Sunday, July 19, 2015

For Those Who Still Hear the Guns


I believe it was Faulkner who said the past is never dead. It isn't even past. There are those of us for whom the past is just as alive as the present. We hear the fading echos of artillery fire from long ago. We sense the presence of those who tread on many a far flung battlefield with us. They haunt our minds and our thoughts. The past drives us to squander the present while we mentally dwell in a bygone era. We spend money and time that we perhaps do not have to focus on an era in which we will never actually live. Is this foolhardy? Is it misguided? I would say no. The world needs people like us. We keep old memories alive.

I suffer from some pretty serious health issues that seem to be getting more serious. I deal with it by retreating in time to the Civil War where I can spend what time I may have left (I don't know) reading books and watching television programs that tell me of an era when things appeared to be more clear cut. More simple. But, of course, they weren't. My own fear of the future is pushing me further into the past. I don't really see this as a bad thing. In fact, I kind of enjoy it as I have always been a Half A$$ Historian. Obviously the Civil War is my bread and butter, but others of you may have different eras that you enjoy (Great War, WW2, etc). 

Does, for example, the Civil War still matter? Recent events have shown that perhaps it does. The problem is the overall pop-culture version of the Civil War which includes the North's own Lost Cause myth that is taught in schools that bother to teach history means that most of those entering the public discourse have no real historical knowledge of the Civil War. That does not, however, stop them from pontificating on the subject. How many of those tearing down Confederate flags from private property can even name a Civil War battle, much less a General. The decline of historical knowledge in this country is exactly why those of us who "live in the past" must continue to do so!

I get frustrated and angry with "professional historians" for many reasons. First of all, the very idea of a "professional" historian is dumb. What makes you "professional"? Some will say that you must have a PhD. Others say no, just a graduate degree period (like an MA). Others say to be "professional" you have to get paid to teach history or work at a museum. Said professionals scoff at books written by non-PhD people as being "popular history". I wonder if they ever think that there might be a reason for the popular part? Second, though a lot of professional historians do know about history, their knowledge is more limited than you might think. For example, military history is very rarely taught in graduate history programs (with a few exceptions). It is all about race, class, and gender now. If that is what you want to learn about, great. If not, you are screwed. Third, though many of them teach history (and teach it well), there is a difference in teaching history and truly living it. By that I don't mean in the reenacting sense, but rather living with the past in your mind 24/7. 

When I was healthy enough to be able to visit Civil War battlefields, I could still hear the cannons and the muskets. I could see everything unfolding in my mind when I closed my eyes. The Civil War is not simply empty words on paper or some boring and grainy old documentary. It is real. For those of us who still hear the guns, the war rages on in the recesses of our minds and we will forever be prisoners of it. Yes, it still matters. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

What They Fought For



I've been mulling over writing this for a while. I'd talk myself out of it and then talk myself into it. I've touched on the topic in various other blog posts, but I never have, as of yet, taken pen to hand to address the issue directly. There seems to be a lot of misinformation and outright misunderstanding as it relates to the motives of Civil War soldiers, much of it due to academic historians with no military service ascribing lofty ideals and values on a topic which they really know little about. I think there is a distinction that can be drawn between what causes a war and why men fight in it just as there is between what motivates a soldier to enlist and what keeps him there after the first shots are fired. They are all different. Historians blur the lines between a war's causes and the reasons why soldiers fight. It is an honest mistake, perhaps. I can sum up the traditional view on the Civil War as follows:

1. Northern soldiers enlisted to preserve the Union or to free the slaves.
2. Confederate soldiers enlisted to defend the institution of slavery or at least a society that tolerated the existence of slavery.

This is problematic for a few reasons. Did Northern soldiers enlist to free the slaves? Not really. And certainly not before the Emancipation Proclamation. Historians who promote the Northern version of the Lost Cause Myth (ie: the North was a racial utopia and freeing the slaves was the objective of the war all along) often ignore the fact that enlistments dropped and desertions increased after the Proclamation was issued. Why do you think the North had to resort to conscription? Historians love to gloss over that small point. As to the Confederate side, I've actually read books wherein historians argue that though it is true that most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, they belonged to a society in which they could aspire to slave ownership and thus all enlisted to preserve it. Seriously? You are going to risk being disemboweled by canister rounds because you want to own slaves one day. I don't buy it. Also, consider that when the Confederacy passed its draft law in 1862 which exempted the planter class from military service, Confederate enlistments dropped and desertion increased quite a bit. Why would this happen if the Southern soldier all ran out to fight so that they could own slaves that they didn't actually own. Sure, there are letters and diaries where Confederate soldiers do talk about joining up over the slave question. There are a lot more that don't mention it. The same is true for Northern accounts as well. Some mention wanting to free the slaves but many others are silent on that point. The truth is, more Northerners cared little about the slave question (as the Northern economy relied on Southern cotton). 

So what reasons then motivated soldiers to enlist? They are as varied as the number of soldiers who enlisted. I think it is important to remember that the average Civil War soldier was in his early twenties. Some were older and quite a few were younger. Really, they were no different than the men and women who join the military today. So here are a few reasons why I think soldiers enlisted.

1. Protect their homes. (Very important to the Confederate soldier who's region faced invasion.)
2. Peer pressure. (Men who didn't run out to enlist received women's undergarments in the mail!)
3. Money (more so in the North....especially when bounty money was involved)
4. Adventure. (Most people lived their whole lives within 100 miles of where they were born. The war promised a chance of adventure that their regular lives lacked.)
5. Sense of duty (For many, joining up with everyone else just seemed like it was the right thing to do.)

For some, they may have enlisted for more than one reason. I just think it is insane how historians argue that the average Confederate soldier rushed out to enlist and fought for four long, brutal years because some rich planter wanted him to. Soldiers don't die for causes. They die for their comrades in the ranks. Why would the Civil War be any different? Or is it because historians are sometimes guilty of imposing their own moral judgments and political values on the past. Does this mean that slavery did not cause the war? No, of course not. Slavery was at the root of the Southern economy and if you took it out of the South there would not have been a war. But what causes a war and why soldiers enlist and fight are not always the same thing and historians would do well to remember that. But for those who sit tucked away in academia, far from the smoke and noise of a Civil War battlefield (or any other battlefield) it is too easy to sit in judgment rather than reporting facts. And that is sad.

