The man who fought Indians, Mexicans, Yankees and himself

bragg

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of one of the Confederacy’s greatest foes: General Braxton Bragg. Unfortunate for the Southern cause was the fact that Bragg wore Confederate gray.

Bragg, born March 22, 1817, in North Carolina, was a key Southern commander in the Western Theater and later an important military advisor to the Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Although West Point-educated and active in the Seminole and Mexican-American wars, Bragg proved indecisive, ineffective and querulous as a Confederate general, earning the disdain of subordinates and superiors alike.

Bragg feuded with most everyone he came into contact with except Davis, and even Bragg and Davis were said to have squabbled mightily in the years before the war.

In fact, as Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant recalled in his memoirs, during Bragg’s time fighting Indians on the frontier in the 1850s the latter even managed to get into a major league rhubarb with … himself.

Grant related an experience that occurred when Bragg had been both company commander as well as company quartermaster, the officer in charge of approving the disbursement of provisions, according to Civil War Trust.

As company commander he made a request upon the company quartermaster – himself – for something he wanted. As quartermaster he denied the request and gave an official reason for doing so in writing. As company commander he argued back that he was justly entitled to what he requested. As quartermaster he stubbornly continued to persist in denying himself what he needed. Bragg requested the intervention of the post commander (perhaps to diffuse the impasse before it came to blows). His commander was incredulous and he declared, ‘My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself.’

Bragg’s obsession with military propriety would seem to have bordered on the maniacal. During the Mexican-American War, for example, while Bragg and his men were enduring a murderous artillery barrage at Monterrey, Bragg saw an American horse driver fall dead from his saddle.

Bragg ordered his retreating men to halt, and in the middle of the onslaught ordered one of the other horsemen to dismount, turn around and recover the dead man’s sword because it was public property, issued by the government.

The horseman also took from the corpse a pocket knife, fearing that if he didn’t Bragg would send him back for it.

It would seem likely that Bragg suffered from one or more mental disorders that 150 years ago were simply chalked up to being cantankerous and thin-skinned. Whatever the true diagnosis, he was a poor choice to lead men into battle.

Napoleon’s famed steed Vizir to be restored at Paris museum

vizir

Some 190 years ago, Vizir, among the most beloved of the scores of horses Napoleon rode into combat, died, having outlived his master and likely all 130 of the other horses the French emperor used during his 14-year reign.

Today, the remains of Vizir, who accompanied the famed warrior at the Battle of Jena in October 1806, in many other battles in the Prussian and Polish campaigns, into exile on the island of Elba in 1814 and then back to France again during The Hundred Days, stands in a glass cabinet in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, not far from the final repose of Napoleon himself.

Time has left Vizir, a gray-white Arabian stallion, in rough shape, and in May the museum launched a funding effort to enable it to restore the remains of the steed.

More than $23,130 was raised and a pair of taxidermists who are specialists in the restoration of organic material are at work on Vizir’s degraded hide, according to The History Blog.

“They have X-rayed him and are working on a thorough cleaning, rehydrating the hide, filling in several large cracks and restoring the color which has turned a sallow yellowish color over the years, a far cry from the white-gray he was famous for,’’ according to the blog. “The project is expected to take about four weeks. Once the restoration is complete, Vizir will be displayed in a new climate-controlled case which will prevent further degradation.”

The project, which will take about a month, involves repairing tears and cracks, notably a gaping fissure running down one shoulder. The taxidermists will also rehydrate the mounted beast and give it a good dusting, according to Agence-France Presse.

Vizir was born in 1793 in the Ottoman Empire and presented by Sultan Selim III to Napoleon, then-First Consul of France, in 1802, a diplomatic gift marking the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and France after three years of war.

Napoleon’s horses were trained to withstand battle, an important consideration given that as many as 20 were shot from under him during his many years of waging war.

Vizir, branded with an N topped with a crown, was fortunate in that he was not enlisted for duty during Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign or the subsequent ones in Germany and France because as a 20-year-old he was considered too old for battle. He was at Waterloo in 1815, but kept behind the lines.

After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile to St. Helena, Vizir was retired and was taken in by Philippe de Chaulaire, a squire of the imperial stables. The horse died on July 30, 1826, at age 33.

Chaulaire had him taxidermied but fearing the anti-Napoleonic political climate of the Bourbon Restoration sold Vizir to William Clark, an Englishman living in northern France.

Clark felt the same political pressure after Louis-Napoleon’s failed coup in 1836 and three years later passed Vizir along to another Englishman, John Greaves. Greaves smuggled the stuffed horse out of France into England by dumping the framing, unstitching his skin and stashing it in his suitcase.

