Johnny”. The draft ended and people went home. Two days later, July 13th dawned hot and clear. As crowds began to gather in Lower Manhattan, the police were on high alert. A large crowd congregated around the 9th District draft office, led by firefighters of Engine Company 33, the Black Joke. (meaning dark sense of humor, not race) A pistol discharged and they stormed the building. The men of the Black Joke were upset because their captain had been draft on Saturday. There is a difference between a crowd and a mob. A crowd is just a large group of people. A mob is something quite different. People in a mob get a certain amount of anonymity and a mob mindset can take over quickly, as it did on that hot July day.


Superintendent Kennedy arrived to try and see firsthand what was taking place. The mob recognized him despite his not being in uniform. They dragged him out of his carriage and nearly beat him to death. From the onset, he would be out of commission. The police, armed with clubs and revolvers, charged the crowd but were beaten back. The police took heavy casualties. As buildings were set alight, the fire department responded to the alarms but the mobs cut their fire hoses and attacked them with clubs. The mob then turned its anger on black residents of New York City. Why? The reason is a little more complicated than you may realize. Yes, the fear that freed slaves would come up North and take jobs away from the Irish was true. That idea had been mentioned in Irish newspapers. However, the predominantly working class Irish mobs vented their anger on black residents of New York City because they saw them as symbol. They represented the elite white New Yorkers who, though often abolitionist in sentiment, despised the Irish. Remember the mobs that burned down Catholic Churches just ten years before. Many of the leaders in that movement were now abolitionist and since the Irish could not attack them directly, they instead focused their rage on the people who the abolitionists cared about.

On Monday evening a mob lynched a black man and set his body on fire as he hung from a rope, strangling to death. In an eerie scene, something out of the Middle Ages, people danced around the burning body. Another mob marched on the Colored Orphan Asylum with the express intent of burning it down and perhaps murder the children inside. In a feat unparalleled in the history of the police and fire services, a small group of police officers and firefighters fought the mob long enough to allow the children to be safely brought to safety out the back door. The Chief Engineer of the Fire Department, a position similar to that of the Fire Chief, was grabbed by the mob. They slipped a rope around his neck and were about to hoist him skyward when he said “If you kill me, you will only stop my draft.” The crowd began to laugh. They patted him on the back and sent him on his way. Remember, the Irish were considered to be a different race by the elites in New York City, hence the frequent references to them as the “Irish race” and their depiction as monkeys in the newspapers. By attacking blacks, they were trying to racialize themselves as “white”. Of course, they also attacked the homes of the wealthy and Protestant churches, all people who had victimized them in the past. This was an uprising of oppressed underclasses that targeted everyone who upset them. The rich. The military. The city itself. And the black workers of New York who represented the threat of a non-union labor force and who the abolitionist cared more for than the poor Irish immigrants.


Desperate calls for reinforcements went out from city leaders and the War Department rushed soldiers to the city to restore order. New York Governor Horatio Seymour, who was a little pro-South as it was, told Lincoln “Remember this—that the bloody and treasonable doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government.” Many of the reinforcements had recently fought at Gettysburg. The mob attacked them too. They pulled up bits of the pavement and carried it to the rooftops. When dropped on the street, the paving stones and bricks shattered, peppering the ranks of police officer and soldiers with shrapnel. Accounts speak of cannons being fired and pitched gunfights in the streets between the mob and the military. I don’t know how accurate those accounts are, but they ring true. And what of those gallant men of the New York City Police Department? They fought armed mobs often armed with nothing more than clubs themselves. Teams of them would stream inside their stations for a break from the action, battered and bruised. Many sported bandages on their heads and supported broken limbs as they walked. After a brief respite they would form up and go back into the fray, clubs tapping out a beat on the pavement as they marched. No one knows for sure how many of them died over the course of those few days, somewhere in the vicinity of 10. A few hundred were injured, some so severely that they could never work again.

