Illinois History

Stumbling Through the Barrios – Part Two: The Wilson Administration in Mexico

From October 12 to November 12 of 1914, the Mexicans held a conference in Aguascalientes. Comprised mainly of the generals from the warring factions, they hoped to achieve the formation of a provisional government. An alliance between Villa and Zapata spurred the country back into civil war. A provisional president, Eulalio Gutierrez, came out of Aguascalientes. This did not sit well with Carranza. When the convention ended, Carranza fled to Vera Cruz with Obregon in tow, and Villa took Gutierrez to Mexico City.

By November 23, the United States had vacated Vera Cruz. This important fact allowed Carranza to collect import duties to help rebuild his forces for the approaching war. Carranza tried to run a government out of Vera Cruz. On January 6, 1915, Carranza issued amendments to the Plan de Guadalupe. The revisions included land reform, electoral reform and worker’s rights.

On January 8, 1915, Wilson gave a speech at a Jackson Day celebration in Indianapolis. In this speech Wilson set policy towards Mexico for 1915. He declared:

“It is none of my business, it is none of yours, how they go about their business. The country is theirs, the government is theirs, their liberty is theirs… and, so far as my influence goes while I am President, nobody shall interfere with them.”[i]

Although Wilson spoke in terms of non-US intervention, the events of 1915, and those of 1914 and 1915, clearly indicate that Wilson tried to influence behavior south of the border.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

On January 15, General Alvaro Obregon began the Constitutionalist campaign against Villa and Zapata. The only dealings between Wilson and Carranza at this point concerned the treatment of the Catholic Church. During the US occupation of Vera Cruz, the city became a haven for priests and nuns throughout Mexico. They had come to Vera Cruz fleeing the persecution of encroaching rebel forces. The city provided them with an escape route or sanctuary. Wilson wanted to insure their lives while Carranza remained in Vera Cruz. Carranza gave in for the time being, but his anti-clerical position would come into play in 1916.

In April of 1915, Obregon delivered a crushing blow to Villa at the city of Celaya. Obregon’s Constitutionalist troops consisting of 13,000 men defeated Villa’s Division of the North with 20,000 men. The key to victory concerned the use of techniques used in trench warfare. A German military advisor, Maximilian Kloss, counseled Obregon on the use of the tactics. Using barbed wire and machine guns, Obregon reached an easy victory.[ii]

Carranza’s power began to strengthen throughout Mexico. Villa retreated to his native state of Chihuahua with the remainder of his army. Constitutionalist forces forced Zapata back into his home state of Morelos. Carranza’s legions controlled the railroads, communications, and all of central Mexico. Special agent Duval West reported on the aftermath of the rebellion. On July 2, West concluded that Mexico was a deprived nation. The crops had been destroyed as a result of the revolt. The fields remained unseeded and the cattle industry had been devastated.[iii]

Wilson could no longer sit inactively by and watch Mexico be destroyed. World War I now raged on the lands and seas of Europe. Mexico had to be resolved so Wilson could concentrate on Europe. John Lind urged Wilson to recognize Carranza after Celaya but to no avail. On July 2, Wilson privately said, “I have never known a man more impossible to deal with on human terms than this man Carranza.”[iv] At this point, Wilson had a clear distinction of a moral obligation to the people of Mexico.

In a twist of fate that May, a German U-boat sank the cruise ship Lusitania. In a division of policy, Wilson took a pro-ally stance. This breach of neutrality resulted in William Jennings Bryan resigning as Secretary of State. On January 9, Wilson designated Robert Lansing to be the new Secretary of State. Lansing, a pro-ally like Wilson, had definite ideas to help Wilson end the situation in Mexico. This would allow Wilson to devote himself to Europe.

On August 5 and 6, Lansing first met with the A.B.C. Powers in a series of conferences. These conferences resulted in the recognition of Carranza on October 18. Wilson and Lansing both thought of the troubles in Mexico as behind them. General Hugh Lenox Scott, the Army Chief of Staff, thought otherwise. Scott thought “the recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of a man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion and making an outlaw out of the man who had helped us.”[v] Scott was speaking of Pancho Villa. On October 31, Villa learned of the recognition from a newspaperman.[vi] Villa demanded the United States pay him for protecting American lives and property. The United States government gave him nothing.

Carranza concentrated on solidifying his power the next four months. Wilson’s eyes turned to Europe. The Mexican problem remained far from over. Carranza’s stance of Mexican self-determination had served him well as a rebel. He had rebuked the Wilson administration at every turn in his rise to power. Relations at this time had not developed any further. Carranza’s anti-clerical decrees separating the Catholic Church from the state further exacerbated the difficult relations. Wilson was chastised by several US Catholic leaders, most notably Francis Kelly, to intervene on behalf of the Catholic Church. Wilson could only plead to Carranza. As 1916 arrived, Wilson would need Catholic support in his re-election bid.

Pancho Villa and what is left of his Division of the North

Pancho Villa and what is left of his Division of the North

Pancho Villa stole the spotlight from both Wilson and Carranza in 1916. On January 11, Villa’s remaining band attacked a train near Santa Isabel, Mexico killing 16 American passengers. This event received little attention from Wilson but it proved to be a harbinger of things to come. In the early morning hours of March 9, Pancho Villa crossed the border into New Mexico. At the city of Columbus, Villa’s band attacked, ravaged, and burnt part of the town killing fifteen and wounding seven others.[vii]

Villa’s band of some 500 men met some resistance by U.S. forces under the command of Colonel Herbert Slocumb. They managed to kill 100 of Villa’s men and find two wallets that belonged to Pancho Villa. The wallets contained papers linking Villa to the Santa Isabel murders and a declaration of war against the United States from December of 1915.[viii]

By 4 p.m. of the day, Wilson had made up his mind on the appropriate response. “An adequate force will be sent at once in pursuit of Villa with the single objective of capturing him and putting a stop to his forays.”[ix] Wilson came to this decision after meeting with Secretary of War Newton Baker, Army Chief of Staff Hugh Lenox Scott, and Wilson’s personal Chief of Staff, Joseph Tumulty. The chain of command took effect with the call going out to Brigadier General John J. Pershing to lead the expedition. In a letter to Pershing on March 11, Scott ordered that the troops be withdrawn as soon as the de facto government of Mexico relieved them of this work.[x] Wilson again used for to achieve his goal. Although limited, as with Vera Cruz, the armed forces became the means to achieve political goals. Wilson could ill afford to have hostilities along the U.S. border with the 1916 election only seven months away. US citizens had to feel safe in their own country.

As with every other decision he had made, Wilson had deep moral reservations. In speaking with Joseph Tumulty, Wilson would say:

“I have to sleep with my conscience in these matters and I shall be held responsible for every drop of blood that may be spent in the enterprise of this intervention. I am seriously considering every phase of this difficult matter, and I can frankly say to you, and you may inform the cabinet officers who discuss it with you, that there won’t be any war with Mexico if I can prevent it, no matter how loud the gentlemen on the hill yells for it and demands it.” He would later say in the same conversation, “I will not resort to war with Mexico until I have exhausted every means to get out of this mess. I know they will call me a coward or a quitter but that will not disturb me. Time, the great solvent, will, I am sure, vindicate this policy of humanity and forbearance. Men forget what is at the back of this struggle in Mexico. It is the age long struggle of a people to come into their own, and while we look upon the incidents in the foreground, let us not forget the tragic reality in the background which towers above this sad picture. The gentle men who criticize me speak as if America was afraid to fight Mexico, poor Mexico, with its pitiful men, women, and children fighting to gain a foothold in their own land.”[xi]

Wilson had come to understand the Mexican situation but felt that he could be of little help to the Mexican people. His duty as President concerned protecting the lives of American citizens. A greater call of humanity had to take a backseat in his administration’s policy towards Mexico.