Safe in England, Vizir was remounted and put on display at Manchester’s Natural History Museum in 1843.

Vizir returned to France in 1868 when the museum, forced to close its doors due to financial problems, gifted him to Louis-Napoleon, now Emperor Napoleon III, during a visit to England.

Not knowing what else to do with a large stuffed horse, Napoleon III stored it in the Louvre where it remained out of sight for 30 years until it was rediscovered in 1904 and transferred to the newly founded Musée de l’Armée in 1905.

Today, Vizir is one of thousands of attractions in the museum, alongside the likes of the 16th century sword of King Francis I and a World War I Renault FT17, one of France’s first tanks.

The equine is showcased just a short distance from his master, who rests under the Dome of Les Invalides.

(Top: Professionals work on restoring the remains of Vizir, one of Napoleon’s best-known battle horses.)

Locusts: Not just for stripping crops anymore

bomb sniffing locusts

Technophobes worry about a world dominated by robots bent on enslaving humans. Others are vexed by the thought of a society corrupted by an over-reliance on technology that leaves humans unable to function on their own. I say: Beware the cyborg insects!

Lest one think that last bit is just another of this blog’s idiotic rants (which, for the uninitiated, it is), consider what’s being attempted at Washington University in St. Louis:

Researchers are trying to take locusts, the same insects that love to strip the fields of already-starving populations, and marry their keen sense of smell with nanotechnology in a bid to create living bomb detectors.

A “heat-generating tattoo on the wings of the insects can allow the team to control where they fly, while a small computer attached to its body will capture their neural signals,” according to Red Orbit. “The computer will then decode the signals as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ message, which will be sent back to the team. There, it will cause a red or green LED to light up, signaling either that a bomb is present or that it is not.”

While relying on an insect over a bomb-sniffing drone or dog might seem fanciful, the bottom line, according to team leader Baranidharan Raman, is that simpler is better.

Dogs have one of the most powerful senses of smell amongst animals, but require years of training – and a great deal of expense; locusts have a strong sense of smell, and can be directed much more simply, according to Red Orbit. Plus, the locust system might perform better than man-made ones.

“It took only a few hundred milliseconds for the locust’s brain to begin tracking a novel odor introduced in its surroundings,” Raman told the BBC. “The locusts are processing chemical cues in an extremely rapid fashion.

“Even the state-of-the-art miniaturized chemical sensing devices have a handful of sensors. On the other hand, if you look at the insect antennae, where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundreds of thousands of sensors and of a variety of types,” he added.

And, let’s face it, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to get attached to “Elijah,” the bomb-sniffing locust, making him considerably more expendable than a police squad’s bomb dog or an expensive robot.

These “cyborg” locusts are currently in their early phase of testing, but Raman believes that the technology could become available within two years.

Raman’s team recently received a grant of $750,000 from the US Office of Naval Research for his project.

That will either move the project considerably along or, if they’re already in the advanced stages, procure a whole mess of locusts.

(A researcher holds a locust that has sensors implanted in its brain to decode neural activity. Photo courtesy of Baranidharan Raman, Washington University, St. Louis.)

The man who recalls, and records, the glory of old-time baseball

1929 athletics

There are few alive today who remember baseball’s first golden era, that of the 1920s and ‘30s, when greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Jim Bottomley, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Lyons, Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, to name but a few, plied their trade on diamonds in a handful of major league cities.

Obviously, the length of time that has elapsed is a major reason – Babe Ruth, for one, retired more than 80 years ago – but there’s also the fact that one would had to have been not only a baseball fan, but located in fewer than a dozen cities to have regularly witnessed the slugging prowess of a Foxx or Ruth or the pitching wizardry of a Grove or Hubbell.

In an era before television, sports highlight shows and big-time commercial endorsements, the only way most Americans ever got to see professional athletes in action was through a trip to the park.

Given that there were only 16 major league teams spread among just 10 cities, ranging from Boston and New York in the east to Chicago and St. Louis in the west, many fans were lucky to see more than a game or two in person, if that.

Given the mastery with which Roger Angell has written about baseball over the decades, it’s hardly surprising that he is among the few still around who saw some of baseball’s first real superstars in person.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell

Born in 1920, he began going to games in New York in the late 1920s, and regularly attended both New York Yankees and New York Giants games. The Yankees featured not only Ruth and Gehrig, but also Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Earle Combs, Red Ruffing, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Lefty Gomez, while the Giants had, in addition to Ott and Hubbell, Bill Terry, Travis Jackson, Bob O’Farrell, Freddie Lindstrom and Freddie Fitzsimmons.