From the moment the war ended, there was a constant effort to downplay this incident in the official histories and to turn it into a race riot. It was a race riot, but it morphed into that. The Irish did not wake up that day and say “Let’s go kill some black people.” It started as a riot against the draft which was seen as an unfair and corrupt. Remember, when the war started the Irish were among the first to enlist. Tens of thousands of them fought with gallantry and honor. Historians also like to gloss over this incident because, it doesn’t fit in their nice little Civil War box whereby the North, a paragon of freedom and equality, fought against the slavish backwards South. History is complex. It’s complicated. And to reduce it to soundbites on the evening news does a great disservice to us all.

Furthermore, the official casualties that historians cite are so far off the mark to be laughable. James McPherson states that around 120 civilians died, including 11 black men who were lynched. I will call bullshit on that for a few reasons. First of all, there are plenty of accounts of a few black women being lynched too. Second, you don’t have pitched gunfights in narrow streets for three or four days with only 120 deaths. Third, there are plenty of accounts that say that the mob slipped out under the cover of darkness each night and removed their dead. Finally, what of the military casualties, which are thought to be pretty severe, as are the police department losses. Superintendent Kennedy estimated that around 1,100 people died, which is probably more accurate. Herbert Asbury estimates 2,000 deaths and that is probably too high. Bodies were incinerated in burning buildings, tossed in the rivers, or dragged away and a count of 120 is absolutely insane. These riots are downplayed and when discussed at all, it is turned into a race riot when it was really an example of class warfare AND a race riot. In my opinion, it moved far beyond “riot” category and moved into the realm of an urban insurgency against the police, the fire department, and the military.


Note the simian appearance of the Irish in this cartoon.

So, as you can see, history is not, pardon the pun, a black and white thing. It is nuanced and not as simple as we try to make it. Some blame this “dumbing down” of history on things like the History Channel, but I disagree. I think it has more to do with our idea of a story having good guys and bad guys and a clear distinction between right or wrong. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. But we also need to understand that the truth is always more complicated. Every historian has his or her biases that keep them from being truly objective. The more they claim that they don’t, the more likely they probably do. Remember, the guilty man flees when no man pursueth. I have mine too. As proud as I am of my Irish heritage, murdering innocent people is wrong, no matter what justification you attach to it.


Let us remember that intrepid band of police officers and firefighters who fought back angry mobs of their own people to save innocent lives and property, as they were sworn to do. They were the true heroes of this sad tale and should be remembered as such. And let us ask ourselves what we would have done. Remember too, that the Draft Riots of 1863 is the worst case of urban rioting in American History, bar none. Yet other than the terrible movie Gangs of New York, you don’t seem to hear much about it for some reason.  This was not my people’s finest hour to say the least, but just as we discuss the great things the Irish have done for our country, we must also discuss the bad. To do otherwise is to gloss over historical truth.




The Wrong Way to Tickle Mary: Music and Memory



I’ve always been a fan of music. I’ve also always been a student of history, thus studying music from bygone eras has great appeal for me. As a lad, I remember watching a World War Two movie at my grandfather’s house. He was a veteran of that war, having seen North Africa, Sicily, France, and Belgium, though not as a tourist. I think the movie was Action in the North Atlantic but I am not sure. There was a scene where the men were singing the (at the time) well known “Bless Em All”. It just so happened that granddaddy was passing through the den at that exact moment. He paused there by the television and then began to laugh. I asked him what was so funny and he said “Son, I know that song well. But that’s not how I remember singing it.” Granddaddy, a man whom I had never heard raise his voice, let alone utter a profanity, then launched into a rousing rendition of “F–k Em All.”

Over time, he also taught me some of the racier versions of other songs along with some soldier songs that were never recorded. His father was a World War One veteran and so granddaddy also knew the more, shall we say, risqué verses from Mademoiselle From Armentieres along the Tipperary parody which gives today’s post its name. Naturally such songs were amended when they were recorded, or in the case of World War Two music, played on the radio. But I fear that we might be in danger of losing some of the actual lyrics sang by soldiers.