On March 15, Pershing crossed into Mexico with 4800 men and 4175 animals. Pershing also had eight airplanes to use in his pursuit of Villa.[xii] Wilson put strict limitations on the US forces. They could not use the Mexican railways to advance or use Mexican towns as campsites. Wilson’s reasoning being that the two factors would indicate an occupying or invasionary force.

The United States failed to get permission from Carranza for the expedition. At the time, military commanders on both sides had agreed that either side could pursue bandits 15 leagues (45 miles) on either side of the border.[xiii] This expedition stretched further than 15 leagues. Carranza met with John Silliman and John W. Belt met with Foreign Affairs Minister Jesus Acuna. Carranza and Acuna felt they had achieved some sort of victory in Villa’s raids. Villa’s raid meant that the Constitutionalists and is a testament to their power and control. On the other hand, they did not appreciate American forces on their Mexican soil. Carranza told Silliman that he sent General Gutierrez with Constitutionalist troops after Villa. Negotiations soon began on the terms of the US expedition.

By March 18, Pershing drove 85 miles into Mexico. The negotiations had failed. Carranza would allow a force of 1000 men with a time limit of eight days. These troops could only go 40 miles into Mexico. The position that Wilson wanted “is to cooperate with the forces of General Carranza in removing a cause of irritation to both governments and to retire from Mexico as soon as this object is accomplished.”[xiv] There did not exist any cooperation according to Pershing. Pershing felt that “Carranza had no more control of what happened on the border than if he lived in London.”[xv] Pershing would later say the restrictions placed upon him related to “to a man looking for a needle in a haystack with an armed guard standing over the stack forbidding you to look in the hay.”[xvi]

For the remainder of March and the early part of April, the Pershing expedition went without incident. It did not clash with Villa or the Constitutionalist troops. It appeared to be on a wild goose chase. On April 13 a scout force under the command Major Frank Tomkins encountered a mob at the city of Parral. Two US casualties resulted from the incident. Carranza reiterated his stance of American withdrawal before incidents more serious than this occur. Robert Lansing replied that the troops would soon be withdrawn “as soon as the mission is accomplished.”[xvii] Tensions escalated between the two governments with neither side giving in.

In the first of two conferences, General Scott met with General Obregon on April 28. The first conference turned into a failure. Scott proposed cooperation in making a Villa sandwich. The US would be the bread coming down from the North and the Constitutionalists would be the bread coming in from the South. Obregon only wanted the withdrawal of US forces and the safety of the border. The first conference broke off but it eased tensions a little bit. The second night began as a midnight meeting on May 2. It would last until May 9. The two men agreed that Mexico would protect its side of the border. The second part called for the gradual withdrawal of Pershing’s forces.

It appeared as though a settlement had been reached. During the conference, two more raids took place in Texas. Neither were by Villa or his men. The first occurred at Glen Springs, the second at Baquilas. These events fuel to the fire of a bad situation. The Mexican government took a different approach this time. It took a month but on June 12 Constitutionalist forces captured Louis de la Rosa and his band of 40 men. It looked like the situation had started to turn.

On June 21, an incident occurred near the town of Carrizal. US forces clashed with Constitutionalist troops. The Constitutionalist took 23 Americans prisoner. The threat of war increased as Wilson previously called up the National Guard on June 18 in response to the Glen Springs raid. 125,000 sat north of the border waiting for their orders from Wilson. Communiqués went back and forth from Washington to Mexico City in an attempt to prevent further hostilities. To solve the problem, Carranza proposed a Mexican-American Conference.

The conference finally began in New London, Connecticut in September of 1916. The American delegation put its proposal on the table first. Represented by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, Dr. John R. Mott, and L.S. Rowe, the US wanted protection of life and property on the border and in Mexico, a call for a claims commission, and religious tolerance in Mexico. The Mexican delegation only wanted the withdrawal of the expedition.

Talks broke off early before they resumed in October in Atlantic City. Mexico restated it position for withdrawal. The US had changed its position. Franklin Lane tried to Mexico to concede to Wilson’s demands by threatening to withdraw recognition of Carranza’s government. In November, the two sides reached an agreement that Carranza would later refused to sign.

Meanwhile, back in Mexico, a constitutional convention took place in Queretaro. The convention resulted in a new Mexican constitution. It put Carranza firmly in the driver’s seat in Mexico. Many questions still remained about the Mexican situation at the end of 1916. Pershing’s troops still remained in Mexico. Pancho Villa started acting up. The biggest area of concern was how the new constitution would affect Mexican-American relations.

On January 25, 1917, Pershing’s troops began the march northward to the United States. The intervention had been a debacle. Villa still remained at large and in a state of mind the Mexicans called “delirio de grandesa” or delirium of greatness.[xviii] The expedition failed not only in its concept but managed to strain relations between the two countries.

“When the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate. Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.” ~ General John J. Pershing

“When the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate. Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.” ~ General John J. Pershing

The new Mexican constitution went into effect on January 31 1917. Three articles of the Constitution concerned the Wilson administration. Article 3 called for a free education. It literally shut the Catholic Church out of the system. Article 27 caused more controversy. It included land reform, but more importantly, it claimed that sub-soil rights belonged to the nation. The meaning of this is that Mexico nationalized it oil, copper, and other minerals. It appeared that way on the surface, but in reality, the Mexican government could dispose and distribute these minerals any way it saw fit. This meant that foreign companies could run the mines and oil wells but not own them.[xix] Article 130 prohibited the Catholic Church from criticizing the government.

Wilson dealt with Carranza mainly on Article 27. Wilson wanted the Mexican government to buy the wells and mines from the foreign owners. At this time, Wilson did not have any leverage with which to persuade Carranza.

Wilson would later in 1917 freeze Mexico’s gold reserves in hopes of changing Carranza’s mind. In order to do that, Wilson had to first formally recognize the new government and its constitution. On March 11, the Mexican people officially elected Carranza as President. Henry Fletcher presented his credentials as US Ambassador to Mexico on March 13. Ygnacios Bonillas arrived as the Mexican Ambassador to the United States on April 17. With formal diplomatic ties in place, Wilson placed himself in a much better position to dictate what went on inside Mexico.

A few weeks earlier, the United States had declared war on Germany. The Mexican oil fields would be crucial to a victory for either side. Corruption still ran rampant in Mexico. The oil fields in the state of Huasteca Veracruzana were under the control of General Manuel Palaez. He leased oil fields to companies for $35,000 a year.[xx] Palaez circumnavigated Carranza’s policy and padded his own pockets in the process.