And yes, I do know that there are documents and letters that may state things other than what I have written about. However, there are also plenty of others which DO support what I am saying. If you discount one because it doesn't support your already arrived at conclusion, then you move lower than Half A$$ Historian and just become an A$$. 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

NEVER Lose Sight of This


This needs to be said. It needs to be read. It needs to be shared. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops for all to hear and understand. While any discussion as to the merits of the Confederate battle flag has its place in our society, we are dangerously close to losing sight of what is really important. And it isn't our fault, really, because the media depictions of the Civil War be they film or television program do no justice to the war. Yes, it is romanticized in our culture and I am not just talking about the Lost Cause mythology either. Has there ever been a Civil War program which truly depicts the horrors of a Civil War battlefield? Do you know what is missing from our collective conscious as it relates to the war? Reality. Plain and simple. Here is what all is missing from our national discussions over the war and also of the flag:

The fact that when canister rounds struck a line of advancing infantry, body parts flew as high as the tops of the trees. The screams of wounded horses which sounded almost human. The screams of wounded men which sounded like an animal. The sheer carnage wrought on the human body by a Mini Ball, far more than a modern round. The coppery scent of blood spraying your clothing from a wounded comrade's shattered body. The palpable odor of fear mixed with the sulfur stench of gunpowder mixed with sweat, and shit, and wet wool. The courage of the Irish Brigade assaulting Marye's Heights and the entire Army of Tennessee making the ill advised charge at Franklin. The fear and pain of having a limb amputated with a dirty saw as surgeons probed with ungloved fingers. Of the morphine addicts made so by their Civil War wounds. And what of those wounded in mind rather than body, many spending their days locked in mental institutions which, in some ways, were worse than prisons. The pain of abdominal cramps brought on by dysentery, more deadly even than combat itself. And typhus. And cholera. There is no glory in dying a long slow death brought on by fluids leaking out of every orifice. But tens of thousands died that very way. And what of the pain of women and children as they waited for word of casualties following a battle. And how you felt grateful when your loved one's name wasn't on it only to feel guilty for feeling relieved when so many others suffered loss. And what of the anguish of entire communities when all the men marched away and yet none came back. What of the generation of widows and orphans? And what of slaves, awaiting their day of liberation and hoping they survived long enough to see it. Some opted to free themselves by escaping to Union lines, only to be used as forced labor. What of those laborers working long hours in dangerous conditions to feed the industrial appetite of the war machine. Of the immigrants enlisted fresh off the boat and sent to fight a war they understood nothing of.

Debates over the battle flag has its place. However, we are in danger of forgetting how brutal the war really was. The war wasn't over a flag. It was the most traumatic event that our nation has ever gone through and to try and sum up the entire experience through a flag is wrong. The flag is not as important as the war and the outcome. It isn't our fault. No one wants to talk about the reality of the war. What I've written above may in fact have disturbed you. Good. That was the point. The Civil War was nasty, ugly business. You cannot praise the courage of one side and denigrate the courage of the other, as courage does not depend on the color of one's uniform or the validity of one's cause. Pardon the pun, but history is not black and white. Southern soldiers were not all evil and Northern soldiers were not all out to free the slaves, contrary to what has been taught and what the media says. Good and evil existed in both armies. Trying to boil everything down to South bad North good is absolutely ridiculous and something that no one who calls themselves a professional historian should engage in, but many if not most do.

We are at risk of whitewashing the entire episode from our history and to what end? So we can forget it and thus risk repeating the same mistakes of the past? We MUST honor the soldiers who fought in the war in whatever way we as individuals choose because of the sacrifices they made for the homes, their families, and their comrades. Not for their cause. Men don't die for causes. They die for their comrades in arms. Brave men fought on both sides. So did cowardly men. So too did men who were not especially brave nor especially unbrave. So too did a few women disguised as men. The whole country was affected by the war. 2 percent of our population died, near 700,000 people! Do NOT simply view them as statistics. They were living, breathing humans with the same hopes and fears as all of us. Most were men, young men, who never got to live their lives as we have.

All of them died for a country that no longer regards their sacrifices as important, but rather a part of an episode in our past that must be forgotten. I am fiercely proud of my Civil War ancestors, on both sides. Yes. I'm proud of my Confederate ancestors. Why? Because they lived through the conditions described above. Or died because of them. How many of you would be willing to do the same? Yes. I am proud of the battlefield exploits. I mourn those who were lost. And I am glad that their cause did not succeed. So fly the flag or not fly the flag, that is your choice as an individual. Personally, I don't but that's my decision. But no matter what you do or how you feel about the flag, for the love of God, NEVER lose sight of what happened during this war. NEVER forget the bloody hell that was a Civil War battlefield. NEVER forget the experiences of soldiers, civilians, adults, children, slaves and free people during, what was the crucible of our national experience. PLEASE don't let those deaths be in vain.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Forgotten Great War: World War One in Africa

German colonial troops in German East Africa


I often say that in some ways, World War One is a largely forgotten war here in the United States. Our troops were only in combat for the final nine moths or so of the war and our casualties, though high for such a short time, were nowhere near as high as the European powers. However, it was a world war and as such there were other theaters. Imagine: cavalry riding zebras instead of horses, columns of men marching through the jungles or plains, gunboats steaming up and down the great African lakes. That sounds like something from a Tarzan movie! But it all really happened. I wish I could dive into the subject and tell you all sorts of tales of midnight raids and pitched gunboat battles while soldiers and sailors dodge crocodiles, snakes, and hippopotami, but time and space prevent me from hitting this subject with anything more than a glancing blow. I can't fully tackle this subject, but I can give it a flesh wound.

World War One was in many ways a colonial war. Competition for overseas colonies was a big contributing factor to the growing antagonism between Germany and England. When Germany unified in 1871, they set out to become an overseas power since they equated, just like the United States would do, colonies with economic and military power. The problem for the Germans is that much of the world was already spoken for. The British got into the game early and established themselves as the dominant colonial power. Remember the old adage: "The sun never sets on the British empire". (It is, of course, because God doesn't trust the British in the dark.) The resulting "Scramble for Africa" in the late 19th Century resulted in Germany carving out a piece of the only real continent with any territory up for grabs. When it came to imperialism, native peoples were never consulted as to their wishes, of course. The Europeans came to Africa to "civilize" them and to "Christianize (ie: Protestantize) them. This was done without regard to existing tribal cultures. But that's always been the dark side of imperialism. 

Sengalese troops in the Sudan

In his masterful work ( is history that reads like an adventure novel), Byron Farwell notes that though Irishman Earnest Thomas is credited as firing the first British shots of World War One, that is, in fact, incorrect. The first shot was fired by an unknown black soldier in a British uniform in Togoland a week earlier. While a marker notes the spot where Thomas fired his shot, no marker commemorates the actual spot where the first British shot of the war was fired. In other words, Africa was in the war from the beginning. Both sides used African troops and the British also used other colonial troops from India during their campaigns. There were several full scale military operations that took place. The warring powers considered this theater important enough to devote substantial resources to it. There are some really great pictures out there of black soldiers wearing German uniforms, Indian troops marching through the jungles, men on zebras, etc. I was always a fan of the old Tarzan movies (mainly because Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane) was not only hot but she had a great Irish name. 