Here in the United States, history is heavily sanitized. No one had sex or drank alcohol (other than Prohibition). Profanity was invented by rap artists. Soldiers during World War One and Two did nothing but attend church when not at the front. I think this is in part because some feel that to discuss things like venereal disease and illegitimate wartime children is to attack the soldiers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Understand that our combat troops during both world wars were young men far away from home (often for the first time) who faced the rather imminent prospect of death. Thus the songs they sang had little to do with glory and honor, they left that to the civilians, and more to do with military bureaucracy and the time honored alcohol and sex. Rudyard Kipling said it best when he wrote “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.

To understand why men might sing “Hurrah for the next man who dies” is to understand how those men viewed the war. To consider the racy lyrics of some of these songs is to understand that wars are still fought by young men (and now young women). Soldiers in the Great War, when they had the time, wanted to snatch what little happiness they could in the short time they might have left on the earth. If they sought comfort in a bottle or the arms of a prostitute, who among you could blame them?

One of the biggest problems I face in teaching my US History survey courses is that students don’t consider figures from the past to be flesh and blood people. The idea that they had the same emotions as we do is difficult to get across to them. Once upon a time our grandparents fell in love and (GASP) had sex! And your grandpa while serving in France (be it in either World War) might have sang a song about getting drunk and doing creative things with a prostitute. So these bawdy songs from the past must be remembered (thought not necessarily played on the radio) because they give us a glimpse into a world that we will never see. And they might just give us an appreciation of how human our elderly family members once were.

And for the record, my wife does not permit me to sing “Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine” at home or in public. Here are a couple of links to some popular WW1 songs as they were probably sung in the trenches.

Mademoiselle From Armentieres

Wrong Way to Tickle Mary

Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine

(Do NOT listen to Three German Officers is you are easily offended. It gave the more famous Mademoiselle from Armentieres its melody.)

Stand To Your Glasses Steady

(AKA: Hurrah For the Next Man Who Dies)



All Hell Exploded In Our Faces: A “Firsthand” Account of the Battle of Franklin


Through the travail of the ages

Midst the pomp and toil of war

Have I fought and strove and perished

Countless times upon this star

George Patton


The following comes from a dream I first had many years ago. I woke up drenched in sweat. I could taste the gunpowder in my mouth and I could smell the sulfur based black powder on my fingers. I was in a cold sweat but at the same time I felt strangely calm. Over the twenty years since I first had this dream, it still occurs a few times a year. Always the same. I feel a strange kinship with the author of the above verse, General George Patton.  I think maybe he and I would have much to talk about.

I stand in a line of battle, gazing out across the valley. It is a beautiful Indian summer day. The temperature is cool, but not cold. The sun is beginning its descent in the west, leaving a crimson streaked sky behind. A sign of things to come perhaps. I, along with the other men in my regiment, am angry. Schofield and his Yankees gave us the slip down at Spring Hill. I don’t know which of our officers made a mess of that. We were close, so close, to bagging the lot of them. But now the bird has flown. Word has trickled down the line that the Yankees are dug in and waiting for us. Now more good men will die because of some general’s mistake. Unfortunately this is not the first time in this d—n war that this has happened. General Bragg had a particular talent for that sort of thing. Hood has proven himself equal to the task too. Folks say he is a Texan, but I also heard he was from Kentucky. I’m not sure which is true or why that even matters. I saw him a few days back, perched in his saddle with his wooden leg sticking out at an odd angle and his useless arm limp at his side. Hardly an inspiring sight. Now here we stand.

If I crane my neck, I can see the whole Army of Tennessee stretched across the valley, one brigade behind another. I think there’s something like 20,000 of us now. Far fewer than just a few months back. I marched off to war in 1861 in a company of 100 men and a regiment of over 1,000. Now there’s just about 20 of us left in the company, and a few of them are replacements. Our regiment numbers around 350. The sickness has carried off a good number of us, though that number has grown fewer over time. Yankee bullets and artillery have done in the rest. But through it all, we’ve given a good account of ourselves. I’ve already lost a brother and two cousins. And I’ve marched through more states than I can count. We’ve shed and spilt blood in places with names that no one had ever heard of until we died there; Shiloh, Perryville, Chickamauga, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, and more that I can’t remember myself. I’ve come close to meeting my maker a few times. A spent musket ball gave me one hell of a headache at Missionary Ridge. Another Yankee put a round through my calf outside Atlanta. Another inch and it would have taken out my shin bone. I count myself fortunate to be among the living. But as I look across the valley, I don’t know for how much longer.

