Sunday, August 2, 2009

What Would You Have Me Do? Part Two

“No.” Lincoln’s plain spoken denial was more devastating than any oratory. The latter swallowed and whispered, “Pray continue.”

“Mr. Seward is still alive. He received a knife wound to his throat but the doctors believe that he will recover.”

“In time for the Inauguration?”

“The very question that we posed to his attending physician. We are not sure.”

“Dear Lord,” breathed Lee, this time aloud.

“Mr. Hamlin and his wife are dead as is Secretary Trask. The Hamlins were en route to Washington when a mob entered their railroad carriage, dragged the Vice President-elect outside and hung him for allegedly inciting servile insurrection. He was a vigorous opponent of slavery and his enemies took his opposition as incitement. His wife was apparently fatally struck as she attempted to prevent her husband’s murder.”

Lee nodded mutely. The horrors of the Roman and Napoleonic Empires imported to America…! What was it that Lincoln had said a year ago when John Brown attempted to incite a genuine slave revolt? ‘The enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.’ And the killing of a woman!

The present day Lincoln paused and asked quizzically, “General Lee, many of the night’s events have already appeared in the newspapers. I am surprised that you are unaware of them.”

The letter in Lee’s pocket blazed forth in white hot fury. The Virginian stumbled as he spoke. “I have been preoccupied, sir. I came to this house to res….” He caught himself before the fatal syllable escaped his lips. Lamely, he rephrased himself. “I came to this house to restate my love of our nation and abhorrence of secession.” That was truthful enough; merely incomplete.

Both politicians nodded in unison. Lee sensed rather than saw the approval of the two military officers standing patiently to his right. He gently requested, “Pray continue. I believe that you have not yet plumbed the depths of this iniquity.”

Lincoln made a half bow of agreement. “Secretary Trask was killed in a gun battle between the assassins and officers present with him in his home. Those officers captured two and chased the others to their refuge.” The Midwestern paused, staring into the distance. “That refuge is the Embassy of the Empire of France. Soldiers have surrounded the building but have not yet entered. Ambassador Jussarand has refused to hand over the assassins claiming that they are political refugees.”

“Dear God!” exclaimed Lee. Again the room whirled around him and he felt sick. As he struggled to master himself, he remembered Scott in Mexico City. The old warrior, conqueror of armies, liberator and ruler of Mexico, sitting in a throne borrowed from the Bishop’s Palace, the young Napoleon II captive before him. Scott could have humiliated the young man, so obviously out of his depth trying to play his father’s role as warlord – beaten him – thrown him to the Mexicans howling for bloody revenge after centuries of tyranny. Instead, the warrior had become the peacemaker. True, he had dictated the Treaty of Mexico City rather than negotiating it but it was a generous treaty – capable of bringing peace to four continents. If only it had been fully honored…. Perhaps the rumors that the young Napoleon’s assassin.... The first Napoleon had seated himself on the throne of France by violence and so, it seemed, had his grandson.

“What would you have me do?” Lee’s voice was barely audible. The ticking of the clock in the Executive Office seemed like thunder in comparison.

The new President spoke, “General Lee, President Scott asked you to accept the supreme command of the Federal armies. I also ask you to accept.”

Lee’s thoughts whirled. I oppose secession but I can take no part in an invasion of my home. But my home has already been invaded. The invaders were here in this very room, murdering a great man, a great mentor, a great peacemaker. The war has already begun and it has been thrust upon us. He straightened his bent frame, his bowed head.

“Yes sir, I accept. If General Wool consents.… He is my senior in rank.”

Major General John Ellis Wool spoke up. “I agree. President Scott wanted you as General in Chief of the United States Army. With you in command, we can swiftly subdue the seceded states and overawe the doubters. You can save the Union, Robert.” He thrust out his hand and shook Lee’s. A moment later, Rear Admiral Jeremiah Putnam shook Lee’s other hand. When they released their new superior, Seymour and Lincoln added their own approvals.

Numbly, Lee nodded. His head cleared. The heat from the letter in his pocket had abruptly vanished. I will destroy it later – in private. No one will ever know of my momentary weakness.