The main German commander in East Africa was General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He was, quite possibly, Germany's most able commander of the entire war. With his invasion of British territory, he was the only German commander to invade sovereign British soil. The thing is, he never really lost! He only surrendered upon being informed of the armistice. His operations are considered one of the best (and most successful) examples of guerrilla warfare in history. After the war, he returned to Germany to a hero's welcome. In the 1930s, Hitler offered him an ambassadorship. The General's response was fairly blunt. He is alleged to have said "Go f---k yourself." In the 1960s, a reporter asked his nephew if he really said that to Hitler. The nephew replied "Yes, but I don't think he put it quite so nicely." 

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

The human cost of the Great War in Africa is difficult to gauge. Since both sides used colonial troops and also civilian carriers, their record keeping was not up to the same standards as elsewhere. It is estimated that somewhere around 350,000 (perhaps more) people were killed or wounded during the fighting. This includes both military and civilian casualties. When you add in deaths due to indirect causes of the war (starvation, disease, etc), the numbers are probably much higher. The war laid waste to large parts of German East Africa and also some of the British territories as well, just as it did in France and Belgium. In our current centennial celebrations relating to World War One, we must remember to think of the brave African troops who fought on both sides in far away and forgotten campaigns.

German troops hanging out with executed "thieves".

German colonial troops in Tanzania

British artillery firing in Cameroon


Beware the Zebra cavalry!

And friends, if you will allow me a moment to editorialize, I would like to point out that there is still a war raging in Africa. The Great Congo War (also known as the African World War) has been ongoing (off and on) since 1998. MILLIONS have died in the Eastern Congo and the world has paid no attention to it. If this had been happening in a country full of white people......well, it would never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Though Africa was far from peaceful before the Europeans showed up (tribes fought tribes on a regular basis), the decolonization process in Africa has been very rough in some areas, though it has gone well in others. Remember, it was in the same Congo which sees so much violence today that the Belgians waged what can only be called a genocidal campaign in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Our government cares so much about ISIS yet pays no attention to Boko Haram in Nigeria other than passing references. We stepped in to stop ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, but cared little about the slaughter that took place in Rwanda. Africa and all her people matter, regardless of what the Western Governments might think.

Here are some GREAT books on World War One in Africa.

The Great War in Africa by Byron Farwell
World War One: The African Front by Edward Paice
Hell, CNN even wrote an article here.
Check out the World War 1 in Africa Project here. (It has a great story about a WW1 German gunboat that is now being used as a ferry!)

And last but not least, if you want to raise your awareness of colonialism in Africa in general, take a look at The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham. For a great look at the current "world war" in Africa, read Africa's World War by Gerard Prunier.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who would so ride a zebra if I had a chance.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Clio's Servants: Why Study History.......or Anything Else?

Clio the Greek Goddess of History


I think I can say with a certain measure of certainty that most of my students would rather be sitting in a dentist's chair than a history classroom. Luckily the State of Texas, though generally run by morons, requires college students to take two semesters of US History. It is divided into US To 1877 and US Since 1877. (There are some other options now, Texas History, etc, but most take the two US courses.) I can't say I blame them. I felt the same way about math classes. I am fortunate that I only had to take one, College Mathematics, to get my degree otherwise I would not have graduated. As it is, I only got a "D" but, as we all know, C stands for Credit and D stands for Diploma. I am not the kind of professor that is out there to convert all of my students to history majors. Yes, there is plenty you can do with a History Degree besides teaching, but I want them to major in something that they like, not something that I like. If that is history, so be it. If it isn't, that is fine too.

I majored in History because that, along with English, were the only two subjects that I was any good in. I really had no other reason. I was not a great student in high school as I was busy with athletics. (Priorities, you know!) When I went off to college, I did pretty well all things considered. But I never planned on teaching. When I got hired by TPWD, they required a college degree (as most state law enforcement positions in Texas do), but it could be in anything. Though a degree was required, a specific one wasn't and I could have just as easily gotten hired with Math degree, God forbid. Though naturally I am happy that I got a degree, I did not really need it all that much when it came to my job. But a lot of degrees are like that.

I guess it was only natural for a person who likes to read to gravitate towards the study of history, which requires a lot of reading. You can't be a history major if you don't like to read. That, Dear Readers, is a fact! For as long as I can remember, I enjoyed reading history books (starting with children's biographies of various famous people: Jefferson, Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, etc. In third grade I read a book length biography (written for high school age kids) about George Armstrong Custer. I remember the discovery of the Titanic which was on all the news programs for a while. But still, I don't know why it was history books and not something else. I guess because in a way, I had an instinctual desire to know why things were the way they were. History explains that. Or maybe I just liked all of the stories which history is full of. Something that, unfortunately, a lot of historians overlook now in their pursuit of "isms". But if anyone was destined to be a history major, I guess it was me.

Rather than give you esoteric reasons as to why the study of the past is important, I'll be a little more blunt. That is, after all, part of my "charm". First of all, studying history teaches you to think. You have to think for yourself and not allow others, including your teachers, to pass their views on to you. The classroom is not a pulpit from which to preach your views to your students. Give them the facts and give them your interpretation, but encourage them to disagree and present facts to support their case. Second, in the world in which we now live, the knowledge of history is of the utmost importance. I find it most distressing to hear politicians and their supporters support invading countries that they cannot even find on a map. Third, though I do not think that history repeats itself in the literal sense, there are certain historical trends that can be seen. For example, invading Russia is a bad idea. (See reason number two....) Consider the example of Afghanistan. The British got bogged down in war there in the 1840s, the Russians in the 1980s, and the United States in the 2000s. That is a historical trend. Finally, I think history teaches us a lot about human nature. If we study how and why people react to certain situations it can give us clues of how people will react to present events. It also explains why people react the way they do to contemporary issues. But ultimately, you have to major in what you love, be that history, math, or underwater basket weaving.

I do not consider myself a real historian, but rather a Half A$$ Historian. I also do not consider myself a professor but rather a teacher. (I teach. I do not profess.) People always say if you find a career that you love that you will never work a day in your life. I don't know if I necessarily agree with that. It has been a rough semester for me and I think that I have lost my mojo for the first time in ten years of teaching. It has started feeling more like a job and less like a fun way to spend my day. But there are always those students who manage to make you feel like you are doing something right, no matter how tough a semester it is. Sometimes I wish I had enough money socked away that I could devote three or four months to writing the book that I've always wanted to right. But I'll be 37 this summer and with my health I don't know how many years I'll have left, so the book will have to wait until my next life. As John Lennon said, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who will now devote his time to watching the NCAA tournament. I picked Villanova to win it all. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How the Irish Became American

Friends, on Sunday, March 15th, I gave the keynote address at the 46th Annual Dick Dowling Statue Commemoration in Houston. What follows is the text of my address.

