Touching America's History: From the Pequot War through WWII

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Things you can see and touch can bring to mind the time when the items were made and used. In Touching America's History, Meredith Mason Brown uses twenty objects to summon up major developments in America's history. The objects range in date from a Pequot stone axe head probably made before the Pequot War in 1637, to the western novel Dwight Eisenhower was reading while waiting for the weather to clear so that the Normandy Invasion could begin, and to a piece of a toilet bowl found in the bombed-out wreckage of Hitler's home in the Bavarian alps in 1945. Among the other historically evocative items are a Kentucky rifle carried by Col. John Floyd, killed by Indians in 1783; a letter from George Washington explaining why he will not be able to attend the Constitutional Convention; shavings from the scaffold on which John Brown was hanged; a pistol belonging to Gen. William Preston, in whose arms Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston bled to death after being shot at the Battle of Shiloh; and the records of a court-martial for the killing by an American officer of a Filipino captive during the Philippine War. Together, the objects call to mind nothing less than the birth, growth, and shaping of what is now America.

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Prologue: History through Things You Can Touch

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As a nation, we’re not that old. I count back five generations before me, and the Constitution is being written. Another four or five generations before that, and the Europeans are just starting to settle New England and Virginia and to interact and trade with the Indians: rum and guns for tobacco and furs, smallpox for syphilis.

I do better in history when it becomes concrete and personal to me. Maybe we all do. History is not abstract ideas or theories—mercantilism or imperialism or racism or Marxism. History is the sum of actions of individual human beings. Ideas and theories shape history only to the extent they influence actions by individual human beings. If we can be in touch with those human beings—if they become concrete to us—history comes alive.

This is where relics come into the picture for me. I use relics not in the sense of things that work miracles, as the credulous in the medieval Church believed—that doctrine I hold, in the words of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Protestant Episcopal Church, as “a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture”—but rather relics in the sense of things left behind, things we can touch, that may not be extraordinary in themselves, but that bring powerfully to mind what was here before, the way a sock or an undershirt can put a bloodhound on the scent of a man on the run.

 

1. Axe Head, Adze Head: The Pequot War

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Most of the relics I inherited or were given to me or to my brother. The only ones I bought were a stone axe head and a stone adze head—both bought in Stonington, Connecticut, where I live—the adze head from a local antique dealer, the axe head at an antique fair in the gym of a local school (see figure 1.1). I was told both were found around Stonington—in Groton, Noank, or Mystic, which is entirely likely. They match nicely with pictures of axe heads and adzes from pre-Mayflower New England. Dr. Kevin A. McBride, director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, who directs all archeological excavations and ethnohistorical research for the Pequot, after hefting the axe head and adze head, told me that if they came from Mystic or Noank, it was likely the Pequot made them, because Pequots had been in that area for hundreds of years before the English arrived in the area—although he also said many tribes made similar objects and had been doing so for thousands of years.1

 

2. A Compass, a Rifle, and the Opening of the West

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The crushing of Pequot power in the 1630s and the taking of Pequot land by settlers of European descent were mirrored over the next 250 years throughout what became the United States of America, as the white population shot up and pushed westward and as Indians from east of the Mississippi were driven farther and farther west. Nowhere were the changes more abrupt than in what is now western Virginia and Kentucky, an area which was transformed between 1755 and 1785. To me, that transformation is called to mind by a small compass, mounted in a square wooden box about two and a half inches on each side (see figure 2.1a), and by a heavy rifle, a muzzle-loading flintlock about five feet long (see figure 2.2). The rifle weighs nine pounds, has an octagonal barrel forty-six inches long, and has ornamental brass on its fourteen-inch stock.