His gentle voice gathered strength as he spoke, “As General Wool has said, we must strike swiftly. We must disrupt the secessionists’ plans before those plans are realized. It is easy enough to understand what those plans must be. They have formed a pretended government sitting in Montgomery and must soon form an army and a navy to enforce their decrees.”

Lee looked at Seymour, his voice now firm, his grave face now resolute. “The Army and Navy of the United States must move swiftly and together. The Navy must blockade the ports of the seceded states and prevent any foreign intervention, especially French intervention. The Regular Army must march south and secure the principal cities and garrisons of the so-called Confederate States. President Scott manfully refused the secessionists’ demands that our garrisons be withdrawn from the seceded states so th… those people are weak everywhere. We must relieve those garrisons and occupy the capitals that the secessionists hold without delay. Mr. President, you must call up the militias of the loyal states and call for additional volunteers. It is possible that we face a two front war, one front against the secessionists and one front against Napoleon III. And, naturally, you must address Congress as quickly as it can be assembled.”

A giant map of the world opened up in Lee’s mind and he began moving troops and ships across it. “The Army of the Atlantic must occupy the yet loyal states of Virginia and Roanoke and enter the rebel state of Sparta without delay. The Army of the Center must march south into Franklin and then to Montgomery in Tombigbee. Units from our Caribbean states will occupy Florida and Louisiana. We should ask the Mexicans for a corps to occupy Tejas while we are mobilizing the Army of the West. And we should accept the offers of horse and elephant cavalry from Venezuela and Thailand. It will be good for morale to show our loyal citizens that we are not alone in our fight for freedom and to show our allies that we value their contributions.”

Seymour’s face furrowed. “Elephants? Are elephants of any use in modern warfare? And is not North America too cold for elephants?”

Lee smiled. “Elephants make excellent pack animals and engineers. I propose to use the Thais to reinforce our garrisons in India where the climate is suited to them. It is possible that Napoleon III intends to reconquer India and Australia while we are distracted by secession in North America.”

Seymour nodded his approval. “Yes, yes, the government will support your proposed movements with all the power at its disposal.” Lincoln somberly agreed.

Lee was struck by a political question. “Your pardon, Mr. President, but your term of office expires in a few days. Who will be President if Mr. Seward does not recover in time to take the oath of office?”

The President again gestured to Mr. Lincoln.

The Midwesterner intoned quietly but clearly. “In the event that Mr. Seward is unable to become President and since the Vice President-elect is dead, the office would normally devolve on the President Pro Tem of the Senate Mr. Joseph Bartlett. However, he is under suspicion of involvement in the conspiracy. He was taken into custody this morning. He denies any involvement but his elevation was apparently a chief goal of the conspirators. We simply do not know at this time. Assuming his inability, the office would then pass to the Cabinet officers in the order in which their departments were created. The first in line would be Mr. Seward as Secretary of State.”

“Pray continue.” Lee recalled that Lincoln had been a lawyer before joining the government.

“Further assuming Mr. Seward’s inability, the office would next pass to Mr. Abbott, the Secretary of the Treasury. Unfortunately, he is in Central America at the moment. He is negotiating with the United Provinces for rights to construct an interoceanic canal thru their province of Nicaragua.”

“I believe that we must assume his ‘inability’ for the moment,” stated Lee crisply. “We will need an active President here in Washington, especially if we are to fight France and its allies as well as the secessionists.”

“I agree,” intoned Lincoln in his grave voice. “The next person in line would be the Secretary of War. After that would be the Attorney General of the United States.” He paused and bowed his head.

Lee interpreted, “Yourself.”

“Yes,” responded the Midwesterner simply. He paused again but resumed. “If the Presidency should fall to me in the event of Mr. Seward’s inability, you may count on the continued full support of the Government. The Union must be preserved.”

Lee bowed slightly to the current President and then to the potential President. “Gentlemen, God willing, it will be.”

He turned to his new subordinates. “General, Admiral, we have much to accomplish and little time to accomplish it in. Let us leave the President to his political tasks with full confidence that the soldiers and sailors of the United States will not fail in their military tasks.” The three military officers saluted crisply and excused themselves.

As they left the Executive Office, Lincoln was struck by a historical comparison. In 1852 and 1856, the people of the United States had rewarded General Winfield Scott with the Presidency because of his military successes. Would General Lee receive the same reward in 1864?

