Tag Archives: u.s. presidents

Four Dead in Ohio

Much of America’s history was made during times of war, which is sad, but not surprising, since our nation has been involved in so many conflicts.

Today marks the anniversary of one of the darkest days of the Vietnam War – which is saying a mouthful – when in 1970 the Ohio National Guard gunned down four unarmed students on the campus of Kent State.

The tragedy was sparked by President Richard Nixon’s speech a few nights earlier when he announced his expansion of the war into neighboring Cambodia.

Student protests erupted on campuses around the country, including at Kent State in northeastern Ohio. After an ROTC building on campus was torched, the mayor of the city of Kent asked Ohio Governor James Rhodes to send in the Ohio National Guard to protect the school.

Another protest took place on the afternoon of Monday, May 4, where for reasons that remain unclear, 29 of the 77 National Guard members fired 67 rounds of ammunition at the unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine others.

The dead were Jeffrey Miller, 20; Allison Krause, 19; William Schroeder, 19; and Sandra Scheuer, 20. None of the four were a threat to the Guardsmen, as they were on average 345 feet away from the shooters. Scheur and Schroeder were not even participating in the protest, but were walking between classes.

The country was sharply divided by the shootings between the "My-country-right-or-wrong" Americans, and young people who feared that Nixon’s incursion in Cambodia had just punched their ticket to Vietnam.

Governor Rhodes, representing the view of the old guard, blamed the violence on “communist militant revolutionaries.” Nixon, in typical ham-handed fashion, reached out to a group of student dissidents a few mornings later at the Lincoln Memorial, but alienated them even further when he called them “pawns of foreign communists.”

The killings sparked even larger protests around the country, prompting 4 million students to go “on strike.” A huge antiwar protest took place later in Washington, prompting Nixon to flee to Camp David for his own safety.

Some well-known people who were attending Kent State at the time include Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of Devo. Casale was at the protest and was standing just a few feet away from his friend Allison Krause when she was killed.

The massacre is remembered every time Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young comes on the airwaves, with it’s oft-repeated refrain of “Four dead in Ohio.” The band performed the song at the campus of Kent State on May 4, 1997, the twenty-seventh anniversary of the tragedy.

The Firebrand

By the time Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President, seven Southern slaveholding states had already seceded from the Union and formed a new national government.

One of the new Confederacy’s first acts was to seize most Federal arsenals that were located within their territory.

One such facility that remained in Northern hands was located at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina,  on an island in Charleston harbor.

Lincoln had barely finished taking the oath of office when he was informed that a crisis was imminent at Ft. Sumter, which was badly in need of supplies.

Lincoln chose to resupply the troops rather than to capitulate to Southern demands for surrender of the fort. After an ultimatum was rejected by U.S. Major Robert Anderson, the Union commander at Ft. Sumter, the Confederate bombardment began at 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861 – 150 years ago today.

The war was on.

Just as someone squeezed off “the shot heard ‘round the world” that kicked off the Revolutionary War, somebody also fired the first shot of the Civil War. Who was it?

History credits many people as having had the “honor” of firing the first shot. One such individual was named Edmund Ruffin, a slaveholder and poster child for state’s rights, who was hanging around South Carolina because he was angered that his native Virginia hadn’t yet left the Union. (Something the state would do a few days later.)

When he wasn’t busy preaching secessionism, Ruffian was a noted agronomist who made valuable contributions to agricultural productivity in the South.

The first return shot fired from the fort came from Union Capt. Abner Doubleday – the same guy who somehow got woven into baseball’s creation myth.

The outgunned Union forces were pummeled from artillery batteries located on shore for 34 hours before surrendering. Miraculously, not a single Union life was lost during the shelling. Two soldiers did die later when a cannon exploded firing a volley during the surrender ceremonies. (Within months, formalities like “surrender ceremonies” would be forgotten in the war as chivalry quickly gave way to carnage.)

Four years to the day after Anderson lowered the American flag over Ft. Sumter, he was back to raise it again over the recaptured fort.

The defeat of the Confederacy didn’t sit well with firebrand Ruffin. Two months after Lee’s defeat at Appomattox Court House, Ruffin wrapped himself in a Confederate flag and blew his brains out with a shotgun.