The two teams regularly won or contended for their respective pennants, which meant, in the days before baseball watered its product down with seemingly endless rounds of playoffs, that they would often go on the World Series.

Angell, who today is 95, wrote about his early-baseball memories in his 2006 work Let Me Finish:

My father began taking me and my four-years-older sister to games at some point in the latter twenties, but no first-ever view of Babe Ruth or of the grass barn of the Polo Grounds remains in mind. We must have attended with some regularity, because I’m sure I saw the Babe and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs on more than one occasion. Mel Ott’s stumpy, cow-tail swing is still before me, and so are Gehrig’s thick calves and Ruth’s debutante ankles. Baseball caps were different back then: smaller and flatter than today’s constructions – more like the workmen’s caps that one saw on every street. Some of the visiting players – the Cardinals, for instance – wore their caps cheerfully askew or tipped back on their heads, but never the Yankees. Gloves were much smaller, too, and outfielders left theirs on the grass, in the shallow parts of the field, when their side came in to bat; I wondered why a batted ball wouldn’t strike them on the fly or on the bounce someday, but it never happened.

Angell has written a number of highly regarded baseball books over the years, including Late Innings, Game Time, Season Ticket and The Summer Game, but for all the magnificence of those, it’s tough to beat the above for capturing the beauty of baseball’s early years.

“… Ott’s stumpy cow-tailed swing …” “ … Ruth’s debutante ankles …”  And anyone who recalls the history of the game and the 1930s Gashouse Gang has little trouble imagining the rollicking Cardinals of Hornsby, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Joe Medwick and Leo Durocher wearing their caps askew or pushed back, or of the Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, et al declining to do so.

His ability to recall old-time players with names seemingly gleaned from the best of Dickens is a treat in and of itself: Eppa Rixey, Goose Goslin, Firpo Marberry, Jack Rothrock, Eldon Auker, Luke Appling, Mule Haas, Adolfo Luque, Paul Derringer, Heinie Manush , Van Lingo Mungo – all of whom played six, seven or eight decades ago.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America recognized Angell in 2014 when they honored him with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest award given by the entity.

Angell became the first, and so far only, non-BBWAA member to be so honored since the award’s inception in 1962.

Angell has written on a variety of topics besides baseball with equal aplomb, but there’s something about his ability to cull out the quaint and curious, his understanding of the game and his imminently gifted writing style that makes his baseball prose sparkle.

(Top: Team photo of world champion 1929 Philadelphia Athletics.)

Easily offended Ivy Leaguers look to dumb down curriculum

books

One does so tire of college elites bleating about being “oppressed” by administrators’ failure to be “inclusive” when crafting courses.

Among recent squawking is that from special snowflakes at Yale, who have launched a petition calling on the Ivy League school’s English department to abolish a core course requirement to study canonical writers, including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, stating “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors,” according to The Guardian.

It would appear that Yale English students, despite being an undoubtedly bright bunch, aren’t capable of picking up the works of, say, Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Edith Wharton or Richard Wright on their own.

Yale requires English majors to spend two semesters studying a selection of authors it labels “major English poets”: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne in the fall; John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and TS Eliot “or another modern poet” in the spring. (Presumably the other modern poet could be a non-white, non-male writer, but that wouldn’t fit the agenda of the easily aggrieved.)

Its intention, the university says, “is to provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition.” The poems the students read, it adds, “take up questions and problems that resonate throughout the whole of English literature: the status of vernacular language, the moral promise and perils of fiction, the relationships between men and women, the nature of heroism, the riches of tradition and the yearning to make something new.”

To combat this pernicious patriarchal authoritarianism Yale students have launched a petition calling on the institution to “decolonize” the course.

“They want the university to abolish the major English poets requirement, and to refocus the course’s pre-1800/1900 requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity,” according to The Guardian.

The petition says that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,” and that the course “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

Actually, Yale has a wide variety of English courses that focus specifically on women and people of color, along with some that touch on queer issues.

These include English 10: Jane Austen; English 239: Women Writers from the Restoration to Romanticism; English 291: The American Novel Since 1945, which includes works by Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and Alison Bechdel; English 292: Imagining Sexual Politics, 1960s to the Present, which involves a historical survey of “fiction, poetry drama and creative nonfiction that have shaped and responded to feminist, queer and transgender thought since the start of second-wave feminism”; English 293: Race and Gender in America; English 306: American Artists and the African American Book; English 313: Poetry and Political Sensibility; English 326: The Spectacle of Disability, which examines how people with disabilities are treated in US literature and culture; English 334: Postcolonial World Literature, 1945-present; English 352: Asian American Literature; English 445: Ralph Ellison in Context; English 446: Virginia Woolf; and English 945: Black Literature and US Liberalism.

