Day By Day

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This Day In History

Oh Boy! Today is "National Popcorn Day" [not to be confused with "National Popcorn Month" which is October]. I knew that popcorn, one of my favorite comfort foods, had been a part of the pre-Columbian American Indian diet, but had no clue as to its modern history. It turns out that popcorn was not a viable commercial product until the late nineteenth century when Charles Cretors, a Chicago inventor, produced an effective popping machine and displayed it at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was not until the Great Depression, though, that popcorn caught on with the American public when it began to be marketed at a nickel a bag at movie theaters. Popcorn turned out to be one of the few growth industries during that miserable decade and many American farmers were able to survive by growing it. Then, during World War Two, sugar was rationed and candy production declined dramatically. As a result increasing numbers of Americans turned to popcorn as a comfort food, consumption of the tasty treat tripled, and it emerged as a staple of the American diet.

On this day in 1807 Robert E. Lee was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father was Major General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee and it was quite natural for the son to enter military service. Lee graduated second in his class at West Point [Charles Mason was first] and went on to have perhaps the most illustrious military career of any American officer. He distinguished himself in the Mexican War serving as a reconnaissance officer in the artillery and as Winfield Scott's aide. He led the marines who captures John Brown at Harpers Ferry. He was serving in Texas when the State seceded from the Union, returned immediately to Virginia and took the rank of Colonel in the U. S. Army. His appointment was signed personally by President Lincoln. Lee was courted by both the Union and Confederacy and was even offered a promotion to Major General and command of the entire Union forces, but when Virginia seceded he declined the appointment and instead took command of the Virginia State forces. During the war he won major victories at the Seven Days Battle, the Second Battle of Bull Run, at Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville, and Cold Harbor. Twice he led his army north into Union territory, being repelled at Antietam and Gettysburg. His surrender to U. S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse broke the back of Confederate military resistance. After his surrender Lee strenuously urged Confederates still in the field to lay down their arms, to abandon plans for guerrilla insurgency, and to reconcile themselves to being forever a part of the United States. Later in life he served as President of Washington and Lee University.

After the war Lee emerged as the most prominent symbol of the Confederacy as a glorious "Lost Cause". Apologists for the South promoted him and his famous nobility of character as representative of Southern gentility. But that interpretation has been challenged. Historians have questioned Lee's military effectiveness. Everyone agrees that he was a tactical genius. Some question his strategic vision, arguing that the two occasions on which he went on the offense were disastrous blunders. His role as a slave-holding planter has also been criticized. On at least one occasion he inflicted harsh punishment on insubordinate slaves and he may have resorted to legalistic trickery to keep in bondage slaves who should have been freed. On the other hand toward the end of the war as the South began to experience severe manpower shortages Lee endorsed and actually began to put into effect a plan to arm the slaves to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for their freedom, a program that would have effectively brought an end slavery as a viable institution. And so the debate continues as do the controversies over nearly everything else in history.

On this day in 1980 retired Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas died in Washington at the age of 81, and ten years later to the day retired Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg was found dead in his Washington apartment at age 81. Both deaths took place on the anniversary of President Nixon's nomination in 1970 of G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court, a nomination that was rejected. Coincidence? I report, you decide.

Hey, just connecting the dots here.