Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cowboys and Cattle Drives

At the end of the Civil War, there were five million cattle in Texas, but the market for them was in the North and East. A steer worth $4 in Texas could be sold for $40 in those markets - if the cattleman could get the steer there. So Texas ranchers began using “cowboys” to drive their herds north to “cowtowns” on the railroad in Kansas. The great cattle drives began in 1866 and went on for 20 years. Their routes became famous: the Western Trail, the Loving Trail, and the Chisholm Trail. At the cowtowns – Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City – the steers were loaded aboard trains and sent to market.

Cattle drives were hard and dangerous work. Herds could be stampeded by lightening or thunder. There were flooded rivers to cross, but in dry times water was scarce. Cowboys had to guard against Indians and rustlers. The cowboys took their meals at the chuck wagon and at night slept under the stars. But in the end of the drive they could “cut loose”. In Dodge City, a cowboy wrote, “glasses clinked, dice rattled….violins, flutes, and cornets sent eager strains of waltz and polka…As the night sped on, the saloons became clamorous with….songs and laughter.”

The largest cattle drive on record took place in 1869, when 200 cowboys set out for Texas with a herd of 15,000 steers.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Stonewall Jackson

Stonewall Jackson died two years before the end of the Civil War, but he is remembered as one of the greatest commanders. He was Robert E. Lee’s right-hand man, famous for this brilliant tactics and bold strikes against Union forces.

Jackson was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was promoted for bravery three times during the War with Mexico. He did not approve of slavery, but he was loyal to his home state, Virginia, and joined the Confederate Army when the Civil War broke out. He earned his nickname at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. As his brigade withstood a Union onslaught, a fellow officer called out, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall.” Jackson next led a brilliant campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.

Although greatly outnumbered, he held off the Union force with a series of lightning strikes and well-fought encounters. He fought some of the war’s most important battles. In May, 1863, he won his greatest victory, at Chancellorsville, Virginia. But the battle had a tragic aftermath. Returning home from a scouting mission, he was mistaken for an enemy and shot by his own men. Jackson died eight days later. It was a bitter loss for Lee, who mourned, “I know not how to replace him.”

Jackson observed the Sabbath so strictly that he would not write a letter if he thought it might travel in the mails on Sunday.

Johnstown Flood

In 1889, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a busy little city on the Conemaugh River, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. In the 1850s, the state had constructed an earthern dam north of the town, on a tributaryof the river. A body of water, Conemaugh Lake, had formed behind the dam. Because people wanted to enlarge the lake for fishing, the dam was made higher – but unfortunately not stronger.

Heavy rains fell throughout the spring of 1889, raising every river and stream about flood stage. Then, on the afternoon of May 31, disaster struck. The dam suddenly gave way, and the waters of Conemaugh Lake roared down the narrow river valley. A wall of water – traveling at 40 miles an hour and carrying with it huge boulders, whole trees, and other wreckage – smashed everything in its path. Farms, factories, and most of Johnstown itself were swept away. For most victims, the only warning was the thunder of the water advancing upon them. Sixty acres of wreckage piled up against a bridge below Johnstown. Broken oil-tank cars exploded, setting fire to the rest of the wreckage, which burned for days. The Johnstown Flood killed more than 2200 people. IT was was one of the worst Amerivan disasters in the nineteenth century.

Because the lake at Johnstown had been enlarged for fishing, one writer summed up the flood in these words: “All the horrors that Hell could wish, such was the price that was paid for fish.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Whiskey Rebellion

One of the threats the new American nation faced in the 1790s came not from a foreign power, but from its own people. The threat became known as the Whiskey Rebellion, because it involved the refusal of farmers in western Pennsylvania to pay a tax on whiskey.

Each year the farmers made whiskey from their corn. A new national tax on corn liquor hurt their business. The farmers were used to paying local taxes, but they resented the national tax. They refused to pay it, and the federal tax collectors were attacked and driven away.
New President Georgia Washington knew there were far more at stake than the tax on whiskey.

He realized that the authority of the new national government was being challenged. It this protest succeeded, others would also defy the government’s laws. Washington called up the militia of four states and personally took command of an army of more than 13,000 soldiers in Pennsylvania. At this show of force, the Whiskey Rebellion ended 0without fighting. And the whiskey tax was soon being collected peacefully. Washington’s decisive action ended a significant threat to the young American government.

In putting down the Whiskey Rebellion, Georgia Washington commanded a force of soldiers larger than any he had led during the Revolution.