Mexican oil financed the revolution. By 1914, Mexico produced 26 million barrels a day. By 1918, production increased 250% to 63 million barrels a day. Too crude to be used directly by foreign companies, the oil of Mexico went to the US to be refined by US companies. In order to keep Carranza out of his little enterprise, Palaez blew up bridges and railway tracks so the Constitutionalists could not get the oil rich state.[xxi]

Wilson began using diplomatic measures at a greater rate in April. In hopes of this, Wilson wanted Mexico at peace while he fought with Germany. In March, a Paris newspaper released a copy of the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States previously received the note in February. German Minister Arthur Zimmerman wrote the note to Carranza urging an alliance between Germany and Mexico. If Germany won the war, Mexico would gain back territory lost to the US in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Wilson let the note be published in hopes of causing anti-German sentiment around the world. Wilson did not use the note in negotiations with Carranza. However, in April, Carranza declared Mexico’s neutrality in World War I to the Mexican Congress.

As the war developed in Europe, Secretary of State Robert Lansing wanted the US to occupy the oil fields. Wilson said no.[xxii] Wilson, on the other hand, did not have any intention of letting Mexico implement the new constitution.[xxiii] In addition to freezing Mexico’s gold reserves, Wilson used other ways to make Carranza tow the line to Wilson’s policies. Wilson held up needed supplies and ammunition at the border. Carranza still had insurgencies to deal with. In writing to Wilson, Carranza began each letter with the heading, “Great and Good Friend.”[xxiv] This did not do any good. Wilson suspended loans until Carranza swug around to Wilson’s way of thinking. Wilson then used Mexico’s oil to help achieve victory in World War I and allow foreign interests in Mexico.

While Carranza succeeded in defeating Wilson as a revolutionary, Carranza could not match up to Wilson as a president. Carranza died at the direction of Alvaro Obregon in March of 1920. Obregon had driven Carranza from office because Carranza let foreign interests back into Mexico. Obregon also ordered the murder of Zapata in Chinameca in 1919. Villa lasted until his assassination in 1923 in Parral. Obregon would be the President of Mexico from 1920 to 1924.

The Mexican Revolution developed into the first great revolution of the twentieth century. Wilson had the distinct challenge to protect the United States. Wilson’s unique policies failed until 1917. Due in part to the special agents he sent, but more for his moral obligation of self-determination. He replied in 1915 that “Mexico must be handled with Velvet gloves.” His advisors felt otherwise. Colonel Edward House saw Mexico as needing intervention. He remarked on one occasion, “We should Mexico very much as we have Cuba and for the same reasons.”[xxv] House referred to the Platt Amendment, a result of the Spanish-American War, which enabled the US to oversee the Cuban economy. House would later say, “If a man’s house is on fire, he should be glad to have his neighbors come and put it out, provided they did not take his property, and it should be the same way with nations.”[xxvi] Wilson did not agree. He tried to let Mexico solve its own problems.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing remarked upon taking office that “there were too many players in Mexico.”[xxvii]    With Huerta, Villa, Zapata, Carranza, the Catholic Church, and the foreign business community, there developed too many variable to try and control. This became the main thrust of “watchful waiting.” Wilson tried to keep abreast of the situation through the use of special agents, but they only confused Wilson. Conflicting reports from the agents made it more difficult to develop a policy in 1913 and 1914. So Woodrow Wilson would wait.

Wilson’s moral reservation throughout the whole dilemma developed from the fact that he wanted to help the Mexican people. He had to wait. When someone came out on top, he would deal with them at that time. It may not have been the politically correct thing to do, but for Wilson, it remained the human and moral thing to do. Throughout the revolution, change in the revolution changed Wilson’s policy. He pronounced in 1915 that “I am willing to get anything for an American that money and free enterprise can obtain, except the suppression of the rights of other men.”[xxviii] With his special agents in the barrios of Mexico, forces in Vera Cruz, the expedition of Pershing, Wilson gambled in his pursuit of stability and order south of the border. All the while, he held firmly to his moral belief and tried to cheat the irony of fate.


Read Part One:



[i] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 32, 38-39.

[ii] Eisenhower, 176.

[iii] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 33, 303.

[iv] Cumberland, 277.

[v] Eisenhower, 186.

[vi] Arthur S. Link, Ed. Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964), 196.

[vii] P. Edward Haley. Revolution and Intervention: The Diplomacy of Taft and Wilson in Mexico 1910 – 1917. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1970), 188.

[viii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 206.

[ix] Haley, 188.

[x] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 36, 285-286.

[xi] Tumulty, 157-158.

[xii] Herbert Malloy Mason, Jr. The Great Pursuit (new York, New York: Random House, 1970), 84.

[xiii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 96.

[xiv] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 36, 332.

[xv] Mason, 169.

[xvi] Calhoun, 57.

[xvii] Haley, 199.

[xviii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 206.

[xix] Daniel James, Mexico and the Americans (New York, New York: Frederich Praeger Inc., 1963), 181.

[xx] E. David Cronon, Ed. The Cabinet Diaries of Josephus Daniels 1913-1921 (Lincoln, Nebraska: The Universiy of Nebraska Press, 1963), 43.

[xxi] Brown, 122, 201.

[xxii] Haley, 259.

[xxiii] Link, Woodrow Wilson and a Revolutionary World 1913-1921, 23.

[xxiv] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United State 1917, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1926), 939, 1014, 1080-1082.

[xxv] ,The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 33, 420.

[xxvi] Mark T. Gilderhus. Pan-American Visions: Woodrow Wilson and the Western Hemisphere 1913-1921 (Tuscon, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1986), 33.

[xxvii] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United State The Papers of Robert Lansing Volume II, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1940), 539.

[xxviii] Link, Wilson and a Revolutionary World 1913-1921, 25.

The Future of This Blog

I am awaiting the future of the blog. Look for a new design shortly too.

I am awaiting the future of the blog. Look for a new design shortly too.

In the past year, I have pretty much become semi-retired from writing about history as you can probably tell from the lack of posts. Although I still love teaching and learning about history, right now I don’t see myself continuing to write about it much online. From time to time I will post and I will enjoy that when it happens, and it will happen.

So, that leaves me with a dilemma. Do I just leave the blog as it is? Do I delete the contents? Do I let someone else take it over? Or, do I take it in a different direction? Or do I delete a bunch of posts and go with a different theme? Do I go with a picture of the day, artifact of the week, or document of the day? Or do I do most of these suggestions?

I have put a lot of thought in to what is going to happen. And to be honest, I still don’t know where it will go. But I do know The History Rat will continue. It will contain posts about teaching history. It will be focused more on Illinois history (So, I will be deleting some old posts). I will write the occasional post about an event in history. For the most part, though, I will occasionally seek out writers to detail the past. And those writers will have a unique perspective. They will be kids. They will not just be any kids. These kids will be some of the best projects, websites, papers, and exhibits I read that are participating in the National History Day competition. It is really quite invigorating to read the enthusiasm with which they write!

I almost have two posts by two young authors lined up. If they are published, you will be pleased to see the depth of their writing and analysis! I hope to have those up by November.

I, myself, will be posting this fall about the Presidential Election of 1864, and I might be convinced to write another post about the craft of teaching history by having students do history. I am currently thinking about how to best teach the War of 1812. Whether that post comes to fruition remains to be seen, but I can see something coming around in some format.