First of all, let me say that you for inviting me here to speak to you today. It is quite an honor for this Irish-American. It is fitting that we are gathered here, with Houston’s own Irish hero, to mark what promises to be a fun week for those of us who’s families hail from the Emerald Isle. Historical remembrance is important. If ever we stop passing that legacy down to the next generation, then the deeds of the brave men and women who have come before us will disappear from our collective conscious and that is something that we must strive to avoid.

Ireland and America have long shared a bond of friendship brought on by shared blood. Today, three times more people claim Irish ancestry than live in Ireland, so it is understandable that the two countries would have so much in common. On March 17th, the day set aside for our Patron Saint, Patrick, it is easy to get lost in the revelry and forget the difficult and dangerous road that our ancestors traveled down so that we could live in the kind of country that now celebrates the very heritage that it once scorned. But how did that happen? How did we get to where we are today? Like the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty that says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”, Ireland did just that, helped along by the English. Indeed, the Irish would transition from huddled masses to heroes. For every Dick Dowling, who we honor here today, there were hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands more who also came over from the Old Country who fought and died for their adopted home, be it North or South. They shed their blood and often sacrificed their lives so that future generations of Americans of Irish descent could find the acceptance that their ancestors so desperately wanted. The Civil War, friends, was more than just a battle for the soul of a nation. For the Irish, it was a battle for acceptance. And that is what I will say a few brief remarks on today.

            If you will permit me a brief interlude first, I would like to explain how I came to know Dick Dowling. I grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, just a few miles from Sabine Pass where Dowling and his intrepid band of Irishmen performed a feat, rarely paralleled in the annals of military history. We first learned about him in third grade when I was a young student at Robert E. Lee Elementary. We also had a Dick Dowling Elementary, but alas, I lived in Lee’s attendance zone. That same year my parents took me to the annual Dowling festival and reenactment at Sabine Pass. That gave me my first glimpse at Civil War reenacting. Eleven years later, as a 19 year old college student, I would participate in my first reenactment at that same spot. I have long been aware of my Irish heritage. With Fitzgerald blood in my veins, it is hard not to be. As a child, it gave me quite a thrill to know that merely a few miles and one hundred and twenty years (at that time) separated me from men with blood the same as mine who so bravely stood their ground and defended the very spot where I lived. From that moment on, I think that it was almost inescapable that I would gravitate towards the study of history and though I took a circuitous route, end up teaching it. So long as we are aware of where we came from, I think the bonds of time do not seem so significant. Which is why we should know not only the glorious triumphs, but also the toils and struggles that our ancestors faced.

            The reasons why so many Irish men, women, and children immigrated to the United States in the 1840s and 50s is well known to all here. During the years of the Great Hunger, though specific numbers are hard to pin down, roughly a million people died and an equal number crossed the Atlantic on the coffin ships. In a ten year period, the overall population of Ireland dropped significantly. In Connaught, for example, the population loss from 1841-1851 was close to 30%. What I find interesting is that the destination of the ship leaving Ireland would later determine which side of the Civil War the men fought on. My ancestors boarded a vessel bound for New Orleans, as did Dowling’s family. Indeed, New Orleans received the third largest number of Irish immigrants during these years, trailing only New York and Boston. This transformed the Crescent City to one that in the late 19th Century would be identified as being thoroughly Irish. If Dowling’s family had boarded a different boat, he might very well have been commanding troops in the Northern Army during the War. Such is the fickle nature of history. However, when the Irish arrived in the United States, they found a nation that shared the same deeply rooted prejudices against Catholicism that also existed in England and thus rather than welcoming them with open arms, the Irish faced a struggle for survival which would also transform into a struggle for the soul of a nation. But I have yet to meet and Irishman yet who is not up for a challenged.

            The Irish have been in the Americas for quite some time, but it wasn’t until large numbers of them arrived in a short time period that any problems really existed. In the 1850s, a new political party emerged which we today call the Know Nothing Party, though active for only a short time, the party reflected the views of many in American society who saw the poverty and Catholicism of the Irish immigrants as a threat to the establishment. A series of riots occurred across the country in the 1840s and1850s. 22 people were killed in a Know Nothing riot in Louisville, Kentucky in 1855 when Irish voters going to the polls to elect a mayor were attacked by Nativist mobs. In Maine, a Catholic priest was tarred and feathered. Mobs attacked Catholic Churches in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore in the mid 1840s. After learning of a church being burned in Philadelphia and the deaths of twelve people, the Bishop of New York, “Dagger” John Hughes placed armed guards around the Catholic Churches in the city and said “if a single Catholic Church is burned, this city will become a second Moscow” (in reference to the Russians burning Moscow in advance of Napoleon’s Army). A single church was not burned in that city, at least. I mention all this not to dredge up the past or to reopen old wounds, but it is important for those of us of Irish descent to understand that things were not always the way they are now. This is what makes that struggle for acceptance all the more important. Here in the States, the Irish were routinely portrayed as monkeys in newspaper cartoons, just as they were in England. Though some stereotypes still do persist in the media, by and large we don’t get compared to monkeys these days and so I think we have moved in the right direction. But how does the Civil War factor into this?

            When war came to the United States, the Irish eagerly volunteered to fight. An estimated 150,000 Irishmen served in the Union armies, including seven who reached the rank of general. Who can forget the heroic charge of the Irish Brigade up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg where they suffered 40 percent casualties in the space of a few minutes. Their gallantry was cheered by their Confederate foes, who included a number of Irish among them as well. Consider the words of General Pickett “Your soldiers heart almost stood still as we watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye's Heights of the Irish Brigade was beyond description.  Why, we forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer went up along our lines. The states which would make up the Confederacy, with the exception of Louisiana, did not receive near the same number of Irish immigrants, but that did not stop those who did live in the South from embracing the war just as their northern countrymen did. New Orleans sent several regiments to the Confederate cause which were made up of large numbers of Irish Immigrants. Groups like the Louisiana Tigers, who would later give their name to LSU as a mascot, and the 6th Louisiana Infantry. Had our friend Dowling not made his way to Houston, he no doubt would have been serving in one of those regiments. Historians like to look back in time and ascribe grand motives to the reasons why people did the things they did. I am not one of those historians. Each Irishman who enlisted in either army did so for his own reasons that, absent written evidence to the contrary, we will never know. North and South, Irish troops were well known for the gallantry. General Lee’s Chief of Artillery, Edward Porter Alexander said “They problem with the Yankees is that their cavalry can’t ride and their infantry, except the Irish, can’t fight.” And when we discuss the brave Confederate  Irish who stood against overwhelming odds at Sabine Pass, so too should we mention that there were Irishmen in those Union vessels as well. How tragic it is that men who fled oppression in their own country ended up shooting at each other in this country, but history is full of such tales.

