Archive for December, 2011

There Will Be No Blood

December 25, 2011 2 comments

Faithful readers know that it doesn’t take much to set the History Nerd into a tizzy. Just a few words can do it, as this post on the Civil War shows. This week, it was the simple phrase “bloodless conquest.” A circular from the History Book Club (the HN has been a faithful member for decades) used that phrase while promoting a new book on Stephen Kearny’s trek into California during the Mexican War. Along the way to what would become the Golden State, Kearny traveled through New Mexico, taking control of the territory for the United States. That’s where the offending phrase came in.

The sanctuary that wasn't.

The ordeal here in the Land of Enchantment, HBC’s blurb claimed, was a “bloodless conquest.” Hmm, I thought, what about the remains of that church at Taos Pueblo I’ve written about before? Didn’t the cannon fire that reduced it to rubble spill some blood too?

I suppose the copy meant bloodless in the sense of no large-scale clash of armies, and that was certainly true. When the Mexican War began, the governor of New Mexico was Manuel Armijo, a local wealthy landowner. He asked Mexico for more troops and began to muster a volunteer force. About 1,700 U.S. soldiers under Kearny were soon on their way from Kansas to New Mexico, and they knew who the enemy’s leader was. As they marched the Americans sang a little tune with words penned by one of their own: “Oh, what a joy to fight the dons, and wallop fat Armijo! So clear the way to Santa Fe! With that we all agree, O!”

Kearny’s men reached New Mexico in August. Armijo never received the promised reinforcements (unlike in 1841, when the Mexican government sent aid to thwart a planned attack by Texans intent on seizing New Mexico for themselves—perhaps one reason among many why Texans are still somewhat scorned here today?), and he knew his local volunteers were no match for the Americans. Also influencing him were several Americans who acted as emissaries for the U.S. government. The story goes, among Anglo sources at least, that Armijo was persuaded to abandon any thought of resistance, with some greenbacks making the decision a little easier for the guv to make. The state historian here disputes that Armijo took a bribe. In any event, the governor left Santa Fe for Chihuahua and Kearny took control unopposed. It was, as New Mexican historian Marc Simmons notes, the first time U.S. troops had conquered a foreign capital. Manifest Destiny, indeed!

Some New Mexicans welcomed the commander and his troops. After all, they were American immigrants who had settled there years before. But the Spanish and Indian populations were not as thrilled. Wealthy landowners in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, fearing the inevitable Anglo land grab, began organizing a rebellion by the end of 1846. Details of the plan leaked out and the leaders were arrested. But to the north in Taos, new leaders emerged, determined to fight for their land (proving once again that one man’s freedom fighters are another’s insurgents—or, in the language of the day, “insurrectionists”).

Fort Burgwin, named for one of the American soldiers killed in Taos.

The Taos Rebellion started with the killing of the American governor, Charles Bent, in January 1847. Also killed in the first blows of the rebellion were several dozen other Americans there and in other northern towns. The Niles Register, a prominent newspaper of the day, relayed news of the deaths, noting also that “their families [were] despoiled.”

U.S. forces moved north from Santa Fe to squash the revolt, and they found the New Mexicans in the church at the Taos pueblo. Not recognizing the hiding place as a sanctuary, the Americans opened fire. Cannon shot and flame destroyed most of the church; the ruins of it are still standing next to the pueblo’s cemetery. The better-armed Americans then killed about 150 Indians and New Mexicans. Fighting also took place in Mora. The residents there fled before the invaders destroyed all the buildings and set fire to crops. Soon after, most of the rebel leaders were captured and tried for treason, an oddity given, in the words of our state historian, “the illogic and in fact illegality of convicting citizens of another nation of ‘treason.’” But invading armies are not always known for their logic or legality, eh? In any event, the convicted were executed.

And the amazing thing about these several weeks of conflict and killing? It was all bloodless.

The HBC wording that incited this rant just goes to show that you can’t always believe marketing copy (as if anyone needed the History Nerd to affirm that…).  And it seems like another example, intentional or not, of how some people tend to whitewash certain aspects of our history. But here in New Mexico, some folks don’t forget.

And So It Still Goes

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

As night enveloped the city of Dresden, Germany, the buzz of approaching aircraft filled the streets. From 17,000 feet up, the planes, hundreds of them, began to release their loads:  tons of incendiary, high-explosive, and conventional bombs. As the weapons pummeled the city, huge firestorms broke out. The intense heat created a vacuum that sucked the air out of the bodies of some residents. Others were charred to a crisp, never even having time to move before the fast-moving flames and searing heat engulfed their homes.

