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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Violence Then and Now

This one’s for you, my La Gaceta friend (and city council candidate) Gene Siudut. Gene wrote last week in his column, “Chairman of the Bored,” that he was finding it hard to write, especially anything funny. “I fear I’ll have to fire myself and get some real help,” he said. “My struggle…is the craziness of this world. I’ve forgotten how many weeks in a row a mass shooting has invaded in our news feed...” He very empathetically goes on to lament the latest.

Such mourning is important to victims and their families, and discussion is crucial to improving the situation – but violence is far from new. We do not live in the worst of times; indeed, we live in the best of times. The “craziness” of our era, in fact, could be appropriately put in perspective by the words of the old country song, “I’ve always been crazy, but it’s kept me from going insane.”

In my constant quest to put things in context, let me remind you of some real craziness in our country. I had intended to write about this back around the 4th of July, but didn’t do it, so here goes. You may or may not remember that Northern troops fought off the Civil War’s only serious invasion by Southerners at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During the three days between July 1 and July 4 of 1863, the two sides of Americans suffered some 51,000 casualties, with nearly 28,000 among the Confederates and 23,000 among the Unionists. Three days. Over 50,000 wounded and dead.

And that wasn’t the war’s worst killing field on a per-day basis. The worst was at Antietam, Maryland, on September 7, 1862, when in just a few hours, the casualties on both sides totaled some 24,000. A single day, and 24,000 people, most of them young men, had their lives cut short. I see that my Microsoft Word spell checker doesn’t even recognize Antietam. We should be so ashamed to so casually dismiss the casualties of our past. And their mothers and their widows and their children and even their sweethearts, who had to live on with the pain, and at a time when women had very few ways to support themselves and their families. Moreover, that 24,000 was in a much smaller population than we had with the 3,000 casualties of 9-11. It doesn’t diminish the modern deaths to concede that days were darker in 1862. We will – and should – commemorate September 11th every year, but why not also talk about September 7th?

While Gettysburg was afire during the July 4th days – when we should have been celebrating the unity declared in 1776, just 87 years earlier – more mass death visited Mississippi. That had been going on for a while, as Union forces failed to capture Vicksburg during 1862, when they did conquer the important Mississippi River ports at Memphis and New Orleans. Vicksburg is between those, and for the river to run free again, the city had to fall. It was protected by high cliffs and caves, however, and because Confederates could rain down cannon fire on Union gunboats, the fighting went on for months.

Finally, in May of 1863, Union General U.S. Grant sent troops that surrounded Vicksburg from inland, and a seven-week siege began, during which Americans starved other Americans -- including children. I’ve read chronicles of Vicksburg women who were delighted to find a rat to cook for their families. They made “flour” from tree bark and “coffee” from grass. One memorable account told of women who fought each other to get access to the rotting corpse of a horse. The city fathers finally surrendered on July 4th. And yet that isn’t the worst.

Meanwhile in New York

Just a few days after Gettysburg, some 10,000 Union soldiers were called away to help New York’s policemen put down what was the worst riot in American history. As many as 70,000 people – men and women – took to the streets to protest the war and especially the draft, which allowed rich men to buy their way out while poor men had to go and risk their lives. Most of the rioters were Irish Catholics, and many were recent immigrants: the great Irish migration to America was in the 1840s, and the Civil War was in the 1860s. The Irish did not control New York’s police force, which they would later on, and the mob quickly overpowered policemen and took control of the city.

Blaming blacks for the war, rioters burned the Colored Orphan Asylum – an institution so big that it had a staff of fifty. Some 200 children were evacuated before the torching, but one little girl, who was hiding under a bed, was beaten to death by the mob. I am sorry to say that women, as well as men, were wrongdoers, as several women were seen desecrating the bodies of black men who had been lynched on lampposts. The riot continued for five days, and late one night, “every whorehouse” in the city was attacked. Horace Greeley, a liberal newspaper editor who crusaded against slavery, was a particular target; his friends went to great lengths to hide him.

The soldiers from Gettysburg helped restore law and order, but the violence did not truly end until the city’s Catholic archbishop finally, belatedly denounced the mob’s activities. More than a thousand New Yorkers died, most of them white rioters and policemen. Five days and a thousand deaths – not wounded, but dead – makes a rate of 2,000 killed per day. It was a war within a war, Americans versus Americans, and terrorism up close and personal.

Another War within a War

I wasn’t going to write about this, but decided to include it for more emphasis. In the summer of 1862, a year before Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the natives of western Minnesota decided that with the US military gone to their own white man’s war, they would try to reclaim the land they were losing to whites, including many immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. Some of these newcomers were shocked to discover that they would be subject to the Union draft, and even more appalled that they would have to leave their families alone with the threatening nearby Indians. Then called Sioux, the politically correct now refer to this fierce warrior tribe as Dakota or Lakota. They lived on the prairie and hunted buffalo, unlike the other major Minnesota tribe that fished and harvested wild rice, the Chippewa, now sometimes called the Ojibwa.

Gro Svenson, a Norwegian who weaves in and out of my first book, Foreign and Female, was one of the immigrant women whose husband had to go to war soon after their arrival. She eventually died from the birth of her tenth baby, but every day of her early life in America meant terrorism and the real possibility of death. In the first day of the attack, Dakota Sioux killed some 200 white civilians. The uprising continued several weeks into the autumn, and when it ended, 40,000 settlers were homeless. Hundreds of people were brutally killed, while many women were raped, kidnapped, and tortured.

Forced to work, some 30 women were herding cattle near the town of St. Peter when word arrived that the cavalry was coming. Their captors locked them in a house, set it on fire, and let them burn to death. Other women saw their babies thrown against trees until their skulls exploded, and some -- including a family of my German ancestors -- were separated from their children and never saw them again.

A few Dakota and many Ojibwa protected whites, and the testimony of a respected Dakota woman was key to the prosecution of 38 leading warriors who were hanged in Mankato late in 1862. Other women, of course, mourned those men, whose execution stands as the largest in American history. So, Gene, you will be happier if you put the news in perspective. Things aren’t terrific today, but it is far superior to the past. We Americans do get better and better, and it is both important and cool to be optimistic. That’s Hillary’s message, while Donald wants you to be very afraid.

Speaking of Political Correctness

My friend Scott Peeler is a real expert on American Indians, as well as on the Civil War. Probably because women are so often excluded from the teaching of American history, he recently asked me about Mary Ellen Lease, and I was happy to send him a copy of what I had written on her in my American Women’s History: An A-Z. Often called “Mary Yellin,” she was the orator chosen by her fellow Kansans to speak at the 1893 World’s Fair. She was a leader in the Progressive Party of that era and especially known for advising farmers to raise “less corn and more hell.”

Scott, though, was sorry to read that, despite her populism, she also seemed to be a white supremacist. She was, as were many people on both sides of the political spectrum until very recently. History is complicated and people are multi-faceted and simplistic solutions solve nothing. Tackling societal problems takes time and compromise and, most important, factual knowledge and intellectual thoughtfulness. Remember Ross Perot in the 1992 election and his insistence that he could fix everything by just looking under the hood? That didn’t work for him, and it isn’t going to work now. The world is complex and we have to acknowledge that. Instead of loading our kids’ minds up with things they never will use (calculus, for example), we should teach more history and geography and civics – as in civil behavior. But we are getting there. Hang in.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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