What Would You Have Me Do? was written by Lee Strong exclusively for this electronic publication. All rights reserved.

What Would You Have me Do? Part One

“Without a command, [Robert E. Lee] returned to Arlington to wait to see what Virginia would do. He was called to Washington and offered command of a new army being formed to force the seceded states back into the Union. Lee, while he opposed secession, also opposed war, and “could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” -- Poor Richard’s Encyclopedia, 1988 edition, s.v. “Lee, Robert E(dward).”

“General Lee to see the President.”

“Yes, sir. This way, please.” The usher gave a dignified bow to Lee and moved out of his way. The grave Virginian officer stepped into the vestibule of the white painted Executive Mansion, hat in hand. The usher closed the great door behind him, shutting out the cold late winter air and the murmuring of the crowd gathering outside the cordon of soldiers.

Before Lee could enter deeper into the Mansion, he was stopped by a handful of armed soldiers, clad like him in the dark blue of the US Army. Lee repeated his mission. Their leader, a major, eyed the Virginian coldly and nodded. “Your pardon, General Lee, but we can not be too careful. I recognize you from when we fought together in Mexico. Please pass, sir.”

The Virginian nodded to the younger man and said something polite about the latter’s gallant service. The soldier’s eyes softened a bit as Lee stepped past the guard.

The usher escorted Lee thru a side door and up a flight of stairs. In the near distance, the visitor heard the little noises of a great house and office at work. His own footsteps seemed to echo. Perhaps it is the weight of history. I oppose secession but I can take no part in an invasion of my home. The letter making his own resignation from the US Army official burned in his pocket.

Following the usher, Lee passed into the Reception Room to the Executive Office. To his dismay, he was again challenged by soldiers, this time with a colonel in command. Lee noted that his interrogator’s holster was unbuttoned, the heavy sidearm ready for action. Fortunately, this man knew him from fighting with the Indians.

Finally, the usher escorted the puzzled Virginian thru the Ante Room and into the den of the old lion himself. The door closed firmly behind him.

Lee automatically began to repeat his mission but stopped partway thru the phrase, confused and even alarmed. The room was familiar enough and so were its four occupants. The source of confusion was the absence of the man that he had come to see.

The middle aged man behind the Presidential desk rose in greeting. The few seconds thus consumed gave Lee a chance to gather his thoughts. He spoke, “Mr. Vice President, I am here at the request of President Scott.”

The Vice President sighed, his buff English face a map of sorrow. He started to speak but stopped before words actually emerged, awash in some fierce emotion.

A lanky man standing next to the Presidential desk spoke up in a prairie rasp. “General Lee, are you aware of the events of last night?”

The Virginian’s brow furrowed. “No, Mr. Lincoln, I am not. I would assume that these events are related to the extraordinary security that I encountered when calling upon the President. I was challenged not less than three times by military officers of ascending rank. Once would be unusual. Three times seems… significant.” He eyed the Vice President thoughtfully. The latter quietly indicated that Lincoln should continue.

“General Lee, last night a band of assassins entered the Executive Mansion and murdered President Winfield Scott in this very office. Mr. Henry Seymour is now the President of these United States.” Lincoln gestured to indicate the former Vice President.

The Virginian gasped. The room seemed to spin around him. Nothing like this had ever happened in the United States. Assassination? A word for European empires and Asian autocracies! Not the United States! True, a madman had attempted to assassinate Andrew Jackson when the latter was a candidate for President but, thank God, that man had failed. Now…?

“How did it happen?” whispered the Virginian, his hands crumpling his hat.

“By treachery,” replied the tall Midwesterner. “Do you know Senator Louis Wigfall of Tejas?”

“Somewhat,” admitted the Virginian. “I do not normally share his social circle but he visited the military garrisons in Tejas stridently demanding that we renounce our oaths to the Union.” The letter in Lee’s pocket burned even hotter than before.

“Last night, Senator Wigfall and several accomplices entered the Mansion and requested an audience with the President. The Senator claimed that his accomplices were delegates from Tejas who had come to Washington with new proposals to end the current crisis and bring the seceded states back into the Union.”