            Though Irish support for the war in the North waned as it dragged on, the men who followed the green flags into battle did not waver from the course. After the war, they returned home, some broken in body, others in mind, but all changed by the experience that they had lived through. Did all anti-Irish feeling disappear as soon as the war was over? Certainly not. You can still see anti-Irish cartoons well into the 1880s, but public perception had softened somewhat, particularly in the North where the once scorned immigrant group had proven themselves every bit as American as the next by their courage under fire. In the post war United States, Irishmen built the Transcontinental Railroad headed west as Chinese immigrant labor built it headed east. Irishmen policed the streets of New York, Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans. They fought the fires. They and their descendants continued to fight for the country that took them in and still do to this day. Though as years passed, they may have dropped the “O” or the “Mc” prefix from their last name, they remained Irish. Perhaps it is because of the forced separation from their home which led Irish Americans to hold so strongly onto those connections. But over time, Irish immigrants came to find something in America that they so desperately wanted back home. Liberty. Freedom. The right to be judged based on your character rather than your ethnicity or your religion. All of these things were, and perhaps are still, dear to the Irish people whether here or in Ireland. The Civil War provided the perfect avenue for them to strive to achieve it. Over time, the rest of American came to understand this as well. Those sacrifices on oft forgotten fields one hundred and fifty years ago still resonate with Irish-Americans today as that is the reason why we are able to gather and celebrate our heritage as we are doing now. Our ancestors paid for that right of acceptance with their blood. Though St. Patrick’s Day is, and should be, a cause for celebration, we must also remember that we are but a few generations removed from a time in which to be Irish was to be scorned. So if you are hoisting a pint on Tuesday, please drink a toast to the spirits of those who came before us. If Guinness is scarce in heaven, which I don’t think it is, I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.

            I’ve never met an Irishman, myself included, who did not have the gift of gab, so I will now bring this to a close. The moral of my story today, dear friends, is that the history of the Irish in America is a triumphant one because we had to overcome great hardships to be where we are today, not in spite of it. The United States did not simply decide on a whim that Irishness was something to be celebrated. The Irish had to fight for it and they paid a very high price. To be frank, this is the same struggle that immigrant groups have faced ever since the Irish arrived be they Italian, Russian, Vietnamese, or Mexican. Though many of our families have been in this country for a long, long time, we must always remember that they too came here seeking a better life. Each successive wave of immigrants has had to fight its own battle for acceptance and its own battle to become American. Today you’d be hard pressed to find a group more proud of their heritage than the Irish-Americans but you’d also be hard pressed to find one more patriotic as well. A scan of the list of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines over the past ten years yields quite a few Irish surnames, proof that the spirit of Dowling, Meagher, and Cleburne lives on today. Thank you for having me speak to you today. May God Bless America and May God Save Ireland.   

The Redhead is always a hit with the old men.



Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fifty Shades of History: Great Love Affairs of the Past


Spring Break is upon us. That means I get to sit around and do Spring Break type things which means watching as much TV as I want or sleeping until the crack of noon. What it really means is that I'll have to get caught up on all the stuff I haven't had time for since classes started in January. But hey, a man can dream, right? With all the Fifty Shades of Gray crap going on right now, I thought I'd write a little piece about some great romances, the kind of love they sing songs about. The kind they makes movies about (that is, movies without the whips and chains like FSOG). What people do in the privacy of their bedrooms is of no concern to me until they have been dead about fifty years or so, and then it becomes history and thus suitable for historical inquiry. You see, historians are voyeurs. True, we do not peek in windows, but we do read people's mail. We are privy to their most intimate thoughts and deeds. Historians, like prostitutes, make their living off of other people which means there isn't much of a difference between the historical profession and the oldest profession, but I digress. Today, I'll mention a few great love affairs from a bygone era, before a series of novels sent people scurrying to their nearest sex store to buy props. My list is not all inclusive and it is by no means in order of importance, except the last one which is the most important.

1. Nicholas and Alexandra

You know, I think that Nicholas and Alexandra have a lot in common with Louis and Marie Antoinette. They were born, fell in love, got married, had children, got overthrown, and then got killed. But I seem to have a certain sympathy for Nicholas and Alexandra that I don't have for Louis and Marie despite having nothing but disdain for the very idea of a monarchy. Princess Alix (her birth name) of Hesse was Queen Victoria's granddaughter as was just about everyone else in European royal families in the late 19th Century. Queen V wanted her to marry one of the other grandchildren but Alix said no. She had already met and fallen in love with Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, heir to the throne. Tsar Alexander III opposed the marriage at first and Alix's conversion to orthodoxy would also be a sticking point too. But when Alexander grew ill, he relented. Alix hastened to Russia. On his deathbed, Alexander gave his blessing. When he died, she was received into the Orthodox Church the next day and a wedding was held just a few weeks later. This did not sit well with the Russian peasants who said that she arrived "following a coffin". By all accounts the two really were in love. They slept in the same bed, which was unusual for royal couples at the time. Nicholas would make time to eat lunch with her every day. They had four daughters before she finally gave birth to the long awaited son, young Alexi. Their letters to each other, which they often wrote in English, were some of the most moving love letters I think I have ever read. But fate dealt them a bitter blow. If you'd like to read the rest of their story, you'll have to do it here. (Just watch out for Rasputin!)

2. Napoleon and Josephine

Lots of discussion about Napoleon and Josephine leave out the fact that they got divorced, but even then they remained on good terms. If you want to read some Fifty Shades of Gray, 19th Century style, look at some of the letters Napoleon sent to her while he was away fighting in Italy. He was very, shall we say, specific, with what activities he had planned for when he returned home. Josephine was born on a sugar plantation in Martinique. Her father fell on hard times and their aunt arranged the marriage of Josephine's younger sister to the aunt's "man friend" in France. However, the sister died shortly before leaving on the voyage and so she was simply replaced with Josephine! She married and had two children. Her daughter would marry Napoleon's brother! Josephine's marriage was not a good one, and the two separated. During the Reign of Terror, they were both arrested and her husband was sent to the guillotine. It is likely that Josephine would have been as well, but fate intervened. Robespierre's government fell and the Reign of Terror ended. Josephine was released. She met a young officer named Napoleon and the two fell in love and were married. She was six years older than him. He left two days after their wedding to command troops in Italy which would win him widespread acclaim. She returned to Paris and began having an affair with a young cavalry officer. When Napoleon found out, he was none too pleased. When he left to Egypt for more campaigning, Napoleon carried on his own affair with the wife of one of his subordinates. This left a strain on their relationship that never healed. Napoleon crowned himself emperor of France which, of course, made Josephine the empress. However, as time past it became apparent that she could not get pregnant.again Napoleon, concerned with the legacy of his empire, began to consider divorce. He had gone so far as to name her grandson by her previous marriage to be his heir, but when the child died, he saw no option but to divorce Josephine. She agreed to the divorce and Napoleon insisted that she retain the title of Empress of France. When Napoleon's new wife had a son, he even arranged for Josephine to meet the child! I guess that is proof that people can remain friends even in the strangest of circumstances.