The compass belonged to my ancestor Colonel William Preston. Written on the bottom of the compass are the words “Genl—This compass was used by the first Preston in surveying the land granted to the Prestons in Montgomery County Virginia” (see figure 2.1b).1 Thanks to a host of official positions and a driving personality, Preston, from the 1770s until his death in 1783, was the most powerful figure in western Virginia and in the westward expansion of its settlers into what became Kentucky. One of the positions that underlay his power and his accumulation of land was that of the surveyor in a succession of western counties of Virginia. My cousin, the portrait painter William F. Draper, another descendant of William Preston, gave me the compass in the 1990s, not many years before his death. The rifle was carried by Preston’s talented younger friend and protégé John Floyd, also a relative of mine, who led in the surveying and opening of Kentucky and in the fights with Indians there, before he was killed by Indians in the same year William Preston died. When I was a child, the rifle hung on the wall of my father’s study in Manhattan. The rifle had come down to Dad in the Floyd and Preston families.2 It now hangs in my brother’s house.

 

3. Yr Most Obt Servt, G. Washington: The Constitutional Convention

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History records things that happened. Many of those events would have been far different if they had taken place as initially appeared likely. The differences in outcome can shed light on major forces (and weaknesses) at work at the time of the event. An example: what would have happened to the young United States if George Washington had not attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and if he had not agreed to become our first president?

On the wall of my study is a letter from George Washington, dated March 15, 1787, to a man named James Mercer. I inherited the letter from my father, who inherited it from his uncle, Major General Preston Brown. Much of the letter is a dry discussion of a legal matter. Mercer was a lawyer, and Washington was writing to him about how best to pay off and settle a bond Washington had given to pay for a large parcel of land in Virginia. But the end of the letter is extraordinary and calls to mind just how uncertain matters were in America before the Constitution was written and ratified and Washington became the first president of the United States: the fragility of the Confederation, the need for a constitution, and the doubt as to whether Washington would attend the Constitutional Convention. In the next to last paragraph of the letter, Washington wrote:

 

4. Daguerreotype and Sword: Seminole and Mexican Wars

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Between the end of the Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War, the United States, by diplomacy, land purchases, and military force, more than tripled its size, from 888,811 square miles to 3,022,387 square miles. At the same time, white Americans drove Indians further and further west and settled what had been Indian land. Both of these transforming changes come to my mind when I look at a daguerreotype and a saber that were both given to me when I was a child by my uncle Richard Screven Meredith (see figures 4.1 and 4.2). The daguerreotype is of a handsome, dark-haired man in a dark uniform adorned with epaulets and bright buttons. The man’s arms are crossed. The sternness of his gaze may result—at least in part—from the immobility required to avoid blurring the daguerreotype. The sword is in a steel scabbard hanging from a white buff leather belt, closed by a brass belt buckle marked US. The curved steel blade is thirty-six inches long. The leather hilt is wrapped in braided brass wire, which makes for a firm grip. The image is of, and the sword belonged to, my maternal ancestor Richard Bedon Screven (1808–1851), who served as an officer in America’s small regular army from 1829 until his death. Screven fought the Seminoles in Florida, participated in their forced removal to what is now Oklahoma, and went on to fight in the Mexican War, gaining brevet promotions first to major and then to lieutenant colonel for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battles of Monterrey and Molino del Rey. That war and subsequent treaties with Mexico increased the size of the United States by 558,657 square miles (see maps 0.1 and 4.2).

 

5. Shavings from a Scaffold: The Hanging of John Brown

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My father John Mason Brown was a drama critic, writer, and lecturer who spoke all over America from the 1930s into the 1960s. In the 1950s, after he gave a lecture in Charles Town (known before 1912 as Charlestown), West Virginia, a woman came up to him and asked if he were related to the abolitionist John Brown, who had been hanged there. Dad said he didn’t have that distinction. He noted that there were quite a few people named John Brown. The woman said it didn’t matter; she nevertheless wanted him to have some shavings from the scaffold on which John Brown was hanged, which had come down in her family from the son of one of the carpenters who built the scaffold in 1859.

