Short Takes

by Fred Ray on February 14, 2009 · 0 comments

Did you know that US president and Union Civil War general Rutherford B. Hayes is a national hero in … Paraguay?

Forget Lincoln or Washington. Hayes – a one-term U.S. president who is undistinguished at home – has a holiday, a province, a town, a museum and a soccer team all named in his honor, thanks to an 1878 arbitration in which he handed Paraguay 60 percent of its land.

“If it weren’t for Hayes, Paraguay would have a smaller territory than it has today,” said Salvador Garozzo, director of the municipal museum in the town of Villa Hayes, capital of Presidente Hayes province.

After a regional war in the late 1800s, Argentina and Paraguay asked the United States to decide a bitter dispute over Paraguay’s Chaco region – a swath of blistering-hot terrain about the size of Michigan that today is an important source of cattle ranching.

Archives indicate that a low-level State Department official most likely drew up the ruling that Secretary of State William Evarts then handed to Hayes to sign, said Tom Culbertson, executive director of Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.

It was a decision that “only occupied a few hours of his life,” Culbertson said.

No matter. The Nov. 12, 1878, decision is celebrated every year with a provincial holiday.

And in Virginia Beach, a possibly live cannon round that might be a little too exciting to own.

Fred Harrell knew the cannon ball was a piece of live ammunition. He could see the fuse.

“That was what made it so exciting to own,” said Harrell, pointing to the spot in his home where the ball rested, until this week.

The offending projectile was confiscated and destroyed. In truth, there has been somewhat of an overreaction after a shell exploded last year and killed a Petersburg relic hunter. In both cases where people have been injured, they have been drilling into the shell to disarm it.

There has been saturation coverage of Abraham Lincoln lately, mostly laudatory, but was there another Honest Abe that wasn’t so nice? Poet Edgar Lee Masters, author of the Spoon River Anthology, sure thought so.

Masters’s own biographer, Herbert Russell, notes how Masters’s father had once practiced law with William Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner, and that Masters’s grandfather, a local justice of the peace, had known the 16th president well.

From the tales of his relatives and the townfolk of his childhood, Masters drew a corrective picture of Lincoln. His Abe was cold, and cunning, and devious, and a sexual misfit, and a blundering politician who helped bring on the Civil War, trampled on civil liberties, and was ever-beholden to Eastern financial and manufacturing interests.

It is worth noting that Masters dedicated his book to Thomas Jefferson. Like many Democrats of his time, Masters hated the upstart Republican Party for its slavish allegiance to wealth and economic power, and for the corrupt way that the victorious “War Party” perpetuated its hold on Washington, and despoiled American democracy, in the Gilded Age.

Speaking of civil liberties, these were routinely ignored during the conflict. Drew Wagenhoffer has a review of a bio of Union general Thomas Ewing Jr. who issued the infamous General Order No. 11 on August 25, 1863, effectively removing all people from four Missouri counties regardless of their loyalties in an effort to contain Confederate bushwhackers.This was followed by an even harsher order by Ewing’s superior, Gen. John Schofield.

The result of this policy was captured in a painting by artist George Bingham, and figures in the Clint Eastwood epic The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Although Ewing ordered his men not to engage in looting or other depredations, he proved unable to effectively control his soldiers, who were mostly Kansans eager to exact any revenge possible upon their Missouri neighbors. Animals and other property were stolen or destroyed, and houses, barns and outbuildings burnt to the ground. The area affected by Order No. 11 quickly became a devastated “no-man’s-land”, with only charred chimneys and burnt stubble remaining where once-fertile farms had stood.

The order, although later revoked, was approved by Lincoln himself.

Speaking of The Outlaw Josey Wales, I always thought Chief Dan George had the best part. At one point he calls himself a “civilized Indian.” When Wales/Eastwood asks him what that means, George deadpans “it means I can’t sneak up on you.”

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