May 19, 1780: New England’s Dark Day


May 19, 1780 was a memorable one in the history of New England.  Darkness descended for several hours in New England and parts of New York.  The cause of the darkness has been blamed on everything from volcanoes to dust storms.  The most commonly accepted explanation today is that the darkness was caused by forest fires.  An excellent overview of the Dark Day and its possible causes is presented by John Horrigan here.

Darkness in the middle of the day of course caused quite a bit of alarm, with more than a few people thinking that the Day of Judgment had arrived.  In the Connecticut legislature a motion to adjourn was proposed and passed.  Members of the Council of Safety of the legislature wanted to go to their homes.  Senator Abraham Davenport would have none of it.  “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”  John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized this archetypal stubborn Yankee with this poem:



May 18, 1652: Rhode Island Bans Slavery




More than two centuries before slavery was abolished in the United States, Rhode Island passed the first anti-slavery statute in the English speaking colonies on May 18, 1652:



Whereas, it is a common course practiced amongst English men to buy
negers, to that end they have them for service or slave forever: let it be
ordered, no blacke mankind or white being forced by covenant bond, or
otherwise, to serve any man or his assighnes longer than ten years or until
they come to bee twentie four yearsof age, if they be taken in under
fourteen, from the time of their cominge with the liberties of this
The Act limited the time to ten years for whites and blacks being held as indentured servants.  Unfortunately, the Act quickly became a dead letter, and by the middle of the Eighteenth Century slaves constituted eleven percent of the population of Rhode Island.  The permanent abolition of slavery did not begin until the Rhode Island legislature passed a plan for gradual emancipation in February 1784.  All slaves born after March 1, 1784 were to be freed, girls at age 18 and boys at age 21.  By 1800 there were 384 slaves remaining in Rhode Island.  In 1840 these numbers were down to 5 quite elderly slaves, twelve years prior to the 200th anniversary of the first attempt to abolish slavery in Rhode Island.


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Norwegian Constitution Day


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May 16, 1866: Birth of the Nickel

During the turmoil of the Civil War, silver and gold coins tended to disappear from circulation as people hoarded the precious metals.  Congress responded by ordering the mint to make low denomination coins out of non-precious metals.  Industrialist Joseph Wharton suggested the use of nickel, a metal in which he, purely by coincidence I am sure, had a near monopoly on in the U.S.  On May 16, 1866 Congress, without debate, authorized the minting of half dimes made up of 75% copper and 25% nickel. (more…)

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The First




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Yesterday Once More


Something for the weekend.  Karen Carpenter, the Queen of Mellow, sings Yesterday Once More (1973).  Amazing what she accomplished artistically in a brief life of 32 years.  She would only be 72 this year if she were still alive.

May 13, 1862: Robert Smalls Seizes CSS Planter


Born in 1839 as a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls freed himself and his family in a dramatic fashion on May 13, 1862.  Sent to Charleston when he was 12 by his master Henry McKee, who may also have been his father, Robert made his way holding a series of jobs.  He early developed a love for the sea, and began working on the docks as a stevedore.  He was eager to learn and worked himself up to being a pilot aboard ships.  In 1856 he married his wife Hannah, a hotel maid.  In 1858 their daughter was born, and in 1861 their family welcomed a son.

With the coming of the War, Robert served as a pilot aboard the CSS Planter, an armed transport.  On the evening of May 12, 1862, the white officers decided to sleep onshore.  Robert and his fellow slave members of the crews decided this was their opportunity to steam to freedom.  At 3:00 AM, they cast off, stopping at a nearby wharf to pick up their families.

Under the command of Smalls the CSS Planter sailed past the five Confederate forts guarding the harbor and passed out of the harbor to the Union blockading fleet.  Smalls and his colleagues found themselves national heroes throughout the North.  Smalls’ share of the CSS Planter as a prize of war was $1,500.00, a huge sum when one considers that Union privates were paid $15.00 a month.  Smalls met with Lincoln who was impressed by his intelligence and resourcefulness.  Smalls went on to have an interesting career during the War both on land and sea, and a spectacular political career after the War.  One post can’t do justice to the man, and I will have two future posts dealing with his additional service during the War and his post war political career in South Carolina.  Here is the report of Flag Officer S.F.  Du Pont on the capture of the CSS Planter: (more…)

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Hamilton, Morris and a Wager