The Death of the Old Lion

President Theodore Roosevelt’s energy, charisma, and accomplishments were so legendary that it’s forgotten that he died at the relatively young age of 60, which occurred on this date in 1919. But for a man who only lived for six decades, he had experiences enough to fill several lifetimes.

By the age of 42, Roosevelt had married, gotten elected to the New York State Assembly, written several books, lost his first wife in childbirth, ranched in Dakota Territory, remarried, fathered six children, become Police Commissioner of New York City and governor of New York, served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, led the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, been elected Vice-President, and had become the youngest president ever after President McKinley’s assassination.

His presidency was one of action in which he practiced “big stick” foreign relations, busted corrupt business trusts, built the Panama Canal, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and created several national parks and monuments.

After leaving office in 1909, his “retirement” proved no less active as he went on safari in Africa, edited a magazine, wrote several more books, created his own political party, ran for president a third time, and got shot during a failed assassination attempt.

So, just what was it that prematurely killed the man who had stared down live gunfire in Cuba, charging rhinos in Africa, and assassin’s bullets on the campaign trail?

A mosquito and a broken heart.

To lick his wounds after his failed presidential run as a third-party candidate in 1912, Roosevelt volunteered to go to Brazil as part of an expedition to discover the source of the 1000-kilometer Rio da Duvida – the River of Doubt – one of the tributaries of the Amazon.

The ill-equipped expedition lasted for several months during the rainy season of 1913-14. Roosevelt spent much of the time delirious from mosquito-borne malaria and eventually lost 50 pounds. At one point, he begged his 24-year-old son Kermit, who was part of the expedition, to leave him in the jungle to die. Kermit carried his father back to civilization, where the elder Roosevelt later wrote about his experiences in a book entitled Through the Brazilian Wilderness.

Roosevelt’s body never fully recovered and he told friends that his time in South America had shaved a decade off of his life. When asked by reporters why he chose to go on the expedition he was quoted as saying, “I had to go. It was my last chance to be a boy.”

The final blow to his health came from grieving the death of his youngest son Quentin, who was killed fighting in France during World War I.

When Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, his son Archie informed his siblings with the telegraphed message, “The old lion is dead.”

Today, the River of Doubt is known as Rio Roosevelt. One branch of the river is called Rio Kermit, in tribute to Roosevelt’s son, who saved his father in the jungle. Kermit Roosevelt, who battled depression and alcoholism, was ultimately unable to save himself. In 1943, he died in Alaska from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

A New Birth of Freedom

There are some ugly realities littering American history that I just can’t wrap my mind around – one being that less than 100 years before I was born, certain people could legally own other people.

That’s why I find it curious that September 22 isn’t a national holiday, because it was on this day in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that began the official process of freeing America’s four million slaves.

When the nation was founded roughly “four-score and seven years” earlier, the Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal,” but the economic and prejudicial forces of the time kept these words from applying to the African-Americans that were toiling in forced servitude in the country. The Civil War came about in the 1860s largely to decide whether or not slavery would remain on the North American continent.

The Executive Order that Lincoln signed on this date was more symbolic than binding, as it only freed slaves in areas outside of Federal control. The wording of the document gave the Confederacy a way to re-enter the Union without losing their “peculiar institution.” It was a shrewd move for Lincoln, because he knew the South would never go for it, and by their refusal, he could change the purpose of the war in the eyes of the world. It also set the framework for the official proclamation that was signed by Lincoln 100 days later on January 1, 1863.

The proclamation was largely unpopular in the North where most soldiers were fighting to restore the Union rather than to end the practice of slavery. But internationally, the move doomed the Confederacy’s chance to gain badly needed international recognition.

The advancing Union armies freed more and more slaves after the Proclamation was put into effect, and 200,000 former slaves eventually served in the Union forces.

The shameful practice of slavery was officially ended in America with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, which came seven months after Lincoln’s assassination.

Old President What’s His Name

20th U.S. President James Garfield.

20th U.S. President James A. Garfield needed a better publicist.

If he had one, he would have known that to be remembered in the history books, you have to be the first person in history to actually do something and not to simply repeat what has gone on before.

A brief look at the life of Garfield, who died this week in 1881 from an assassin’s bullet, is almost like glimpsing a plan actively set in motion to remain in obscurity.