Dad gave me the shavings when I was a bookish bespectacled boy of about 12. The shavings are in a little cardboard box, surrounded by a note on which my father’s secretary had neatly typed:

SHAVINGS FROM THE SCAFFOLD ON WHICH

JOHN BROWN WAS HANGED—CHARLESTOWN, VA.,

 

6. Diaries from Indian Country, Civil War Back Home

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The months after the hanging of John Brown saw the polarization of America into Northern and Southern camps, largely over the issue of slavery. Nowhere was that polarization more acute than in the Border States. Kentucky was the most deeply divided of these, because slaves made up almost 20 percent of its population in 1860 (much more than Maryland and Missouri’s less than 13 percent each, western Virginia’s less than 4 percent, and Delaware’s 1 percent).1 Between the time of John Brown’s execution and the start of the Civil War, settlers and prospectors continued to pour into the West, causing friction and fighting with Indians west of the Mississippi, as well as the continued destruction of buffalo and other game and of the Plains Indian way of life. All of these developments are made real for me by two small leather-bound pocket diaries, each 5½ inches by 3¼ inches by ¾ inch, kept by my great-grandfather John Mason Brown (no kin to John Brown of Harpers Ferry), a Kentuckian, during two long trips (the first covering some eight thousand miles, the second five thousand miles), mostly in Indian country, in 1861 and 1862, before he came back to Kentucky and joined the Union army, becoming a colonel and a leader in the successful fight against Confederate raids into Kentucky led by Colonel John Hunt Morgan. Brown was a young man when he wrote these diaries. He had just turned twenty-four when he left St. Louis in May 1861, bound for Montana and beyond. His curiosity was as limitless as his energy. By writing what he saw—the Indians, the reservations, the annuities, the violence, the killing of the game, the quest for gold, the Civil War news that slowly reached the Rockies, the deeply split loyalties of Kentuckians—he opens to us a world that was radically changing as he lived in it. More of that world—including the fighting of Kentuckians against Kentuckians—is revealed in regimental histories and in wartime correspondence by Brown and his fellow officers.2

 

7. Travels of an English Pistol

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In October 1861, while John Mason Brown was between his two long trips to Indian country, his relative and fellow Kentuckian William Preston joined the Confederate army. Preston, who had been a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican War, a U.S. congressman, and the United States minister to Spain, served the South first as a colonel and then as a general, fighting at the crucial battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga. My father gave me Preston’s revolver (see figure 7.1), which he had been given by Preston’s grandson General Preston Brown. The pistol, a British-made Adams revolver from the 1850s, calls to my mind Preston’s pugnacity, the Southern code of honor, how the Confederacy at Shiloh lost its best chance to win a decisive battle in the West, and how relative fought relative in the Border States during the Civil War.1

General William Preston was a grandson of Colonel William Preston, who had played a leading role in opening up Kentucky to American settlers before and during the Revolution.2 Primarily as a result of the large tracts of land in Kentucky surveyed for and claimed by his grandfather, General Preston and other descendants of Colonel William Preston were among the largest landowners in Kentucky. In the words of General Preston’s biographer Peter J. Sehlinger, “the Kentucky frontier was never a democratic one, as the early landowners occupied large tracts of the most valuable land.”3 General Preston’s father, Major William Preston, who, as a captain in the United States Army, had taken part in the army’s decisive victory over a coalition of Indian forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northwestern Ohio in 1794, had moved with his family in 1814 from his plantation in western Virginia to develop a large plantation he owned at Middletown, east of Louisville, and to build a home on a thousand-acre tract, then just east of Louisville, that had belonged to Colonel William Preston and that became known as the Preston Plantation. There, the William Preston who was to become a Confederate general was born on October 16, 1816, the seventh of eight children. His father the major died in 1821. Young Preston became the sole male in the family in 1827, when his only brother was killed by a fall from a horse.4

 

8. A Killing in the Philippines

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In a folder on the floor of my cluttered office is a sheaf of papers four inches thick. It looks like—and is—a record of legal proceedings: the court-martial and sentencing of an army officer and his efforts to get his sentence commuted. The army officer was my great-uncle Preston Brown, son of Colonel John Mason Brown and grandson of General William Preston.

Three days before Christmas 1900, during the Philippine War (1899–1902), Preston Brown, 28 years old, a first lieutenant in the United States Army, shot and killed an unarmed Filipino captive. Brown was charged with murder, convicted by court-martial of manslaughter, and sentenced to dismissal from the Army and five years of hard labor in a federal penitentiary. President Theodore Roosevelt commuted the sentence to a loss of a few months’ pay and a brief delay in promotion. Brown subsequently rose in the ranks, served with distinction in World War I, and retired in 1934 as a major general.