"Dat asp!"

3. Antony and Cleopatra

Of course, if you can't remain friends, committing suicide by poisonous snake is an option, at least if you were like Cleopatra Queen of Denial. (See what I did there?) I spoke of Cleopatra before, when I discussed the dreaded Honey Trap. You can find that post here, She had herself smuggled into Julius Caesar's room rolled up inside a carpet so that she could use her......charms.......on him! Of course, after he got E tu brute'd in the Senate, she decided to get to know one of his buddies, Marc Antony. She bore him a twins and the two, by all accounts, got on fairly well although they had an on again off again kind of relationship. She used her armies to support his in one of the myriad of Roman Civil Wars, but when his soldiers defected to Octavian's side, all was lost. Marc Antony, thinking that Cleopatra had committed suicide, fell upon his sword. Cleopatra, after presiding over his funeral, then killed herself. According to the legend, she induced an asp (Egyptian cobra) to bite her. However, that is probably not true. Most believe that she simply poisoned herself. Gee, all these people keep coming to bad ends.

"Do you have Prince Albert in a can?" 

4. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Queen Victoria was married to her cousin, Prince Albert. In fact, if you ever wonder why there was so much hereditary health issues (and insanity) in the English Royal Family, it was because of all the inbreeding. Think of that, my Dear Muricans, next time you feel the need to gush over a royal baby. By all accounts, the two were very much in love and almost inseparable. Since she was the one actually in line to the English throne, she was the Queen and he was the Prince Consort (the same as Queen Elizabeth II and her husband today.) Albert did, of course, have input and frequently spoke his mind to Victoria who took his opinions into account, but also remember that by the mid 1800s, the days of the monarch having sole control over the empire were long gone. Albert died suddenly at the age of 42 and for the rest of her life, Victoria wore black. Furthermore, she had his nightgown laid out for him every night and had fresh water brought to his room every morning. No one was allowed to disturb his things in his room which remained just as he had left them. If that isn't true love, my friends, I don't know what is.

And now for the last and most important:

5. Lee Hutch and The Redhead

My wife and I recently celebrated seven years of marriage, but we've known each other for twelve years. We met on June 3, 2001. We were both students at UHCL and we were taking this horrible night class called European Intellectual History. The professor had a 25 page single spaced syllabus that he read to us, word for word, on the first night. When the break arrived, I staggered outside for a smoke and she followed me. I believe we call that stalking. We remained friends from that point on. Many years later, in 2007, we went on our first date. I took her to Dairy Queen. We got married about ten months later. (I proposed at the same Dairy Queen.) At the time I could not have foreseen the health problems that I would one day have. Back then I was a relatively new detective and things were looking up. Unfortunately, the whole for better or worse thing has really just been for worse. It has been quite a struggle as I deal with my various health problems which make a normal life, for either of us, impossible. But she has stayed by me through it all. And for that reason, I think we belong on this list. As you can see from the photo, she's hot and I'm a partially disabled ex-cop who can't even remember his own name half the time. But let's just hope our story doesn't end like the other ones on this list. I have a hunch that it won't.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Peter the Great and the Land of the Tsars

St. Basil's in Red Square


First permit me to make a small housekeeping announcement. The blog now has a new custom domain. This site will be redirecting there in the future. You may click on the link here and bookmark it if you please. Of course, you can still follow me on Facebook here, which is, in fact, the best way to keep up with my goings on, should you be so inclined. Now, on to the post!

No less an authority than Winston Churchill said that Russia is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. In large part due to the Cold War and the existence of the Iron Curtain, for decades the Soviet Union was a closed society as far as Westerners were concerned. Here in the United States, we existed on a steady diet of anti-Russian propaganda, just as they were fed a diet of anti-American propaganda. But it has really been that way for much, much longer. Even prior to the Russian Revolution, the country always had a certain mystic, exotic feel with its difficult language, strange customs, and beautiful, mysterious domed cathedrals. As an American of Irish descent, I really enjoy Russian history because it has a lot in common with Irish History. (Which really means lots of starvation and death.) Even the languages are both a lot older than English and a lot more difficult to learn. Through the Middle Ages, Russia was seen more as an Asiatic Country than a European one. All that would change with the emergence of a new Tsar named Peter who today we know better as Peter the Great. (Or Peter der Grosse in German which sounds a lot cooler!)

Peter grew to be a man of many......crowns. Part barber, part executioner, part Tsar, part carpenter, part shipwright, he rose from a childhood marred by tragedy and intrigue to transform Russia into a major power. Peter came from the marriage of his father, Tsar Alexis, to his second wife Natalya. Peter was not directly in line to the throne as Alexis had two sons with his first wife. Upon his death, the crown passed to the eldest Feodor who was a sickly young man. Needless to say, he did not last long! When he died without an heir, a dispute arose over who should next assume the throne. Technically, Peter's older brother Ivan was next in line, but Ivan was described as being "feeble minded" and thus not suited for the throne. We do not know what his infirmity actually was and there has been much speculation. A committee decided that ten year old Peter should inherit the title instead. But Ivan and Peter's older sister Sophia would have none of that! She led a coup of Russian nobles and young Peter watched as his uncles were hurled from a balcony to be hacked to pieces with pikes. No doubt this had a profound effect on the child who would one day rule Russia. Rather than sole control, Peter and Ivan were said to be co-rulers with Sophia really calling the shots. Eventually, as he grew older, Peter was able to wrest control from Sophia, who he forced to enter a convent, though he still ruled alongside Ivan until his brother died.

One interesting thing about Peter was that he grew to be extremely tall. Accounts say he was 6'8 which would make him tall today. Back then that made him enormous as he was over one foot taller than the average European. Today he might go on to a lucrative career as a professional basketball player! Back then he had to settle for ruling Russia. In order to enlist the support of other European monarchs, Peter traveled with an entourage on what is called "The Grand Embassy". Technically he was working incognito, but with his size I doubt he fooled anyone. He met with the Prussian, the Dutch, and the English. Peter was after a couple of things. First, he wanted support in his struggle with the Ottoman Empire. Second, he wanted to hire Western experts to bring back to Russia to help him modernize. He also wanted naval knowledge, which he gained by working "under cover" at a Dutch shipyard. Upon his return to Russia, he would go on to create the modern Russian Navy.