The pattern began early. He was one of eight men from Ohio to make it to the presidency, and like many before him, he was born in a log cabin. He became a lawyer (lots of those), and served in the Civil War (as did at least four other presidents). Although deeply religious, he was implicated in a financial scandal while a congressman, and was once caught cheating on his wife (nothing new there). He was the fifth man named James to become president and sixteen years after the murder of Abraham Lincoln, he had the sad distinction of becoming the second president to be assassinated. He had only served 200 days in office at the time of his death, which at least gave him the distinction of having the shortest presidential administration ever, right? Nope. William Henry Harrison’s stewardship lasted only a month.

His administration was uneventful, which was hardly his fault, given that it only lasted a little over six months. He was heading off to a vacation on the Jersey shore when he was shot at a Washington, DC train station by a crazed office and publicity seeker named Charles Guiteau.

Garfield could have used better doctors as well.

Modern historians believe that he would have survived had his physicians not given him blood poisoning from probing his wounds with unsterilized fingers and instruments. His physician Dr. Bliss (who curiously had the first name Doctor, thereby being Dr. Doctor Bliss) actually ruptured Garfield’s liver examining the wound. Guiteau, with some justification, claimed in court that “the doctors killed Garfield. I only shot him.” Garfield’s condition steadily worsened, and he died two and a half months after the shooting.

While Garfield seemingly planned for obscurity, Guiteau’s reach was for immortality. He had demanded an embassy post in Paris, and when his request was denied he retaliated by shooting the president. He relished in the attention that the murder gave him and regretted only that he didn’t use a nicer gun since it would have made a prettier museum exhibit. He truly believed that the nation was grateful for what he had done, and planned to run for president himself after he was acquitted. He was found guilty and was hanged a year after the shooting.

Had I had been Garfield’s publicist, I would have made sure that the public knew there was truly an individual under that Gilded Age presidential beard.

And what was unique about Garfield? He was the only president to be ambidextrous.

(I know it’s not a lot, but some guys just don’t give you much to work with.)

Another September ’01 Tragedy

25th U.S. President (and “Sam the Eagle” lookalike) William McKinley.

We are all familiar with the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but almost exactly 100 years earlier, America suffered another national tragedy when 25th U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated. 

McKinley’s administration bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was the time that America became a leading world power. He was the last president to have fought in the Civil War, having enlisted as a private in 1861. During the conflict he was promoted several times by his commanding officer and future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. He left the war with the rank of major and later became a lawyer and served as a U.S. congressman and as governor of Ohio. 

He won the presidency in 1896 on the strength of the Republic Party machine. His administration is most remembered for the Spanish-American War – “a splendid little war” – which netted the country Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. Hawaii was also annexed during his tenure. 

McKinley easily won re-election in 1900 and traveled to Buffalo the following year to attend the Pan-American Exposition. The exposition was a goodwill festival that was intended to placate the fears of our Latin American neighbors who had just witnessed two of their lands come forcibly under American control. 

The Pan-American Exposition's Temple of Music, where President McKinley was assassinated in September, 1901.

McKinley was greeting a line of visitors at the exposition’s Temple of Music when anarchist Leon Csolgolz fired two bullets into the president. Csolgolz was angered over McKinley’s imperialistic and pro-corporate policies. He may have been suffering from mental illness, but we will never know, because in a rush to judgment that is unbelievable when contrasted to twenty-first century practices, Csolgolz was tried and convicted within two weeks of McKinley’s death on September 14, and executed a month later. The Temple of Music, which was a temporary structure, was demolished just days later. Today the site of the shooting is marked by a boulder in the middle of a residential street. 

Prison officials feared that Csolgolz’s grave would become a site of veneration for anarchists and hastily buried his body in an unmarked plot after spraying it with sulfuric acid to hasten decomposition. McKinley’s body was interred on a hilltop in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. The domed stone structure was described in Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation (a fascinating and surprisingly hilarious account of visits to the sites of the first three presidential assassinations – JFK’s was too recent to supply levity) as “a gray granite nipple on a fresh breast of grass.” 

McKinley’s assassination made a president of former-VP Theodore Roosevelt, who furthered his predecessor’s policy of Latin American imperialism by building the Panama Canal. McKinley is remembered today only in the name of America’s highest peak. This may change if Alaska has its way, as the state has tried for decades to officially rename Mount McKinley back to its Native American name of Denali. This move has been consistently blocked in congress by representatives from McKinley’s former district in Ohio.