I also think it would be great to post something weekly like a picture, document, or artifact that teachers can use in their classrooms. I sometimes build lessons entirely around one object, and to be honest, those are the lessons the students remember most because you keep going back to the document 3 or 4 times in the lesson. I really do enjoy writing about how that works and collaborating with other teachers who have actually tried out my lesson designs!

Now that I began to write about some ideas that I can do, my brain is now on overload on what I want do.

Thanks for following and continuing to follow The History Rat!


R.T. Johnson

The Promotion of Ulysses S. Grant: Setting the Stage for 1864

When 1864 began, Abraham Lincoln and the Union were at a crossroads. The Civil War was being won slowly and that was a problem. Despite huge wins at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863, the public and press were still clamoring for victory at the beginning of the new year. Some politicians were clamoring for peace. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were still on the loose; his army badly beaten after Gettysburg but they still could put up a fight at the beginning of 1864, albeit only on Virginia soil. The biggest problem for Lincoln was who could he put in charge of the Union armies to go after Lee in the eastern theater. lincoln_abraham_photograph-thumb-425x563[1]

For two and a half years, the Army of the Potomac had protected the nation’s capital. The army had also flailed away at trying to take the Confederate capital of Richmond and they were defeated on Virginia soil by Robert E. Lee each time. The only times Lee lost was on Union soil at Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Gettysburg. Five Generals had their crack at destroying Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Irvin McDowell lost at Bull Run (although Lee was not there in 1861) and McDowell was promptly removed from command as his armies retreated over civilians and politicians on their way back to Washington after the loss.

George McClellan thought himself the second coming of Napoleon. Lincoln did not. McClellan always thought he needed more men to go after Lee. Lincoln did not. McClellan always surmised that Lee outnumbered him at every turn. Lincoln did not. Even after a McClellan win at Antietam, Lee escaped Maryland as McClellan hesitated fearing a final Confederate attack. McClellan was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac in November of 1862.

McClellan was replaced by Ambrose Burnside. Burnside’s tenure was short-lived. After a failed attack towards Richmond resulted in the disastrous failure that was the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside was removed in January of 1863. Joseph Hooker replaced Burnside and was quickly praised for raising morale and organization within the Army of the Potomac. However, failure to win at Chancellorsville and arguments over the protection of Washington and Baltimore, Hooker resigned in late June of 1863 and was reassigned to the West later that summer.

General George Meade was only on the job for four days when the Battle of Gettysburg began. When it was over, Meade failed to pursue a weakened Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln, again, was frustrated with whomever was in command. Lincoln felt the war might have been shortened drastically had Meade pursued Lee on the third day after the disaster that was Pickett’s charge. But Meade, like McClellan, felt a counter attack by Lee was forthcoming. It was not.

Union victories in the fall in Tennessee at Chattanooga and Knoxville secured a launching pad to invade the deep South. The stage was set in 1864 for the Union to make great strides in strangling the South by invading Georgia and going after Lee in Virginia. Who was going to lead that charge? With victory in the distance, Lincoln knew it could not be Meade. Meade was a good General with great organizational and tactician skills, and he could command troops in the heat of the battle, but he was not the great strategist and commander of other generals. Lincoln turned his eye to the West to find the right man to get the job done. It would be a controversial selection to some, but to Lincoln, it was the only choice at the end of 1863.

In February of 1864, Lincoln began the machinations needed to place Grant in charge of all Union forces. That choice was one that was developed and cultivated over two years despite the two men never having met until 1864. Historian John Simon said:

While Grant fought the war in the West, his only contact with Lincoln came through correspondence, and there was no great amount of it. Yet the man in the White House kept a careful eye on Grant, who held a series of posts so vital that mismanagement would have been fatal.

Here is one telegram that Lincoln had written Grant after the Siege of Vicksburg. 4639933210_2ef2e398c1

“I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did–march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you did get below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. [Nathaniel] Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I know wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.”

For many historians, this was the beginning of the relationship where Lincoln would state his objections to what Grant was doing but then quickly defer to Grant’s expertise.

For Ulysses S. Grant, the rise to head the Union Army in 1864 and gain the confidence of Abraham Lincoln began in 1862. Victories at Fort Donnelson, Fort Henry and Shiloh brought Grant fame and some of it was not so kind. High casualty rates caught the attention of the press and earned him the nickname of “Grant the Butcher.” It did not bother Grant. And more importantly, it did not bother Lincoln who was to have allegedly said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.”

In 1863, Grant’s Mississippi campaign aimed to divide the Confederacy in half. Historian E.B. Long called Grant a “great organizer of war, too often submerged because of the more spectacular events he engineered.” This quality was one that endeared Grant to Lincoln. When complaints of Grant’s drinking in times of boredom became an issue, Lincoln was said to have quipped “that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”

In addition to his skills on the field of battle, Grant also had friends in high places. One was his neighbor from Galena, the ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, Elihu B. Washburne. Washburne had the tug of Lincoln’s ear and would often praise Grant and give assurances to Lincoln about Grant’s ability and drinking, and even Grant’s political aspirations, which were none.

Representative Elihu Washburne - Grant's friend and neighbor

Representative Elihu Washburne – Grant’s friend and neighbor

Lincoln wanted a man who could get things done. One view of the hiring by Samuel H. Beckwith, a War Department telegraph operator, who believed that Grant:

“was selected as Lincoln’s last hope, and when the President knew his worth and saw his handiwork, he placed the army in his keeping and backed the intrepid solider in his every move. And Grant appreciated highly the cooperation and loyal support given him from Washington. Unlike McClellan and his successors, he did not bombard the Capitol with petitions and remonstrances and criticisms and appeals for reenforcements.”

In late February of 1864, Lincoln asked Congress to revive the rank of Lieutenant General in the US Army. On February 29, the Senate obliged and Lincoln put in Grant’s name for the command of all Union forces.


After meeting Grant for the first time in Washington, Lincoln and Grant discussed war aims, expectations, and their roles in the war. Lincoln said of meeting Grant:

“Well, I hardly know what to think of him, altogether, I never saw him, myself, till he came here to take the command. He’s the quietest little fellow you ever saw. . . . The only evidence you have that he’s in any place is that he makes things git! Wherever he is, things move!”

Their relationship was set up that Grant was to make the decisions on how to best achieve Lincoln’s political goals using the military. 1864, after all, was an election year. If the war was not almost finished by the fall, Lincoln knew he would not be re-elected, peace could come with a Democratic President, and the grand experiment known as the Union would be over.

For Grant, when word of promoting him first came about on a suggestion by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in the fall of 1863, Grant was reluctant and hesitant to take such a position. He initially wanted no part of it. Part of the reason was Grant did not like politics and the second was he did not like Washington meddling in the affairs of the Army.

Somehow, during the winter of 1863-64, Grant changed his mind in part to end what he did not like about the post, and more importantly, because of Lincoln. Through communications, Lincoln displayed a unique ability to state his own opinion on a matter while deferring to other’s expertise of Grant’s command, skills, and ability to be fit for the job (not be drunk).

Shortly after Grant was given the rank of Lieutenant General, he began developing a plan that strategically required the Union to attack on all fronts against the Confederates in 1864. The logistics of this plan Grant did not share with Lincoln. Lincoln wrote this telegram to Grant in early April of 1864:

Not expecting to see you again before the Spring campaign opens, I wish to express, in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided. I know that these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.