Peter had to return from his trip early as a rebellion broke out among the nobility. It was easily crushed and Peter acted in a brutal fashion towards the plotters. Over a thousand of them were tortured and executed. In fact, Peter took pleasure in personally hacking off the heads of those who conspired against him. He also fancied himself quite the dentist and loved pulling teeth! He kept a collection of them in his personal rooms. Boyars at the Russian court learned to hide the fact that their teeth ached lest Peter pull out a pair of pliers and go to work. Peter also commanded all around him to stop dressing in the Asian fashion and adopt Western dress at court. This included cutting off the beards of the boyars, a task the Peter also loved performing on his own. If a boyar wanted to keep his beard, he had to pay a hefty tax! For entertainment, Peter had a troop of dwarfs that performed at his palace for the amusement of all. His reign, 1682-1725, the Enlightenment was taking place in Europe and Peter was duly influenced by it. But his crowning achievement isn't beards or teeth, it is the city which bears his name.

Peter captured the area from Sweden during the Great Northern War. The first building constructed was Peter and Paul Fortress. Given the fact that he was an autocratic ruler, getting the manpower necessary to construct a city was easy. He used conscripted peasants! To help with the design, Peter also brought in Western experts who could give assistance with design and construction which gave St. Petersburg a decidedly European feel. Peter moved the capitol there in 1712. This made St. Petersburg, not Moscow, the seat of power for the Russian Empire. It was in this city where Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and overthrew the provisional government. It was in this city where Bloody Sunday turned peasants against their Tsar. Of course, growing up I knew the city as Leningrad! In 1914, the name was changed to Petrograd. Then it became Leningrad. And now, thankfully, it is St. Petersburg again.

As he aged, Peter began to suffer from bladder and urinary tract problems which were common in the Russian royal family. (Hereditary illnesses are common in all the royal families of Europe due to inbreeding! A fact that some Americans seem to forget with their ridiculous worship of the British royal family.) At one point, doctors performed a procedure that released something like four pounds of blocked urine! That had to hurt. In 1725, Peter again suffered from blood in the urine and abdominal pain. He began to fade quickly. An autopsy was performed after his death and it revealed a gangrenous bladder. So how "great" was Peter? Certainly he transformed Russia into a European rather than Asian country. His modernization programs made Russia powerful. But peasants still lived as virtual slaves of the aristocracy. Tens of thousands of people were executed, some by Peter's own hand. So, like most figures in history, and indeed most people today, Peter was not good or bad. He was a man of his time and in some ways, perhaps, a man ahead of his time. 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

No Sympathy For the Devil: Rasputin and the Existence of Evil

"I hung around St. Petersburg, when I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers. Anastasia screamed in vain."
--Rolling Stones - Sympathy for the Devil


True evil exists in this world. It can manifest itself in various forms. Despite those who argue that humans are naturally good, despite thousands of years of human behavior proving the contrary, I think even they would have to admit that Grigori Rasputin perhaps crossed the line from basic misdeeds to pure evil. From a humble Siberian birth, Rasputin would come to yield more power in Russia than any other person, even the Tsar. He is blamed for Russia's misfortunes during World War One and shared the blame for the Russian Revolution. He was said to have the power to heal. His sexual appetites were almost beyond comprehension. Women of all social classes came to him for "advice", despite the fact that some said he seldom bathed and smelled like a goat. (And I couldn't get a date until I was 19!) Rasputin gained a privileged status in Russia, thanks to his involvement with the Romanov Family, but that association would also prove to be his undoing. Just like Russia herself, Rasputin's life is shrouded in mystery and legend. Indeed, separating the truth from the legend is virtually impossible. So read on..........if you dare.

Rasputin was born to a peasant family in Siberia. His father had been a coach driver. Baptized into the Orthodox faith when he was two days old, Rasputin grew into an awkward child. Not much is known of his early life. The villagers viewed Rasputin as being something of an outcast and he was largely shunned by other children. There is one story that when he was around 9 or 10 years old, a group of peasants were at his father's house arguing over who had stolen a house. Rasputin entered and pointed to one particular man and said "God told me he did it." Rasputin's father beat him severely for his cheekiness. However, it aroused the suspicions of some of the other men there who followed the culprit home and watched as he tried to relocate the stolen horse. This, allegedly, is where Rasputin first earned his reputation as a mystic. Eventually he married and had three children with a peasant woman. He remained married to her for the rest of his life, despite his wanderings and amorous escapades. She was the model of the long suffering wife! So ladies, if your husbands get on your nerves some times, be grateful you are not married to Rasputin!

Rasputin left his village and family in 1892 and went to live in a monastery. This may have coincided with the death of one of his children. He spend a few months there, spending a lot of time with a Hermit who lived nearby. Rasputin gave up drinking and eating meat (at least temporarily). Then he returned home. After a short time back with his family, Rasputin claimed that he had a vision in which Our Lady of Kazan urged him to be a travelling mystic. This is essentially what he did for the rest of his life. He became what the Russian peasants called a strannik, or a religious wanderer. He went back and forth across the country and gained a reputation as a miracle worker who could heal a person simply by laying on of hands. On November 1, 1905, he first met Nicholas and Alexandra, Tsar and Tsarina of all the Russians.

If ever there was a man more unsuited to being an absolute monarch, it was Nicholas II. Historian Robert K. Massie points out that he would have made a great Constitutional Monarch in a country such as England rather than an autocrat in Russia. His wife, Alexandra was widely disliked for a few reasons. First of all, she was German. Second, the two married shortly after the death of Nicholas' father, Alexander III, leaving many of the superstitious among the population to say that she "arrived following a coffin." She had to convert to the Orthodox faith as a condition of marriage and embraced it with all the zealousness of a new convert. By all accounts, the two had a very happy marriage, conversing with each other in English so that the servants would not understand. She gave birth to four beautiful daughters in ten years before finally giving birth to a male heir, Alexi. (Note that they dressed him in sailor suits, just as my mother did!) But he had a medical condition. I do not and cannot understand the American obsession with the British Royal family. We fought to wars so we wouldn't have to give a damn about their royal baby. The royal families of Europe were inbred, with cousins marrying cousins for generations. Queen Victoria gets "credit" for passing the gene which causes hemophilia to the royal families of Europe. Queen Victoria happened to be Alexandra's grandmother. The joy over the birth of a male heir turned to sorrow once they discovered that he was born with hemophilia. Alexandra blamed herself for passing this on to her son (it was known at the time that the female parent carried the gene). Had Alexi not been born with this, Rasputin would perhaps not have become such an influential figure in Russia. In fact, he most certainly would not have. Such are the quirks of history.