What happened in the Philippine matter? If Preston Brown was a killer, why was he pardoned? The incident raises timeless issues relating to counterinsurgent warfare, including the lack of clear rules as to the treatment of captives and the difficulty of distinguishing insurgents from indigenous civilians. Brown’s case also illustrates how family connections may skillfully be used in seeking commutation of such a sentence. In addition, the commutation reflected policy and legal decisions made by Roosevelt and by Secretary of War Elihu Root about the way America would conduct war as an occupying power.

 

9. An Award from General Pershing

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Preston Brown remained in the U. S. Army. He rose rapidly through the ranks, distinguishing himself particularly in World War I, when he was promoted to brigadier general by General John Pershing. In due course he became a major general. His record bears out the confidence in him displayed by his superior officers and by President Roosevelt in commuting his sentence for the killing in the Philippines.

In January 1919, months after the end of World War I, the War Department notified Brown of the award to him, by President Wilson, of the Distinguished Service Medal. The typed one-page notice, on yellowing paper, on my office wall, contains this citation:

Brigadier General Preston Brown, U.S. Army

For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services.

As Chief of Staff of the Second Division he directed the details of the battles near Château-Thierry, Soissons and at the St. Mihiel salient with great credit. Later, in command of the Third Division in the Argonne-Meuse Offensive, at a most critical time, by his splendid judgment and energetic action the division was able to carry to a successful conclusion the operations at Clair Chêne and Hill 294.

 

10. The Czar of Halfaday Creek and Hitler’s Toilet Bowl

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The final relics are a Western novel (see figure 10.1) and a piece of toilet bowl (see figure 10.5). To me, they stand for the Allied invasion in Normandy and the liberation of Nazi Europe (see map 10.1).

The Western novel is a hardcover book called The Czar of Halfaday Creek. It’s a cheerful tale about people with lives to leave behind who go to live in a frontier mining community in the Yukon at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. The edition I had was published in 1942. The book’s browning and brittle paper reflects its wartime manufacture. My father gave it to me more than forty years ago. In 1992, I gave the book to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas, because it was the book Eisenhower was reading in early June 1944, when the Normandy invasion was postponed for a day and before Eisenhower heard the first reports of how the invasion was going.

Dad was on the staff of Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk, who commanded the Western Naval Task Force at Normandy. Dad had been on the admiral’s staff when the Americans landed at Scoglitti, Sicily, in July 1943. In civilian life, Dad was a drama critic and lecturer. When he joined the Navy in 1943, at the age of 43—Dad was born in 1900, so it always was easy to figure his age—he claimed to be the oldest lieutenant j.g. in the United States Navy.

 

Afterword: The Shaping of America

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Axehead, compass, rifle, letter from George Washington, sword, scaffold shavings, diaries, pistol, court-martial transcript, Western novel, piece of toilet bowl: this appears to be a motley assortment of artifacts, covering more than 300 years, from the early 1600s to 1945. Yet these widely differing objects call to mind nothing less than the birth, growth, and shaping of what is now America. In these centuries, Indian power is broken; a new nation is born and its union strengthened; slavery is ended; and the new country grows hugely in area, population, wealth, and strength.

At the time of the Pequot War in 1637, Indian tribes controlled all of what became the United States except for Spanish and French holdings and disparate British colonies with fewer than thirty thousand settlers among them, clustered along the Atlantic coast and substantially outnumbered by nearby Indian tribes. The killing and relocation of the Pequots in 1637–1638 foreshadowed the killing and moving of other Indian tribes that went on until the end of the nineteenth century—a process marked by fighting and by the taking of land and exemplified by the rifle and the compass. We see that process in the opening of Kentucky by men like William Preston and John Floyd in the 1770s and early 1780s; in the Seminole Wars and the forced relocation of the Creeks, Seminoles, and other eastern tribes in the first half of the nineteenth century; and in the confining of Indians to reservations, recorded in the diaries of John Mason Brown’s trips to Indian country in 1861 and 1862.

 

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