Two places down in the ranks, Charles O’Neill, an Irishmen, is performing his usual pre-battle ritual of entertaining those around him with a ribald tale of lewd conduct in a New Orleans brothel. He does this before every fight. I guess it calms his nerves. Behind me, our resident expert on tactics, Haywood Galloway is prattling on about our chances for success. When he boasts that we will drive the heathen Yankee into the Harpeth River in a half hour’s time, I turn and remind him that he also said that we would never lose Atlanta. He admits that he was mistaken as to that point but reminds me that we met the Yanks at Kennesaw Mountain and “smote them hip and thigh.” Henry Ferguson, the man on my right, hands me his rifle. He steps out of the ranks, bends over, and vomits the contents of his stomach onto the grass. Then he wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his coat, takes his rifle back, and resumes his place. No one says a word to him as this is his usual pre-battle routine. I wish Charles would do more vomiting and less talking.

I can no longer remember why I enlisted. They tell us we are fighting for “The Cause” but no one seems clear on what that cause is anymore. My family never had no money. We scratched out a living but we ain’t exactly in high cotton. The d—n planters look down on us just as they do their slaves. You ask me, I’d trade most plantation owners for a Yankee any day of the week, even if they do talk kind of funny. I’ve met a few of them while on picket duty. They don’t seem like bad fellows. I can’t consider them the enemy since we speak the same language and pray to the same God. I do know one thing, they can put up one hell of a fight if they have to. All that talk about one Southerner licking ten Yankees that the newspapers were full of when the war started has proven to be a lie. No, I can’t remember why I signed up. But I know why I’m still here. I fight for the boys on either side of me and behind me in the ranks. We’ve been through hell on many fields together and I’ll stay with them no matter what. If that means I have to die today then so be it. I can’t give up on my friends. Our battle scarred regimental flag floats proudly above us. I’d die to protect that too, as it is a symbol of the only thing that matters to me anymore, the regiment and my comrades.

Some of the boys are reading versus from little Bibles they carry with them. Others are absently staring into space, lost in their own thoughts, as I am. Down the line, one officer is reading the Bible aloud to his men. His passage is from the book of Psalms. “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall nigh come near thee.” I think maybe he could have picked a better verse. And since I am to the right of them, I can’t help but feel a little nervous. But death in war is random. It is all by chance. One step sooner and you’d have missed the round that hit you. One place to the right of where you stood in line and the cannonball would have missed. I’ve seen the man to my right take a musket ball in the face mid sentence. It could have been me, but I don’t like to dwell on that. So far, I’m grateful for the fact that when it comes to me the Yankees have poor aim.

I hear another regiment singing softly, in unison, with their chaplain leading them. I recognize the hymn but as I was never much on church attendance before the war, I can’t say I know the words.

Oh land of rest for thee I sigh

When will the moment come

When I shall lay my armor by

And dwell in peace at home

Henry nudges my ribs and says “I think that moment has come.” I chuckle and earn a glare from the Lieutenant who commands our company as he paces back and forth in front of us like a caged animal. He is young and wholly incompetent. Part of me hopes that he catches a bullet soon before he gets more of us killed than necessary, though I suppose that goes against my upbringing. And then I hear it, a single cannon shot from behind us atop Winstead Hill. The orders echo down the line. “Shoulder arms.” “Forward march!” Here we go. Behind me, Charles begins to recite a Hail Mary. He does this every time as I am sure he wants to ensure he goes to heaven after telling his lurid stories. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve memorized the prayer after fighting in plenty of battles with him. I join in, silently, just for good measure.

The valley shakes with our footsteps. Each shrunken regiment moves behind their flags and it gives the impression that we march behind an ocean of red. Up ahead of us, I catch a glimpse of what looks like a small unit of Yankees out in advance of their main line. We are going to overlap their lines with ease. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought. “At the quick step!” We pick up our pace. And then it starts. Whooooooooooooooo-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Whooooo-eeee! Our yell. I’ve heard the Yanks cheer moving forward, but nothing like our Rebel Yell. Prisoners say it scares the daylights out of the Yankees. With good reason too. As I join in, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. If we can’t drive them out with force, then maybe we can yell them out.

