We often best remember the little things, the hundreds of personal, incidental occurrences that become enmeshed in our minds as great cataclysmic events unfold. Each generation has its own milestone events, the unforgettable moment “when you heard the news,” permanently seared into your cerebral wiring in a way that can give you chills decades later. Those moments are the real, fleeting, first flash of history, when just the barest facts are known and speculation fills the yawning vacuum of how and why. While, later, the immediate speculations may become easily dismissed or downright laughable, at the moment when the “impossible” has just occurred anything seems credible.
Last year writer Jason Emerson came across a box containing letters written by one Henry Ames Blood to his mother in the spring of 1865. In those letters the initial shock and tenor of the days and weeks in Washington, D.C., following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln come through clearly 140 years later. As a treasury department clerk, aspiring poet and dutiful son giving detailed reports to an anxious mother, Blood’s firsthand, unfiltered observations and speculations—never before published—give us a real sense of what was running through the collective minds of Americans during those tumultuous days.
Little more than a decade later another tremor shook America, just as the republic was set to celebrate its centennial of independence and the dawning of a new era. George Armstrong Custer, who through his very real talent as a cavalry commander and a carefully groomed persona had become a celebrated icon of an expanding, muscular America, was suddenly no more. The destruction of Custer and his command on the Great Plains in June 1876 was another “incomprehensible” event, subsequently stirring controversy over responsibility for the disaster, fueling a vengeful bloodletting in the war on the Indians and enshrining Custer in a mythology that waxed and waned in the ensuing century. Writer Louis Kraft, a historian of the American West, examines Custer, the Little Bighorn and their place in American history during the past 130 years.
Some occurrences that change the course of human events, however, take place not in the moment, such as an assassination or a military defeat, but are slower to evolve, often taking years or decades to reveal their impact. Life as a seaman is naturally harsh and dangerous. During the 19th century, however, with the explosion of trade dependent on the labor-intensive sailing vessels of the day, that life became increasingly brutal. Many who manned the ships did so not of their own volition, but because, in essence, they were kidnapped and enslaved. Contributor Steve Wilson brings to light the pervasive criminal enterprise known as crimping that fed the shipping industry’s hunger for crewmen and was largely tolerated by a society that, as reflected in an 1897 U.S. Supreme Court decision, regarded seamen as “deficient in that full and intelligent responsibility for their acts that is accredited to ordinary adults.” The advent of steam power that drastically reduced the need for unskilled crewman, coupled with the growth of maritime labor movements, culminating in the formation of the International Sailor’s Union in 1892, eventually led to legislation that protected and ensured sailors’ rights.
Fifty years ago a dream with origins in the 20th century’s two world wars and catalyzed by the Cold War was set into motion with the stroke of a pen by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This action had a profound effect on virtually every facet of American life. Contributor Logan Thomas Snyder tells the fascinating story of how the Interstate Highway System—first named the National Highway Defense System—came to be, a monumental feat making virtually every corner of the nation accessible.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.