Lee nodded numbly. Winfield Scott was renowned as a warrior. He had fought to defend the United States longer than the Virginian had been alive. Yet, he had also been a peacemaker in Aroostock, Mexico and Oregon. He would have wanted to hear any new proposal, even an unlikely one, if there was a chance that the so-called Confederate States would listen. The assassins had obviously studied their target well.

“When President Scott received Wigfall and his party, they engaged him in some argument. No one else was present but the butler heard the President shout ‘Senator Bartlett as President? A milksop! He will never be President!’ at one point. Shortly after that, Wigfall and his party left and the butler discovered the President’s body bludgeoned to death.”

“Bludgeoned? An old man? Only a few days from his retirement after a lifetime of service to his country?” Lee was horrified. Truly, war was a terrible thing but there was honor in meeting one’s enemies openly on the battlefield. This assassination…. This cowardly act of common murder…. Committed under the pretext of a peace negotiation? There was nothing honorable about it.

“Did the assassins escape then?” he breathed.

“So far, those assassins are at large,” confirmed Lincoln. “No one expected such a thing even with the nation divided as it is. The Army is hunting them as we speak.”

Lee noted the Midwesterner’s phrasing. “You said ‘those assassins.’ Were there more?” Please, dear Lord, no!

Lincoln sighed deeply. “I am afraid so. Wigfall’s band was one of a wide spread conspiracy operating in the darkness of the night. Other bands attacked the residences of Mr. Seymour, Mr. Seward and Mr. Trask as well as the railroad carriage of Mr. Hamlin….”

Lee interpreted, “The Vice President, the Secretary of State and President-elect, the Secretary of War, and the Vice President-elect. Truly a ‘coup d’etat’ as the French would say. I see that Mr. Seymour is well. Are the others as well?” His hat was a twisted ruin in his hands.

Book Review: The Mysterious Island

The Mysterious Island
Original English Language Publication by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1875
Written by Jules Verne
Reviewed by Lee Strong, the Librarian of St. Gilda’s


Many a child has dreamed of being marooned on a desert island. In this tale of 19th Century science and courage, Jules Verne shows what competent heroes can do.

Daniel Defoe’s 1719-22 publication of Robinson Crusoe not only created a book of enduring value and appeal but actually established a new genre of literature: the robinsonade. Such novels typically stranded a castaway on a deserted island and followed his or her attempts to survive the physical and emotional isolation from civilization. Even today, science fiction writers will follow in Defoe’s footsteps with planets substituted for islands. Of the once large number of 18th and 19th Century robinsonades, only three are still widely read today. Perhaps the best of them is Jules Verne’s tale of the involuntary colonists of Lincoln Island.

Our tale begins during the American Civil War when 6 Federal soldiers and sympathizers break out of a Confederate prison via balloon. They unwisely choose to escape during a hurricane with the result that some of them are eventually deposited on the shores of a remote South Seas island. Unlike the authors of other robinsonades who thoughtfully provide their castaways with a ship full of convenient goodies just off shore, Verne boldly strands his heroes with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a few commonplace items in their pockets. How can anyone survive with so little equipment on an island full of wild beasts, wilder men, and mysterious presences? Verne’s literary genius shines brightly as he describes exactly what men of science and courage can do in even the bleakest of surroundings.

Verne’s story is good solid stuff about science and humanity in action. The colonists manufacture many of the conveniences of 19th Century life from the basic materials of their island aided only by one engineer’s professional knowledge. While the detailed description of research and development can be somewhat tedious at times, it demonstrates that the author has done his homework. His characters are more self reliant than their Swiss counterparts in another ocean and all the more interesting for that. Verne also took the occasion to wrap up a couple of loose ends from previous novels and the return of some of the islanders to civilization makes a fitting and satisfying climax.

To date, there have been several movies made from Verne’s novel but none of them hold a candle to the original.

I rate The Mysterious Island as 3.5 stars on the 5 star scale because of its solid story of 19th Century science in action governed by thoughtful human values. – LS

Lee Strong's contributions to Liquid Ether (both his reviews and original fiction) are best enjoyed with Cognac. The Editor suggests Remy Martin XO - its fine taste will compliment the textured prose perfectly.