We get so close that I can see the individual faces of the Yankees in the advanced line. They stare at us with eyes wide with a mixture of fear and awe. I hear their officers urging them to open fire. Then all hell explodes in our faces. I feel sudden space to my left but I don’t turn and look. Someone else slides into the place. We quickly fire one volley into their ranks though I don’t think I heard the order to do it. The Yanks turn and bolt for the safety of their main lines. Our officers are yelling at us to follow them and we do, matching them step for step. We even pass a few of them. I imagine someone will be along to gather them up and direct them to the rear.

There is a road that runs through the Yankee lines and they didn’t bother to block it though they erected pretty extensive breastworks everywhere else. The Yanks hold their fire, not wanting to shoot their own men who are running between us and the Yankee positions. We smash into them like an ocean wave. It is mass confusion. Soldiers are running in every direction. The powder smoke is thick and I have a hard time seeing much of anything in the gathering twilight. Suddenly, a phantom group of Yanks looks like they appear from the very ground itself. Screaming like demons from hell they run towards us. For the first time, I feel fear.

My hands shake as I try to load my musket. I manage to get one shot off and hit a young private in the chest. There’s no time to reload. Jesus Christ it’s going to be hand to hand. I hate this. Killing at a distance is one thing, but killing up close is something quite different. A Federal soldier lunges at me with his bayonet. I parry his strike and smash him across the jar with the butt of my musket. The air is filled with the sounds of desperate men. I can hear the screams of enraged men, the shrieks of the wounded which always turn my stomach, and the roar of gunfire. I turn and see a Federal battery preparing to fire into another advancing regiment behind us. First I hear the roar of the cannon. Then I can hear the crushing sound of bones shattering under the impact of double canister rounds. Body parts fly dozens of feet into the air. My ears bleed from the concussion of the blasts.

There is a tug at my elbow. I look down and see Henry kneeling by my side. He pulls at my sleeve with his left hand while he tries to stuff his intestines back into the gaping hole in his stomach with his right hand. I drop my rifle and grab him under the arms. I try to pull him away to the safety of the other side of the breastworks, but as I pull him his intestines snake out of his stomach forming a trail. I set him down. His eyes are glazing over and I know that he won’t be much longer for this earth. I grab the nearest rifle and locate a large Federal sergeant who is kneeling atop our hapless Lieutenant, hands locked around his throat. Oh the temptation to turn away. But it isn’t the Lieutenant’s fault that he is an imbecile. I plunge my bayonet into the Sergeants back and give it a quarter turn to the right. He stiffens and screams as I withdraw it. The Lieutenant scrambles out from under him, picks up his sword, and stabs the sergeant through the neck. He is covered in spurting blood. As the Lieutenant turns to move away, he drops to the ground without a sound. He doesn’t get back up.

As I try to load my rifle again, I see soldiers weeping hysterically as they try to do the same. Some are wandering around in circles laughing, their minds broken by what we are doing to each other. Two officers in the middle of the road are fighting with their swords as if they are medieval knights. But that is officers for you. They always have to be the center of attention. I look to my left and right and notice a few of my company and regiment still in the area. We move to seek refuge on the other side of the Federal positions, facing the spot where we started our attack. The Yanks dug deep ditches there and I think we’ll be much safer.

We keep up as steady a rate of fire as we can over and through the wooden logs at the Yankees just on the other side. But our losses are mounting. Blood is starting to fill the bottom of the ditch. The air is thick with the acrid, sulfuric stench of the gunpowder that smells, I imagine, like hell itself. The coppery scent of blood makes me want to vomit. I gag involuntarily as I try to load my rifle with shaking hands. Some of the men are praying aloud as they go through the motions of firing their rifles. Others are screaming curses at the Yanks, at the Confederacy, at General Hood, or at all three. “God have mercy on us!” I hear from down the line. As I turn, I see the Yanks preparing to fire a cannon down the length of the ditch. Then I feel nothing.