The fact that Lincoln was alright with not knowing the plan kept Grant happy and it kept Lincoln happy too that April of 1864. He later quipped to the press when asked about the spring strategy that April:

“He hasn’t told me what his plans are […] I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I’m glad to find a man who can go ahead without me.”

Grant was preparing to cross the Rappahannock River and go after Robert E. Lee. That was what Grant was hired to do – to lead. In May of 1864, Grant began earning his new pay grade.

Germanna Ford across the Rappahannock

Germanna Ford across the Rappahannock

Ulysses S. Grant: “Personal Memoirs”
Bruce Catton “Grant Takes Command”
Charles Bracelen Flood, “Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War”;
Jean Edward Smith, “Grant”; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Vol. 32, Pt. 3”
James MacPherson: Ordeal by Fire
Stephen Woodworth: Nothing but Victory
John Y. Simon and Michael E. Stevens, New Perspectives on the Civil War: Myths and Realities of the National Conflict
David L. Wilson and John Y. Simon, Ulysses S. Grant: Essays and Documents, p. 19. (E.B. Long, “Ulysses S. Grant for Today”).


Diane Nash: A True Heroine in Leadership and Bravery

Diane Nash with fellow Civil Rights Leader Congressman John Lewis

Diane Nash with fellow Civil Rights Leader Congressman John Lewis

Not everyone is born to lead. Not everyone has greatness thrust upon them. Not everyone lives in remarkable times. For Diane Nash of Chicago, she did all three in just a short span of time. Diane Nash’s life changed when she left Chicago behind in the late 1950s to go to college – first at Howard University in Washington, and then at Fisk University in Nashville. There in Tennessee, the young coed met Southern segregation for the first time. As a result, she became a leader in fighting against segregation. Nashville and that fight came to define the rest of her life and helped changed the nation.

Born in Chicago in 1938, Diane grew up on the south side in a middle class neighborhood and attended Catholic schools. While her father was overseas during World War II, her grandmother, Carrie Bolton, helped raised her and became a huge influence on how Diane looked at the world and treated other human beings. Her grandmother taught her that no one person was better than any other. After World War II ended, her father came home, her parent’s marriage ended, her mother remarried, and yet her Grandmother still remained in her life.

Even in that positive environment, Diane experienced racism and discrimination. However, racism in the North was more subtle than in the South. Most racism was unspoken. Diane experienced Northern racism whenever she tried to enter beauty pageants. She was denied entrance to several because of the color of her skin. She was even denied entrance to a charm school because it “was not equipped to handle Negroes.” She graduated with honors from Hyde Park High School. When it came time to pick a college, Diane chose Howard University in Washington, D.C. She later transferred to Fisk University in Nashville to major in English.

Heading South: The Sit-Ins

It was in Tennessee that Diane experienced a more “in-your-face” spoken and legislated form of racism. Diane writes:

In September 1959, I came to Nashville as a student at Fisk University. This was the first time I had been as far south as Tennessee; therefore it was the first time I had encountered the blatant segregation that exists in the South. I came to see the community in sin.

A young Diane Nash

A young Diane Nash

The controlling nature of this form of segregation was an affront to the young Nash, as if being slapped in the face constantly. From the signs in every place in society to being denied service in commercial parts of the city, Nash knew she had to do something. Her frustration at being treated so overtly turned to anger.

Under the guidance of James Lawson, Diane began to learn nonviolent forms of protest. As the young age of 22, Diane rose quickly into a leadership position in the newly formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. At Fisk University, Diane’s natural leadership and stunning presence began to attract members to the organization. In early 1960, inspired by the Greensboro Four Sit-In in early February, Diane organized a sit-in in Nashville for late February.

Nash describes the scene:

The sit-ins were really highly charged, emotionally. In our nonviolent workshops, we had decided to be respectful of the opposition and try to keep the issues geared toward desegregation. And the first sit-in we had was really funny, because the waitresses were nervous. They must have dropped $2,000 worth of dishes that day! I mean, literally, it was almost a cartoon. I can remember one in particular. She was so nervous, she picked up the dishes and dropped one, and she’d pick up another one and drop it. It was really funny, and we were sitting there trying not to laugh, because we thought that laughing would be insulting. At the same time, we were scared to death.

Diane is sitting third from the left with glasses

Diane is sitting third from the left with glasses

When the police came, they arrested whoever was sitting at the counter. The police became perplexed quickly as the empty seats were soon filled with new protesters to arrest.

Nash explained her view of the Civil Rights Movement:

The Negro is seeking to take advantage of the opportunities that society offers; the same opportunities that others take for granted, such a cup of coffee at Woolworth’s, a good job, an evening at the movies, and dignity. Persons favoring segregation often refer to the rights of man, but they never mention the rights of Negro men.

The Sit-Ins drew national attention to the cause, but also to Diane. She knew the risks involved. As one of the few women in a leadership role, Diane spoke eloquently and forcefully for human dignity in ending segregation.

Diane confronts Mayor West

Diane confronts Mayor West

In leading a march to the steps of city hall in Nashville, Diane stood face-to-face with the mayor of Nashville, Ben West. Diane, calmly but firmly asked Mayor West, “…do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?” To many people’s surprise, he answered “Yes.”

Spurred on by her success, Diane organized other protests in and around Nashville’s downtown economic center thereby desegregating the city through economic power and boycotts.

Showing such grace, style, and a steadfast approach to bridging the race barrier, Diane left Fisk without graduating. Her professors understood that she had a greater calling. Over the next five years, Diane Nash was at the center of the Civil Rights Movements greatest moments. She was also behind the scenes orchestrating them as well. She became a key strategist for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1961-65.

Other Key Events

The leadership skills Diane learned at Fisk would serve her well in several other key moments in the movement. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, she was arrested in early 1961 and refused to pay bail – a strategy that she in part helped to plan in order to clog the jails. When arrested, Diane wanted Civil Rights protesters to not post bail but rather remain in jail and cause the local government to spend more money to house and feed them all. Not all agreed with her methods including her father who sent these telegrams to President Kennedy.



In 1962, while six months pregnant, Diane refused to post bail and was sentenced to two years in jail. She said, “I believe that if I go to jail now it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free – not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives.” A judge was none too happy and commuted her term to ten days.

Diane was also a strategist for the Freedom Rides that included her then husband, James Bevel. Her she explains the event and strategies:

Here is a letter she wrote to the Kennedy Administration about actions taken in Mississippi against the riders.


While many of the riders served several months in jail, her leadership garnered the attention of the President Kennedy. She was named by President Kennedy to a committee that began the Civil Rights Act. She later worked for the SCLC in Selma in 1965 and spoke out against Vietnam in 1967.

At work in Washington on what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At work in Washington on what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The leadership skills she learned in Nashville served her well throughout her life and have helped many people. She reflected on those times by saying:

The movement had a way of reaching inside me and bringing out things that I never knew were there. Like courage, and love for people. It was a real experience to be seeing a group of people who would put their bodies between you and danger. And to love people that you work with enough that you would put your body between them and danger […] But when the time came to go to jail, I was far too busy to be afraid. And we had to go, that’s what happened. I think it’s really important that young people today understand that the movement of the sixties was really a people’s movement. The media and history seem to record it as Martin Luther King’s movement, but young people should realize that it was people just like them, their age, that formulated goals and strategies, and actually developed the movement. When they look around now, and see things that need to be changed, they should say: “What can I do?”