The author and subject

And as readers of one of the most influential novels of the 1960s know, Kurt Vonnegut was there.

Vonnegut was an American POW on February 13, 1945, when the infamous Dresden firebombing began. He had been one of 150 prisoners sent to a slaughterhouse in the city that the Nazis had turned into a factory to produce a malt-based, high-protein syrup. Holed up in bunker beneath the slaughterhouse, Vonnegut survived the devastating attack, then was given the job of “body miner”—he combed the rubble looking for dead civilians.

The biographer

Vonnegut’s experiences led to his writing Slaughterhouse-Five, a book 20 years in the making that finally appeared in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. His witnessing of the Dresden horrors, his biographer Charles Shields asserts, also led to something like, if not actual, PTSD. That trauma, combined with Vonnegut’s mother’s suicide when he was about to leave home to serve overseas (on Mother’s Day, no less); his father’s seeming indifference; and Vonnegut’s own sense that he was both unable to meet expectations and didn’t fully receive the praise he deserved, fed a depression that haunted the author throughout his life.

Shields was in Santa Fe to promote his authorized biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, the first-ever of the writer who touched so many young Americans during the Vietnam era, and who continues to do so today. One of those 1960s teens who came under Vonnegut’s spell was Shields, and he described the “rocky friendship” that began after he finally convinced the aging, chain-smoking author to cooperate on a bio.

The biographer recounted getting phone calls from Vonnegut late at night, from a man whose second wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, cut off his access to some of his old friends. To Shields, the calls were more the grasping for human contact from a lonely, 80-something man than the attempts by a biographical subject to shape how his story would be told. Shields described how early on in their relationship, Vonnegut went off on family wounds suffered decades before. The biographer-as-therapist, I wrote in my notes, and Shields then seemed to affirm this by offering his diagnosis, describing his subject/patient as a “still-aggrieved adolescent.”

From what Shields said and what I’ve read about the book (I have not read the bio itself), he did not pull punches. Vonnegut’s affairs, his drinking, his less-than-sensitive parenting: they are all there.  Yet it’s apparent that Shields has a deep respect for the lonely, one-time suicidal, much beloved-and-also dismissed author. And he appreciates all that Vonnegut endured. The man, Shields said simply, withstood “so much pain.”

Dresden, of course, was the source of a great deal of that pain. But Vonnegut’s ordeal also gave him the book that launched his career as a best-selling author. Slaughterhouse-Five will always resonate, because Americans will always, seemingly, get involved in wars that lead to atrocities. Though, interestingly, it was our frequent partners in crime, the British, who called for the Dresden bombing.

There was a strategic element to it: The Soviets were beginning their march toward Berlin and they wanted the Allies to bomb German communication and transport centers. Dresden, among several other cities, fit that bill. Winston Churchill was particularly eager to help the Soviets and weaken German morale with major attacks on urban centers. British planes began the bombing on Dresden that created a fiery glow visible hundreds of miles away. The next day, when American bombers arrived to finish the job, they had trouble seeing targets because of all the smoke and flames.

The bombing

Historians don’t doubt that there were military targets in the city, but the leveling of Dresden and the killing of up to 60,000 civilians appalled many people after the fact. Churchill, the following month, tried to distance himself from the attack, and in recent years, some people have called the Dresden bombing (and the similar firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, carried out by U.S. planes) a war crime. The BBC has an interview with a former RAF bomber pilot who took umbrage at the charge. But there’s no question that the “total war” effort of the Allies led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Axis civilians, not even counting the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alter ego in Slaughterhouse-Five—and probably to Vonnegut himself—the historical debates don’t mean much. To him, the bombing was an all-too-real nightmare that came to dominate his life. A horror no one should have experienced then, or should ever experience. Shields calls SH-5 Vonnegut’s best book, and probably few would argue that. The book, and the event it’s based on, shaped the life of a funny, touching, satirical, and sometimes-profound American writer.

No Kidding

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

A Robin Hood of the West.  And a punk cop-killer.

An Irish American who sided with an Englishman in a turf war—against other Irish Americans.

An East Coast urbanite who quickly adapted to the rural ways of the Hispanic Southwest.

Who are these people? No, actually, not plural; we’re talking about a single he. But not just any figure from America’s past. He’s Henry McCarty. And Henry Antrim. Also William H. Bonney.

But you may know him as Billy the Kid.

And if you don’t know much about his story except the outlaw ways, the death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett, and the larger-than-life legacy, you might not know how much New Mexicans have embraced him as part of the state’s Wild West past.