So as through a glass, and darkly

The age long strife I see

Where I fought in many guises

Many names but always me

So forever in the future

Shall I battle as of yore

Dying to be born a fighter

But to die again, once more

Through a Glass, and Darkly by General George S. Patton


P.S. I cannot logically explain why I have this reoccurring dream. Or at least not in a manner satisfactory to most people. I do have a decent hunch though……



What We Forget


Warning: This post contains graphic black and white photos from the Civil War.

Dear Readers,

Since the summer of 2015, we’ve seen an increase in Civil War related news items. Most of them focus on monument removals or flag debates. Obviously such a national discussion is both relevant and important and I would not seek to take anything away from that. However, for those historians who simply want to focus on issues of race and slavery, I would remind them that those issues were decided on the battlefield. Context matters. The cause of the war matters. But it was decided by young men on bloody fields. Quite a few of those young men were immigrants. To try and separate out the military aspect of the war does a huge injustice to those who suffered and died. Part of this is due to the war the country seems to remember the war. The Civil War has an almost romantic air about it. And by that, I don’t just mean the Lost Cause. Civil War movies have tended to be bloodless (and bad). Where is a movie like Saving Private Ryan to graphically depict the realities of a Civil War battlefield? Maybe we need that reminder. But when we focus only on causes and context, we are in danger of forgetting this, the truth about what the soldiers experienced.


We forget that when canister rounds struck a line of advancing infantry, body parts flew as high as the tree tops. We forget that Civil War battlefields echoed with the screams of wounded animals which sounded almost human, and the screams of wounded humans which sounded like animals. We forget the sheer carnage wrought on the human body from a Minie Ball as it smashed bone and tissue. We forget the spray of blood from a wounded comrade’s shattered body that drenched your clothes as you fought on with bits of his skin and tissue stuck to your uniform. We forget the odor of the battlefield; palpable fear mixed with the coppery smell of blood, the sulfuric stench of gunpowder, of sweat, shit, and wool. We forget the courage of the Irish Brigade as they charged Marye’s Heights only to be slaughtered and the courage of the Army of Tennessee in their ill advised charge at Franklin.


We forget the fear and pain of having a limb amputated with a dull, dirty saw as surgeons probed with bloody hands and ungloved fingers. We forget the generation of morphine addicts, made so by their Civil War wounds. We forget the physical pain so many soldiers lived with in their advanced years as they battled arthritis and a back pain. We forget those wounded in mind rather than body who spent their post war years locked in a lunatic asylum, more like a prison than a hospital. We forget the pain of abdominal cramps brought on my dysentery or cholera, more deadly than combat. There is no glory in dying a long, slow death as your life’s fluids leak from every orifice. We forget that for so many young men, this was the reality of their last days on earth.


We forget the fear of loved ones as they waited for news of casualties following a major battle. We forget the relief they felt to find out their husband or son’s name wasn’t on the list only to feel guilty that they felt such relieve when so many in their community, their friends and neighbors, lost someone dear to them. We forget about the generation of war widows and war orphans. of women struggling to survive on a small pension as they struggled to feed their children. We forget the anguish of communities as their young men marched off to war never to return. We forget the men and women who labored long hours in dangerous conditions to fuel the war machine. We forget the slaves who waited for their day of liberation and hoped they survived long enough to see it. We forget those who opted to free themselves and escaped to Union lines only to be used as a laborer. We forget the immigrants enlisted straight off the boat to fight in a conflict they understood little about.

ewell Gettysburg field

When we reduce history to statistics, we ignore the personal stories. When we talk about the Civil War but we don’t mention the horrors of a Civil War battlefield, we are doing ourselves and our country a great disservice. Two percent of our 1860 population died during the war. It touched every family in the country. For better or worse, the war made us what we are today as a country. We must not, we cannot, forget what transpired during those four long, bloody years. Our national battlefield parks are a treasure that must be preserved for future generations. Just as they talk about the causes of the war, they must also continue to tell the stories of the men who fought and died there.