When the Civil Rights Movement began to wane, Diane returned home to Chicago where she still lives. She has spent the last 45 years working tirelessly to help people find affordable housing, taught in the Chicago Public Schools, and is an advocate for Civil Rights. She tours the country and is a highly sought after public speaker.

Diane Nash’s experiences were unique because of the remarkable times, but her leadership also helped to make them remarkable. Her strategies meant that some would die and that she was putting her own life at risk for freedoms denied.  When most of the leaders of the movement were men, she, as a woman, stood out as an inspiration. Her distinct style, manner, grace, and forthright ability to find solutions made her an excellent leader. She is a true heroine.



Women and the Civil Rights Movement

The Children by David Halberstam

Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970


Video Interviews


Teaching D-Day: Surviving the Invasion

Having a student teacher in the fall has its advantages. I spent a lot of time watching her try new things and doing different type of lessons. During the Civil War unit, she made the students hard tack. She was very good and will make a good teacher wherever she goes. During many of her lessons I would be surfing on a tablet for new things to use in the classroom to reinvigorate me, the lessons and, ultimately, the students. In early November, I took my little history club over to Cantigny in Wheaton, Illinois, where they have the museum for the US Army First Division. While on the website booking the trip I came across some great resources. I immediately downloaded the pdf files and began cherry picking what I could use. Once I came across these resources, I knew I was onto to redoing how I teach DDay.

I am one of those teachers who doesn’t teach the same way every year, or should I say as I did when I started teaching. Technology, mainly the Internet, has changed a lot of that. Just using Google allows me to access historical sites, pictures, journals, and maps from repositories all over the world. What once was the sole bastion of scholars who visited libraries and museums is now available at the click of a finger.

Before this great adventure, I had done all kinds of different approaches to teaching about the world’s greatest invasion. I has shown parts of “Band of Brothers,” used maps, scenarios, photograph analysis, Eisenhower’s DDay Letter, and/or simulations. That lesson was usually one day long. But I wanted to make it unique and something they wouldn’t forget after the test. So, I began to restructure the lesson. Some elements remain from past lessons, and some new elements were created. This lesson should take three days to do this week. Key word is should – it might take four…..or five.

Day One…
It all begins by connecting what they learned with what they are going to learn. So, to connect their learning, I use a cartoon.
This is by Dr. Seuss. The students have already seen several cartoons by Dr. Seuss about World War II, but this cartoon is about the ramifications from the Battle of Stalingrad which they just learned about the day before. When teaching cartoons, some kids struggle with the symbolism, but they can at least identify objects, actions, and words in the cartoon. Once the basics are established, I go for three higher order/critical thinking questions:

  1. Which words are of most importance?
  2. Predict what you think will happen when Winter sits up
  3. Why does that matter?

The students must think about the implications of winter ending and what Hitler will do and what the US (you and me) will do, too.

After that discussion, I go into a few notes and pictures on Fortress Europa, the Atlantic Wall, Italy, the Battle of Kursk in 1943. That should take about 7-10 minutes. The emphasis is on opening up a second front in Europe. Once 1944, comes, I shift gears and segue into a scenario about where to invade in France to open up a second front and create a German sandwich. The students will get a map, some descriptions of the four places. They are to then get in small groups make a chart that analyzes the positives and negatives about each place.
The choices will be Dieppe, Calais, Cherbourg, and Havre.
DDay sim map
As a class we will then go over the columns and select one landing spot and then I will spill the beans about what the choice was.

Every time I teach a new lesson, you would think that after 20+ years, I would know how long things are going to take. I do, but when it comes to the interest the students show by asking questions, I never know. Some classes don’t ask many questions, others ask a lot. I hope that by this time, the lesson should be 30 minutes in. The lesson turns again when I will ask one simple question, “How do you hide the largest invasion force in history?” The students had previously learned that the Germans did have spies in Britain during the Battle of Britain and the British were masters of deception during the Battle of El Alamein. Students then will be asked to come up with some strategies about how to deceive the German spies in Britain and those listening on BBC radio across the English Channel in northeastern France. Once the students put forth their deceptive answers, I will show them some pictures and some information on Operation Fortitude – the plan for deceiving German Intelligence.
British Deception
Day one ends (I hope) with me putting a nice ribbon and bow on everything by tying all three parts of the lesson together – the cartoon, the chart, and the deception. The students then get a worksheet about DDay that examines some cartoons that were published just before the invasion.
44-d-day-buildup 44-d-day-prepD.82a-D-Day-buildup-Lull-before-the-storm

44-d-day-prep-Ike D.98a-D-Day-June-8-19441

Day Two
This day begins by quickly reviewing the previous days events and then examine 2 letters. The first comes a surprise. It is the letter that Eisenhower wrote in case DDay failed.

Ike's failure of DDay letter should come as a surprise.

Ike’s failure of DDay letter should come as a surprise.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault is attached to the attempt it is mine alone.”

We will discuss why this letter was written. We will also discuss their reactions to reading it, and finally, we will discuss why it never saw the light of day.

Moving on, the students then read Ike’s letter to the troops. They then answer four questions about it.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have
striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The
hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well
equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of
1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
SIGNED: Dwight D. Eisenhower

1. Underline the ten keys words in the letter.
2. What events had taken place before the letter?
3. Why did he the write letter?
4. What might have happened after?

We discuss word choice and other possible words. The highlight of the four day lesson comes next to me. I hand out a packet of pictures that has artifacts that the soldiers used to survive the invasion. Students guess for what each artifact was used.
I do not tell them what they are or how they were used. We discuss their possible uses and it is a great activity as students should get pretty creative with their answers (I do something similar in the Civil War but about life in camp). They now have to figure out what the artifacts were used for by watching an educational film from the Discovery Channel called “Surviving DDay.” For the last 15 minutes of Day Two, we begin watching the film. Students are to identify artifacts in the movie and write down how they helped the soldiers survive. The students get a map worksheet for their assignment.

Day Three
The third day begins by using resources from Cantigny (mentioned above) that include some journals/diaries by soldiers. We read one today and another one on Day Four. This will give a glimpse into the struggles the soldiers faced and how they had to problem solve on the beaches. After the discussion, we resume the video.

At several points during the film, we will stop and discuss certain artifacts and their implications on survival. Students will also have time to pair and share information every fifteen minutes during the film (I don’t like to make them sit there – who wants to do that?). This makes me think that four days may not be enough.

At the end of class, the students get a second map worksheet about the dangers on the beach.

Day Four
The second diary entry is read, discussed, and then students finish watching the video. The remaining time in class is spent making a pamphlet called “Surviving DDay” using the artifacts from the film. When the film concludes, I have a few notes on the implications of the invasion and how it fits in the context of the war, problem solving, and critical thinking. I hope that four days is enough. It is a lot of time to spend on one event but “more on less” is a philosophy I believe in. I hope this turns out to be an experience that they remember. It could be five days. If it is, I will adjust. I would be OK with that.