George Washington, although he could relax with friends, always had a very dignified, almost rigid, public persona.  This is understandable since almost his entire adult life he was looked to for leadership by increasingly larger groups:  Virginia, the Continental Army and then the entire nation.  He wanted to make sure that no casual remark he made would cause complications for him as a leader.  Alexander Hamilton, who had a puckish sense of humor, knew this aspect of Washington well, having served as Washington’s secretary during the war.  Gouverneur Morris did not. (more…)

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Mr. Lincoln’s Patent

Abraham Lincoln throughout his life was always fascinated by mechanical devices, a trait which would serve him well during the Civil War, when he would champion new devices over the resistance of a hidebound War Department.  He is the only President to be granted a patent.  The patent was for a device to lift vessels over shoals in a river, something he had experience in during a flatboat trip to New Orleans as  a young man.

The application for his patent reads as follows:

March 10, 1849

To the Commissioner of Patents.

The Petition of Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield in the county of Sangamon & State of Illinois

Respectfully represents.

That your petitioner has invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant chambers with steam boats or other vessels which has not, as he verily believes been heretofore used or known, and that he is desirous that Letters Patent of the United States may be granted to him therefor, securing to him and to his legal representatives, the exclusive right of making and using, and of vending to others the privilege to make or use, the same, agreeably to the provisions of the Acts of Congress in that case made and provided, he having paid thirty dollars into the Treasury of the United States, and complied with other provisions of the said Acts.

And he hereby authorises and empowers his Agent and Attorney, Z. C. ROBBINS, to alter or modify the within specification and claim as he may deem expedient, and to receive his patent; and also to receive back any moneys which he may be entitled to withdraw, and to receipt for the same. A. LINCOLN.

County of Washington District of Columbia SS.

On this 10th. day of March 1849 before the subscriber, a Jus Peace in and for the said county personally appeared the within named Abraham Lincoln and made solemn oath according to law, that he believes himself to be the original and first inventor of the within described improved manner of combining buoyant chambers with steam boats or other vessels and that he does not know or believe that the same has been before used or known; and that he is a citizen of the United States. I L. SMITH, JP

To all whom it may concern:

Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the county of Sangamon, in the state of Illinois, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steam boat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes; and I do hereby declare the following to be a full, clear, and exact description thereof, reference being had to the accompanying drawings making a part of this specification. Similar letters indicate like parts in all the figures.

The buoyant chambers A. A. which I employ, are constructed in such a manner that they can be expanded so as to hold a large volume of air when required for use, and can be contracted, into a very small space and safely secured as soon as their services can be dispensed with.

Fig. 1. is a side elevation of a vessel with the buoyant chambers combined therewith, expanded;

Fig. 2. is a transverse section of the same with the buoyant chambers contracted.

Fig. 3. is a longitudnal vertical section through the centre of one of the buoyant chambers, and the box B. for receiving it when contracted, which is secured to the lower guard of the vessel.

The top g, and bottom h, of each buoyant chamber, is composed of plank or metal, of suitable strength and stiffness, and the flexible sides and ends of the chambers, are composed of india-rubber cloth, or other suitable water proof fabric, securely united to the edges and ends of the top and bottom of the chambers.

The sides of the chambers may be stayed and supported centrally by a frame k,—as shown in Fig. 3,—or as many stays may becombined with them as may be necessary to give them the requisite fullness and strength when expanded. (more…)

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May 10, 1917: Pershing Appointed to Lead the AEF


After the death of Frederick Funston on February 19, 1917, it was inevitable that the newly promoted Major General John J. (Blackjack) Pershing would command the American Expeditionary Force that would be sent to France.  It must have seemed somewhat dizzying to him.  Nineteen years before he had been an overage thirty-eight year old First Lieutenant who would be lucky to make Major before retirement.  In 1893 he obtained a law degree in case he decided to leave the Army, fed up by the slow promotions offered by the minuscule peace time Army.


The Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt made him.  At the battle of San Juan Hill he made a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt.  Under fire he was as “cool as a bowl of cracked ice”, as one observer noted.  Rising to the temporary rank of Major of Volunteers he gained a reputation as a good combat officer in both Cuba and the Philippines and would serve as Adjutant General of the Philippines Department.

After the Spanish-American War he reverted to the regular army rank of Captain.  In 1905 Captain Pershing was promoted to Brigadier General Pershing by President Roosevelt over the heads of 835 officers more senior than him.  Surprisingly there was not much animosity over this, Pershing enjoying a reputation of extreme professional competence in the Army, a soldier’s soldier. (more…)

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