But, of course, students would have to enroll in additional courses beyond the basic two currently required to partake in the above. It would appear the “persecuted” are trying to change the school’s approach to teaching English rather than simply signing up for an additional class or two.

One student went so far as to write in the Yale Daily News that the school’s English department “actively contributes to the erasure of history” by having two of its foundational courses in English focus on “canonical works that actively oppress and marginalize non-white, non-male, trans and queer people.”

I’ve read some of the above major English poets and fail to see how their works create “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.” But, being a middle class white male, I suppose I couldn’t possibly understand what’s offensive to a group of late teens and young twenty-somethings at one of the most select, politically correct universities in the world.

What’s more likely going on is that a collection of vocal Yale undergraduates have tired of being forced to read Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, et al. To be fair, these writers can be difficult to slog through, what with their penchant for archaic language and use of such tricky literary devices as allegories and soliloquies.

But instead of buckling down and becoming better readers and writers by understanding what the great English poets of the past had to say when they put pen to paper, they’d rather accuse the school of “harming students.”

I’ll say this for Yale English students: They may not be too resilient when it comes to holding up under the yoke of great literature, but they’ve got a bright future in the area of creative thinking.

California, there I go; enough of your dog-and-pony show

california traffic

Here’s a head-scratcher: California, beset by ridiculously high real estate prices, onerous taxation, draconian regulation and, in the metro areas, extreme congestion, is losing tens of thousands of residents to other states.

During the 12 months ending June 30, 2015, 61,000 more people left California than moved to the state from elsewhere in the US, according to information generated by California officials.

The so-called “net outward migration” was the largest since 2011, when 63,300 more people fled California than entered it. Over the past quarter century, the state has experienced negative outward migration in 22 of the past 25 years, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

It’s been 20 years since I bid adieu to the Golden State, where I was born and where my parents still reside. I’d lived in many different parts of the US and had seen a great deal of the country, so leaving for the last time in 1996 wasn’t difficult.

At that time, it was all but impossible to find a decent home for under $350,000, even two hours or more from the state’s large metro areas.

The final straw came when, tired of commuting 2-1/2 hours each way to San Francisco from near where my folks lived along the Monterey Bay, I looked for a home closer to the Bay Area. The best deal available was one half of a small, rundown duplex in the concrete jungle of a San Jose suburb that looked to have had its fair share of gang problems. The price was $267,500.

A couple of months later I changed jobs and moved to the Florida Panhandle, where housing costs were one-quarter of California’s.

When you add in the bureaucracy the state appears to revel in, the restrictions on everyday life – don’t dare ask for a plastic bag when checking out at a supermarket, for example – the rampant hyper-environmentalism, the steady drumbeat of property crime such as cars being broken into, burglaries and vandalism, and the swarms of people who seemingly inhabit every square inch of the state from the coast 25 miles inland from Marin County north of San Francisco all the way down to the border with Mexico, it’s no wonder that many are choosing to leave.

Yes, the job market in the tech sector is currently booming, but when it costs so much to buy or rent a place to live, and taxes eat up so much of what remains, it’s tough to get ahead. I could never understand how one could have peace of mind with a $3,000 mortgage payment looming each month. That’s a sword of Damocles I didn’t need hanging over my head.

The impact of California’s outward flow is felt throughout the west, as well.

Twenty years ago, people not only in neighboring states of Arizona, Nevada and Oregon complained that California “refugees” were driving up real estate prices, but also in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Idaho.

During a housing boom, a California resident can make a profit of $100,000 or more on their home in a relatively short time. The windfall can be applied to a princely palace in other areas. But that means real estate prices rise for everyone in those other areas.

Of course, during the housing bust that occurred last decade tens of thousands of Californians walked away from their homes, abandoning abodes rather than making payments on properties that had suddenly declined in value precipitously.

For now, California officials don’t seem all that concerned.

The state has never been shy about taxing its residents to make up for revenue shortfalls, and while there is a sizeable percentage of individuals who classify themselves as political conservatives, they are outnumbered by political liberals who, while perhaps well intentioned, have run the state aground through decades of social, fiscal and political experimentation based on theory but with little foundation in practicality.

But, as with any polity, the absence of legitimate two-party or multiple-party systems has enabled those who run California to treat it as their own private political Petri dish, passing laws, ordinances and regulations to fit their needs, rather than what works best for those they’re supposed to be serving. It’s no different from, say, a Southern state completely dominated by conservatives. Once the checks and balances are removed, it’s the citizens who pay the price.