In April of 1907, Alexi suffered a particularly grave episode. Having met Rasputin before and knowing of his alleged reputation as a mystic healer, the Royal Family summoned him to the palace. Though the doctors had already told the family that Alexi would die, Rasputin assured them that he would get better. And he did, the next day. This is something that no one can really explain. Perhaps it was hypnosis. Perhaps it was a coincidence. We will never know. This endeared him to Alexandra and she would serve as his protector and defender until his death. In 1912, Alexi suffered an injury which caused massive bleeding into his stomach and groin. This was more serious than the first incident. Doctors could do nothing more than summon a priest who gave Alexi the Last Sacrament. Alexandra refused to accept this and sent a telegram to Rasputin. He replied and said "The little one will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much." The bleeding stopped and though Alexi's recovery took a long time, he was out of danger within a few days. 

Initially, Rasputin was quite popular with the upper classes in St. Petersburg. At the time, the Russian aristocracy was fascinated by the occult, in much the same was the Victorians in England had been, and so a mysterious man who was said to have healing powers was certainly sure to be a big hit. But his frequent visits with the Royal Family sparked jealously and rumors. The media began speculating that Rasputin was a little too friendly with Alexandra and her daughters. In fact, one of their governesses complained to Alexandra that she felt uncomfortable with the fact that Rasputin visited the girls' bedroom while they were in their nightgowns. Alexandra angrily told the governess that Rasputin was a man of God and thus above reproach. When one of the Tsar's ministers said the same to him, Rasputin was ordered to stop. But Alexandra had the governess fired nonetheless. Rasputin left St. Petersburg for a while and traveled to the Holy Land. But like a boomerang, he came back. The rumors, if anything, grew stronger. Even the Duma, the new Russian attempt at a Parliament, talked about him. Said one "Any attempt to criticize Rasputin found only condemnation from the Tsarina." Tsar Nicholas had to ask Rasputin to leave St. Petersburg again, which he did, but he came back.

Rasputin survived an assassination attempt in the summer of 1914. When he recovered, he arrived in St. Petersburg as World War One was beginning. Now, most of his enemies had either died, left, or fallen out of favor with the Royal Family. It was really only then that his true character began to manifest itself. Now prior to the outbreak of the war, Rasputin had lobbied Nicholas and pressed him to stay out of the war. He warned "If Russia goes to war, it will be the end of the monarchy of the Romanovs and of Russian institutions." The war did not go well for Russia on the Eastern Front. Also, the Russian people began to publicly question if the Tsarina was, in fact, a German spy. Eventually, Nicholas (at the urging of Rasputin) left for the front to take personal command of the Army. This proved to be disastrous as it left the Tsarina in charge and she was under the complete control of Rasputin. 

Rasputin lived a life full of drunken debauchery. He is reported to have had numerous sexual encounters with women as young as 15. Also, he would undress in front of aristocratic women and ask them to do the same so that they could "resist temptation". Sometimes he would sleep in a bed with a married woman so that they could also resist temptation. He visited bath houses with women and girls because, as he said, "I like to hug and kiss the ladies!" Passers by frequently saw him walking in the company of young women whom he obviously knew very well. Rasputin is accused of raping at least one nun and forcing himself on countless other women. Any complaints to the Tsarina just got the complainer in trouble. Bear in mind that Rasputin was neither a priest nor a monk, yet he was treated as God's representative on earth by the Tsarina. She believed him when he said that God talked directly to him. More speculation began to make the rounds in St. Petersburg (called Petrograd during the War) that Rasputin had his way with the Tsarina and her daughters in wild palace orgies. This is probably not true, but people believed it nonetheless. Peasants circulated lewd cartoons showing Rasputin doing the women in the Royal Family. As you can imagine, certain nobles hatched a plot to do away with him. But there was one small problem.

According to the legend, Rasputin was invited to a party at the Yusupov Palace where he consumed enough cyanide to kill ten men, was shot no less than four times, beaten with heavy iron chains, wrapped in a carpet, weighted down with chains, and dropped into the Neva River. When his body was recovered two days later, he had broken out of the carpet and chains and had water in his lungs, indicating that he had drowned. As fascinating as this tale is, sadly, it is probably not really true.

Yusupov Palace

The problem with knowing exactly what happened to Rasputin that night in the basement of the Yusupov Palace will never be known. Once the Soviets took control of the country, most of the records relating to the investigation "disappeared". Recently, there has been some discussion on the involvement of the British Secret Service in his assassination under the idea that Rasputin was urging the Tsar and Tsarina to withdraw Russia from the War which could have been disastrous for the British in the West prior to the arrival of US troops. Yusupov gave numerous different accounts of the death of Rasputin. First he said he was motivated by his love of Russia. Later he would say that he did it because of Rasputin's debauchery. A postmortem photo of Rasputin shows a single gunshot wound to the forehead and this is probably the cause of death, not the legend that has been passed down over the years. Still, that makes for a good story though!

Allegedly, Rasputin wrote a letter to the Tsar in December of 1916 in which he spoke of what he saw as his impending death. It is important enough to quote some of it verbatim. Read it with an eye towards Russian History in the 20th Century:

"I wish to make it known to the Russian people, to Papa (the Tsar), to the Russian Mother (the Tsarina) and to the Children what they must understand. If I am killed by common assassins, and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, the Tsar of Russia, will have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years. But if I am murdered by boyars, nobles, and if they shed my blood, their hands will remain soiled with my blood for twenty-five years and they will leave Russia. Brothers will kill brothers, and they will kill each other and hate each other, and for twenty-five years there will be no peace in the country. The Tsar of the land of Russia, if you hear the sound of the bell which will tell you that Grigory has been killed, you must know this: if it was your relations who have wrought my death, then none of your children will remain alive for more than two years. And if they do, they will beg for death as they will see the defeat of Russia, see the Antichrist coming, plague, poverty, destroyed churches, and desecrated sanctuaries where everyone is dead. The Russian Tsar, you will be killed by the Russian people and the people will be cursed and will serve as the devil’s weapon killing each other everywhere. Three times for 25 years they will destroy the Russian people and the orthodox faith and the Russian land will die. I shall be killed. I am no longer among the living. Pray, pray, be strong, and think of your blessed family. ”

Interesting, is it not? So was Rasputin simply misunderstood as some revisionists today would have us believe? I don't think so. I think the eyes are the windows to the soul and if you look into his eyes you see evil, true, pure, unadulterated evil. Yes, Dear Readers, it does exist in this world. There is a lesson in this, friends. Beware the charlatan who has the outward appearance of being a religious figure. Rasputin was said to have the ability to simply look into a person's eyes and they would fall under his spell. I think there are still people out there like this today, waiting to take their place on the world stage. 

And on a final note, Dear Readers, there is reportedly a movie about Rasputin in pre-production that is rumored to have a commitment from Leonardo Dicaprio to play the lead role. Sounds promising!

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who knows far more about the story of Rasputin than I have time or space to share here.