Becoming an Historian: A Weird and Wacky Path

The other day in class, a student asked me why I became an historian. It was hard to answer. In fact, all I could come up with was, “I don’t think it was any one thing, but a series of events pushing me to becoming an historian.” And I think that it is different for every historian. Looking back at my life, five things influenced me into loving history: the context of my life, television, some wonderful professors, my family, and some great books and authors.


Shell Shocked Soldier by Don McCullin

The Context of My Life
Being born in 1963, some of first memories are of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Beatles. Every day, my family would gather round the television at 5:30 p.m. to watch Walter Conkrite do the CBS Evening News. The images I saw still impact me today. I am a very visual teacher in that students examine a lot of images like political cartoons and images. For me, the images of Vietnam have been seared into my brain. They do not haunt me, but I will always remember the images I saw like “Napalm Girl,” “Shell Shocked-Soldier,” and Eddie Adams’ “The Assassination.” I introduce them to my students along with other images from that era including the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Bull Connor, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. The era is ripe with stark images of the events.

Add in my own personal fascination with the Beatles, and everything about them. When older, I began researching them and finding out information about them. They were my favorite band up until I was a junior in high school. That fascination would continue when I began listening to Led Zeppelin, The Police, Rush, and Pearl Jam – my other favorite bands. I always researched every artist. I still do today. I dig into their past and find out who influenced them, why they picked up an instrument, and how they got in the record business. It is always interesting to me.


The favorite band of my youth

You wouldn’t think that TV as a medium would influence an historian in the pre-cable days, but the show I would always watch when I came home from school was “Hogan’s Heroes.” I know it sounds corny, but the truth of the matter is that I wanted to learn more about what was happening on each episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” I would always use an encyclopedia to find out about something mentioned on Hogan’s Heroes whether it was the Gestapo or the city of Hamburg or some member of the Nazi hierarchy. It really piqued my interest in World War II. I remember there was a kid in my class named Larry Weaver whose dad served in World War II. His dad had brought back/mailed stuff from his service and I always thought those artifacts, including a Luger and a Nazi flag, were the coolest things!

Hogan's Heroes got me interested in World War II

Hogan’s Heroes got me interested in World War II

College Professors
When I went to college in 1982 to Western Illinois University, I had the great honor of learning under Larry Balsamo and the late Darrel Dykstra. Both were quite different in their teaching styles and I think I liked that about them. Larry Balsamo was very energetic, always had a story to tell, and he loved the little details he found interesting that no one else did. His Civil War and Reconstruction class is my all-time favorite class. It was hard if you had Larry not to love history because he did so much.

Darrel Dykstra was the opposite of Larry Balsamo. He was quiet, reserved, and meticulous when I learned about Middle East History. His attention to detail and material were some of my favorite of college including a book we had to read called “Guests of the Sheik.”

Fifteen years later, I had the pleasure of taking a class in grad school at NIU with the late Jordan Schwarz. Dr. Schwarz was a huge Cubs fan, but he taught me a lot about writing history. After the class ended, I played golf with him several times and all we talked about was the Cubs…nothing else. I have enough Andy Pafko stories to last me a lifetime.

Another professor who had a huge impact on my career was Bruce Field, now at South Carolina. Bruce engaged me to write the proper lesson plan (he would later speak at my wedding as he was friends with my wife before I met my wife). Later, Carla Shaw of NIU tapped into my creative side to get me to create my own teaching models/style for history. She had a huge influence on how I teach. Later, she would be my initial doctoral adviser before her retirement. She Skyped into my oral defense. I was really touched.

The Family
My older brother Mark had some influence on me when it comes to being an historian. He is five and half years older but he always used to have models he constructed of the space program. There used to be models of a Saturn V rocket, the lunar lander and the capsules on his shelf. I found them so interesting. I tended to build model battleships/aircraft carriers. But when he left for college in 1976, I had the bedroom to myself and one of the first things I did was to research the space program including each astronaut and Apollo mission.

My parents probably had the biggest role in me becoming an historian. In the early 1970s, they bought a set of encyclopedias and a set of World Book Year Books. They would keep adding the Year Books until I graduated. I found them fascinating and even read them throughout college. Having moved several times in my youth and young adulthood, the yearbooks were like my best friends as I read them constantly to find out what happened before I had memories, and to gather more data about what events I did remember from my youth. As I sit here and watch some football, I also remember using the yearbooks to look back at who won sports championships in those years.

The 1968 World Book Year Book - a classic and huge influence!

The 1968 World Book Year Book – a classic and huge influence!

Books on History
Beginning when I was in 5th grade and through my late 40s, I read a lot. It was not until 8th grade that I read my first historically tinged book. It was in 8th grade history class with Kent Crear at Polo Junior High School that I read “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren and it was stunning! Today, it is still one of my favorite books of all time ( I never did see the Sean Penn movie as I thought there was no way it could match the book). I think the book that got me hooked on history was “Ordeal By Fire (1st Edition)” by James McPherson. I read it when I was junior in college (1984) and I found it totally fascinating. Up to that point in my life, I loved short stories, science fiction, and 19th century literature. From that point on, it was all history for the next few years (along with Science Fiction). Today, I like Doris Kearns Goodwin and her writing style, Michael Beschloss is good, too, along with John Eisenhower, and I can read about the New Deal by Jordan Schwarz anytime.


A great tale and a great warning about political power

Thinking about it, I could add baseball cards, being a Cubs and Bears fan, but whatever I get interested in, I learn the history about it. I know these things are what made made me an historian, but what keeps me an historian are the students that I teach. I still enjoy learning about history and sharing it with them. I don’t really consider it teaching, just sharing what I enjoy about the past and how I found it and experience it. In the present, my wife and I rarely plan a vacation unless it involves a historical site or two. In fact, that is my plan for this summer. I plan on going down to Nauvoo to see some Mormon history, over to Hannibal for Mark Twain, and then on to Kansas City for some Negro League Museum stuff. It is who I am. It is what I do. It is what I enjoy.

Fred Hampton: An Assassination Gone Wrong

Fred_Hampton.gif“So we say — we always say in the Black Panther Party that they can do anything they want to to us. We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat, I am the people.” ~ Fred Hampton

Not many people today know who Fred Hampton was outside of Chicago. In 1969, not many knew either. At 21 years of age in 1969, Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were assassinated by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. The resulting investigation into their deaths would end careers but also shed light on the dirty tactics of J. Edgar Hoover and the cult of fear in white America surrounding the Black Panther Party.

The Black Panther Party did not begin in Illinois. It migrated there from California. Formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1966, the original purpose of the party was to defend itself from police brutality and authority. Their ten point plan (see poster below) called for the taking back of neighborhoods through programs in the community. In White America, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a cause for major concern as the party itself was an armed group. Photographs of armed black radicals caused the rise of fear in the public eye and in the halls of Washington, mainly the office of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI. Hoover deemed the group too radical and went as far as calling them terrorists.


For Fred Hampton and many other black youth of the time period, the Black Panther Party attracted youth for their radical ideas of standing up to oppression in black communities. At this time, America was at war in Vietnam and here at home. The Civil Right movement that began in the south in the 1950s and early 1960s fought segregation. By the middle 1960s, the movement had come north but the goals were completely different. The movements in the South had fought for the extinction of the last vestiges of Jim Crow Laws. While in the North, unwritten forms of segregation were evident in housing, jobs, education, and opportunity.