The Big Fellow


Throughout the long history of the British Empire, her most troublesome colony was the one closest to it.

Dear Readers,

I must confess a great crime. I am, indeed, guilty of conduct unbecoming an Irishman. Despite 9 years of marriage, I have failed to require my wife to watch Michael Collins. As she is not Irish, but rather German, this should have been a condition of our engagement. I have but two heroes of the historical variety; General Sam Houston and Michael Collins, Minister for Finance and Mayhem, among other things. Both have quite a bit in common, believe it or not. The Redhead did read a Sam Houston biography whilst we were dating and surprised me on our wedding day by having the inside of my ring inscribed with the word “Honor” so that I could have a ring just like the one wore by Big Sam Himself. Naturally, she knows that I revere Collins as I speak of him often, but I never got around to showing her the movie which, for all its historical faults, and there are many, still manages to be quite good.

To me, the most remarkable thing about The Big Fellah is what all he managed to achieve in such a short period of time. He was 25 when he fought in the GPO during The Rising and died in an ambush, killed by a fellow Irishman, at the age of 31. Journalist and perhaps Ireland’s greatest historian Tim Pat Coogan called him “The Man Who Made Ireland”. This is a fair assessment. From his vast intelligence network to his direction of “The Squad”, Collins helped achieve something that Ireland wanted for centuries. Did he get the Republic he longed for? No, but as he said, the Anglo-Irish treaty gave Ireland the freedom to achieve freedom. Did he sell out the North? Not really. He tried to ensure fair treatment of Catholics in Ulster and, in fact, towards the end of his life sought to ensure the IRA in Ulster could continue to operate if need be.

Was he a terrorist? I guess that depends on your perspective. A stronger country who occupies a weaker nation always refers to those who fight back as terrorists. Consider, however, the conduct of the British Army and the Black and Tans in Ireland. From gunning down innocents in the streets to massacring spectators at a GAA contest at Croke Park, they behaved in much the same way as Collins’ boys, yet somehow they only consider Collins to be the terrorist. The conduct of the British in Ireland from Cromwell through the early 1920s should illuminate who the real terrorists were. Collins understood what doomed all previous Irish attempts to free themselves to abject and bloody failure; traitors and informers within their midst. For this reason, he used his squad to decapitate Dublin Castle’s ability to gather intelligence. It’s a nasty business, war. Especially wars for liberation. In a relatively short period of time, Collins and his boys brought the world’s mightiest empire to its knees and invented modern urban guerilla warfare in the process. “There is no crime in detecting and destroying in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.” His tactics were severe, but effective. It’s all the British government would understand at the time. It is sad that it had to come to this, but the British were never going to leave unless they were forced to.

Collins probably knew Dev was setting him up as a scapegoat by sending him to negotiate the treaty. The British could not fathom why the Irish did not want to be “British” and there was no way in hell they were going to grant them a Republic. They did, however, give Ireland a remarkable amount of self-determination as a Free State, more so than Canada had at the time. Make no mistake about it. Collins knew the treaty would not be popular at home. He is reported as having said “Think what have I got for Ireland … Something which she has wanted these past 700 years, will anyone be satisfied with this bargain, will anyone? I tell you this, early this morning  I have signed my death warrant.” His words turned out to be prophetic. De Valera opposed the treaty and thus Ireland fell into a terrible Civil War where former comrades fought against each other. Mick lost his trusted friend Harry Boland and then his own life.

 The Big Fellah’s shadow still looms large over Ireland. He is, perhaps, Ireland’s greatest figure and one of the important figures of the entire 20th Century. Incidentally, whilst his squad popped G-Men on the streets of Dublin, his brother Paddy served as a police officer in Chicago! On his deathbed, Collins’ fathers told the family to take care of 6 year old Michael as he’d be a great man for Ireland one day. Indeed he was. And still is. I shall leave you with one more quote which sums up his feelings for his country:

 “Give us the future. We’ve had enough of your past. Give us our country to live in. To grow in. To Love.”

 If any of you are interested, I made a Twitter account for him as he lacked one. So you can see his comments on himself and on current events. You can find him here: @thebigfella1916