Or at least some of them.

The stuff of legends, despite the somewhat goofy expression.

Billy the Kid (or BTK, as the History Nerd will sometimes refer to him for brevity’s sake), is something of a historical icon here in the Land of Enchantment. Visitors stopping at the I-40 tourist center just over the Texas border are greeted by a life-sized cut-out of the Kid, a blow-up of the only photo of him known to exist. BTK was the subject of sensational newspaper accounts during his lifetime and pulpy dime novels after, and the star of countless books and films since. The 1973 Sam Peckinpaugh version of his life might be the best-known movie, though hardly the most accurate. That title would have to go to Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. (Ha ha, despite what you may have heard, the History Nerd does have a sense of humor.) Now there’s another contender for the definitive story—as definitive as a legend’s life gets: the American Experience documentary Billy the Kid.

Apropos of BTK’s life and death in New Mexico, filmmaker John Maggio turned to several scholars and writers based here to try to get at the heart–and soul–of this orphaned youth-turned-coldblooded killer. Maggio and American Experience executive producer Mark Samels then came to Albuquerque and Santa Fe last week to give a sneak preview of the film and take part in a panel discussion of the work and its mythic subject.

To Samels, one intriguing part of the Kid story is its international scope. Henry McCarty, as he was known at birth, was the son of an Irish immigrant, Catherine McCarty (father unknown). Later in life he was befriended by the Englishman John Tunstall, and he blended easily with the Hispanic population of his adopted home of New Mexico, where he settled with his mother and stepfather. There, he quickly learned Spanish, favored wearing a sombrero, and took at least one Hispanic girlfriend. (He also won the support of the Hispanic community for challenging the Anglos who had stolen their land.) Once the legend spread, BTK became a symbol of the American West for many foreigners. His obituary appeared in a London newspaper, and Lincoln, NM, the site of his last days, is a popular tourist attraction with European visitors.

To Maggio, BTK was an underdog, an actual kid who was dealt bad breaks and made some mistakes. By 15, he was on his own, with his mother dead and his stepfather casting him off. Henry/Billy turned to petty theft, was arrested, and escaped. During his time as a fugitive he tried to go straight—briefly—but soon turned back to a life of crime. He became a murderer when a card game turned violent, though the killing might have been in self defense.

BTK killed again as he took part in the Lincoln County War, a bloody affair that pitted John Tunstall against “the House,” a local outfit that controlled the county’s politics and economics. Dozens–hundreds?–of  people died during the war, which began with Tunstall’s death in 1878 and lasted, on and off, until 1884. By then, Billy was in the ground, shot down by Pat Garrett after one more escape from the law.

Gardner's book. And he's a musician too!

Billy once joked that despite his reputation, he was not responsible for all the murders that occurred during the war. His actual death toll was in single digits. But as Mark Lee Gardner pointed out, there’s no escaping that some of those victims were officers of the law, merely trying to do their duty. In Santa Fe, Gardner joined Samels, Maggio, and writer Hampton Sides for a discussion of the film and BTK. Gardner, author of a book on the Kid, was one of the consultants for the film. He called Billy smart and passionate. He had a way of ingratiating himself with people that put them at ease. Though territorial governor Lew Wallace was not impressed when the Kid wrote to him from jail, seeking a face-to-face meeting. BTK told the governor in 1879, “I have no wish to fight again.” Wallace—a former Union general and author of Ben-Hur—made a deal with the Kid, promising him his freedom if the outlaw informed on other participants in the Lincoln County War. Billy kept up his end of the deal, but Wallace didn’t. Despite Billy’s obvious local popularity, the governor put a $500 bounty on the Kid’s head.

If Wallace was a contemporary unswayed by the growing BTK legend, Hampton Sides considers himself a modern-day Kid “contrarian.” Sides stirred up local controversy in 2010 when he came out against the idea of departing New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s granting him a pardon (Richardson eventually demurred). Sides ran up against the many New Mexicans—and other Americans—who see BTK as a lovable antihero, or at least a symbol of part of America’s Western heritage. And of course, Sides also inflamed the folks in these parts who make money off the tourists who embrace the symbol.

Me and the Kid...

The American Experience film premieres on January 10. I’ll watch to see how the rest of this revisionist look at the Kid plays out. I think Maggio worked extremely hard to be as accurate as he could be, given the limitations he faced—only a few letters and the one, just one, photo of the Kid. But legends do have a way of transcending historical sources, and a cowboy cash cow like Henry McCarty will surely spark more books and films. Me, I can’t wait for the sequel to BTK vs. Dracula.