California’s future is impossible to predict, of course. But until those that run the state decide to do something dramatically different, it’s almost a certainty that the ongoing mini-exodus will continue.

Behold all creatures, even the gross and foul

buzzards

Spend enough time outdoors and you can’t help but catch glimpses of an array of picturesque birds, almost no matter where you live.

In my neck of the woods, bright cardinals, vibrant bluebirds, squawking blue jays, tittering mockingbirds, dancing thrashers and soaring hawks are regular visitors, along with a variety of smaller birds such as wrens, sparrows and warblers.

Canada geese, mallards and wood ducks are evident in waterways, as are heron, egrets and white ibises.

Cliff swallows can be found nesting on the underside of bridges, and swarm the skies at dusk, eating insects in sizeable quantities; while a variety of woodpeckers make themselves heard – and occasionally seen – including red-headed woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.

There are also species seen only rarely, such as buntings, kingfishers, eagles, tanagers, orioles and crossbills.

Along the coast there is a vast assortment of sea birds which, given my infrequent trips to the beach, I choose to classify as gulls, terns or sandpipers. In my book, the latter two are interchangeable, encompassing everything that isn’t a gull.

One can hope that the Bird Watchers Society of the South Carolina Midlands doesn’t take offense at my ignorance and show up at my house with pitchforks and torches; they’re sensitive sorts when it comes to avifauna, I’ve been told.

This weekend I was able to see firsthand the significant diversity evident in the local avian population. Just as last year, I’ve managed to grow a nice large sunflower in my front yard. This one came up all on its own, from seeds that came off last year’s plant. Saturday I spotted a bright yellow goldfinch perched atop it, pecking at the seeds. Within a few moments a second goldfinch joined it, and the two dined away, plucking at seeds and scattering chaff.

The Eastern goldfinch is well suited for such a diet, possessing a conical beak that helps it remove seeds, along with agile feet to grip the stems of plants while feeding.

The vibrant yellow coloring of the goldfinches were brighter than that of the face of the sunflower, which had begun to darken as its seeds ripened.

A face even a mother would be hard pressed to love.

A face even a mother would be hard pressed to love.

Contrast that with the view of a day later, when, while driving through a more rural part of the state, my daughters and I came upon a roost of approximately 100 turkey buzzards perched in a dead oak tree. The tree was  situated in a low-lying swamp, approximately 15 feet below that of the rural highway, so many of the birds were eye level with us.

If you haven’t seen a turkey buzzard, you haven’t seen ugly. A large bird with a wingspan of up to six feet, the turkey buzzard has feathers that are brownish-black. Its head seems too small for its body and is often red like the comb of a rooster, with no feathers.

It has a short, hooked beak and its feet are pale. Adding to the bird’s strange appearance are its eyes, which feature “a single incomplete row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on the lower lid,” according to Wikipedia.

The turkey buzzard is pure scavenger and loves carrion. It finds its food using its eyes and sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gases produced by the beginnings decaying process in dead animals. Many a time I’ve come across a “wake” of buzzards hopping and flapping around a deer carcass, fighting each other for the right to rip off a strip of dead flesh.

Because turkey buzzards lack a syrinx – the vocal organ of birds – its sounds are limited to grunts or low hisses.

Other facts that always win folks over to turkey buzzards: They feed their young through regurgitation; to cool down they spread their wings and urinate on their legs; and, best of all, the turkey buzzard’s method of self-defense is to vomit its food. Yes, when one is disturbed or harassed, it will throw up on the creature bothering it and can send said upchuck sailing as far as 10 feet.

That recalls a memorable scene in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony when youthful protagonist Jody finds his young pony dead just as a buzzard has sunk its beak into one of the deceased creature’s eyes. Jody, enraged, attacks the buzzard, which responds by vomiting on him. (Steinbeck wasn’t exactly noted for treacly prose.)

For us, stopped on quiet backroad, though, the view was quite remarkable. It was almost medieval to see scores of buzzards hunched on the bare branches of an old oak as twilight approached. Some took flight, and the “swoop, swoop, swoop” of their wings made an indelible impression.

Most of the birds didn’t travel far, just to another tree a bit further away, where they perched, silhouetted against a slowly darkening sky.

One supposes every creature has its role in the ecosystem, but given my druthers I’d rather pull seeds from a healthy sunflower or snatch mosquitos out of midair than fight half a dozen other vomit-happy birds in order to tear apart roadkill on a back country highway.