Hampton grew up in Maywood, Illinois, and graduated with honors from Proviso East High School in 1966. He was a scholar and an athlete and dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees. In 1967, Hampton was arrested for allegedly robbing a Good Humor Ice Cream truck of $71. The case would take two years to get to trial.

In 1967 and 1968, Hampton was an organizer for the NAACP recruiting over 500 people to join the ranks. In addition, he tried to create more recreational areas for youth in the city. A pre-law major at Triton Junior College, Hampton was well aware of the brutality of the day as he and fellow NAACP would often follow police on their rounds to find instances of police brutality in the community. The non-violent structure of the NAACP was not enough for Hampton. He wanted something more.

In 1968, Fred Hampton joined the Black Panther Party. He rose quickly through the ranks. Hampton was a charismatic young leader. He was knowledgeable, well read, and commanded the microphone. He brokered peace deals between rival street gangs, and additionally coalesced several student and civil rights groups into what he called “the rainbow coalition” years before Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH.

In 1969, Hampton ascended to be the head of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. With that title came scrutiny from within Chicago and Washington. The FBI actually opened a file on Hampton beginning in 1967. By 1969, the file was 4000 pages long. But as a Panther, Hampton’s so called “radical” activities included: starting a People’s Medical Clinic, education classes, a free breakfast program, police oversight, and holding weekly rallies in the community to raise awareness and inform the public. 16636_208335267532_673902532_4020795_1045438_n

Throughout 1968 and 1969, leaders in this new era of the Civil Rights movement wound up either in dead or in jail. Some groups even fragmented. Hampton’s mentor, Bob Brown left to start a new group with Bobby Seale. Hampton knew his days as a free man were numbered. Hampton’s previous arrest from 1967 finally saw the inside of courtroom in May of 1969. He was found guilty and sentenced to 2-5 years. Hampton got out a $25,000 appeal bond.

Throughout 1969, confrontations between Chicago Police and the Black Panther Party grew with deaths on both sides. With urging from J. Edgar Hoover, the Chicago Police and the FBI stepped up their surveillance on Hampton, his new girlfriend, and their living arrangements. The FBI had grown tired of Hampton and saw him as a threat to stability. They got a warrant to search his apartment for weapons and were hoping to put him away on that charge since the burglary charge had not stuck yet. The FBI even had an informant, William O’Neal, infiltrate the organization. The night before the raid, O’Neal put a chemical substance into Hampton’s food and drink so that Hampton would be unconscious when the raid began in the morning.

FBI Drawing of the layout of Hampton's apartment

FBI Drawing of the layout of Hampton’s apartment

December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police entered Hampton’s apartment expecting to find 20 Black Panther Party members in residence. Only Clark and Hampton were there. They were soon killed. The amount of fire power used to kill the two men was overwhelming and overpowering creating a bloodbath. State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan claimed that Hampton and Clark fired first citing two holes near a door as evidence. They later turned out to be nails.

Here is Fred Hampton's bed after the shooting

Here is Fred Hampton’s bed after the shooting

Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, who was present, describes the carnage and how the raid took place

“Someone came into the room, started shaking the Chairman, said, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up. The pigs are vamping.” Still half asleep, I looked up, and I saw bullets coming from, it looked like, the front of the apartment, from the kitchen area. They were — pigs were just shooting.

And about this time, I jumped on top of the Chairman. He looked up. Looked like all the pigs had converged at the entranceway to the bedroom area, back bedroom area. The mattress was just going — you could feel bullets going into it. I just knew we’d be dead, everybody in there. When he looked up, just looked up, he didn’t say a word. He didn’t move, except for moving his head up. He laid his head back down, to the side like that. He never said a word. He never got up off the bed.

The person who was in the room, he kept hollering, “Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We have a pregnant woman, a pregnant sister in here!” At the time I was eight-and-a-half, nine months pregnant. My baby was to be delivered in two weeks. Pigs kept on shooting. So I kept on hollering out. Finally, they stopped.

They pushed me and the other brother by the kitchen door and told us to face the wall. Heard a pig say, “He’s barely alive. He’ll barely make it.” I assumed they were talking about Chairman Fred. Then they started shooting. The pigs, they started shooting again. I heard a sister scream. They stopped shooting. Pig said, “He’s good and dead now.” The pigs were running around laughing. They was really happy, you know, talking about Chairman Fred is dead. I never saw Chairman Fred again.”

The police claimed they were fired upon twice by the Black Panthers and as a result, used excessive force to “protect and defend” themselves.

Chicago Police Officers Seem to Enjoy Carrying Out Fred Hampton's Body

Chicago Police Officers Seem to Enjoy Carrying Out Fred Hampton’s Body

In the community, cries of a coverup and a conspiracy began as soon as the news hit the street. Hanrahan claimed,

State's Attorney Hanrahan

State’s Attorney Hanrahan

“The immediate, violent, criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party. So does their refusal to cease firing at the police officers when urged to do so several times.”

Hanrahan had been seen as an up and comer in the Daley Administration and the Democratic Party. His cover up of the investigation would result in the downfall of his political career and a Republican, in Chicago of all places, winning the next election for State’s Attorney. This newspaper article details some of the actions Hanrahan took in the cover up of the assassinations of Clark and Hampton.
fred 2

No one was ever convicted for the crime of killing Hampton and Clark. In 1971, a raid in Pennsylvania on a FBI office there uncovered documents about O’Neal’s role in the assassination and the lengths the FBI went to in order to take Hampton. O’Neal later killed himself, despondent over his role in the assassinations.
In 1983, a civil suit ended with $1.8 million being awarded to the victim’s families.

Author and Hampton family lawyer Jeffery Haas states the assassination marked a turning point in politics between blacks and whites in Chicago:

Well, I think, for one thing, it marked the independence of the black political leaders in Chicago, who had, up until then, had been pretty much lackeys of the mayor and the Democratic machine. And a young congress — a young state senator named Harold Washington spoke out, and Danny Davis spoke out, and Jesse Jackson welcomed Bobby Rush. And all of a sudden you had an independent and much more progressive black political machine, or part of the machine, that was independent. And I think that group and white liberals were given credit for eventually electing Harold Washington mayor, as Chicago’s first black mayor.

Chicago and the Black Panther Party have never been the same since. Deborah Johnson (now called Akua Njeri) gave birth to Fred Hampton, Jr. a few weeks after the raid.

For Further Reading
Jeffrey Haas: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther

Other Sources

Chicago Tribune Newspaper Articles

Court Orders New Autopsy of Hampton; Chicago Tribune; Feb 7, 1970

Koziol, Ronald: Panther Slayings Split the City Into Name Calling’ Factions; Chicago Tribune, Dec 14, 1969

Lee, Edward: Hanrahan Backs Police; Gunfight Probe Urged: Praises Judgment: Chicago Tribune, Dec 9, 1969

O’Brien, John: ‘Let U. S. Probe Killing’–Hanrahan: Negro Lawyers Demand Action; Chicago Tribune, Dec 12, 1969

Hanrahan Actions Reviewed: Chicago Tribune, Nov 6, 1970

WHY JUDGE JAILED BLACK PANTHER AID: He Saw Hampton as ‘Dangerous': Chicago Tribune, Dec 12, 1969

For Further Viewing