321 Readable Histories

Beginning with the “father of history,” Herodotus, most historians crafted interesting stories designed to appeal to the reading public.  Then, in the 19th century, German historians determined to make their craft more scientific, more fact-focused, and wrote increasingly for others in the profession who were compiling (in accord with positivistic scientists) a tapestry of information.  Diligently souring archives and seeking “objectivity” was certainly admirable and useful, but what was too often lost was the literary skill needed to interest general readers.  Fortunately, there are still many histories written (often by journalists as well as scholars with literary skills) that deserve being considered as “readable” histories.  One was given to me by a good friend, Dr. Dean Nelson, who as a journalism professor appreciates effective writing and is a friend of one if its authors (Lynn Vincent).  In Indianapolis:  The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year fight to exonerate an Innocent Man (New York:  Simon & Schuster, c. 2018), Vincent and Sara Vladic tell the story of a flagship of the World War II Pacific fleet, basing their presentation in extensive interviews as well as library research.  When she was sunk, in literally the final days of the war, it “was the greatest sea disaster in the history of the American Navy” (p. 2).

Rather than write a strictly chronological account, the authors weave together technical details regarding the USS Indianapolis, personal anecdotes regarding her officers and crew, explanations regarding naval strategy and policy, insights from Japanese sources, and political perspectives regarding America’s efforts in WWII.   They thus provide highly detailed, accurate information in an engrossing manner.  For example, they describe the 610’ craft herself—construction materials, physical appearance, guns, 250 ton turrets, bulkheads, armor, etc.  They also provide pictures.  Christened in 1932, “Indy was grand but svelte.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt made her his ship of state and invited world leaders and royalty to dance under the stars on her polished teak decks” (p. 1).  One of the Navy’s 18 “Treaty Cruisers,” the Indianapolis was built to meet “treaty displacement limitations that produced thinly armored vessels shipbuilders referred to as ‘tin clads.’”  The men who manned them, however, “often fell in love with their speed and grace,” and one of the Indy’s sailors, 19 year-old Seaman Second Class L.C. Cox, simply “stood and gawked” when he saw the ship.  “She was colossal.  Sleek.  Magnificent.  He could hardly wait to get aboard” (p. 27). 

Inasmuch as the authors can make the details of a warship interesting, it’s inevitable they’ll be even more winsome when describing the men who manned her.  They provide vignettes of admirals and captains, cooks and gunnery sergeants, Japanese submariners and naval officers.  They not only portray the men but tell about their girlfriends and wives, their local backgrounds and personal proclivities.  A central figure in the story, Captain Charles McVay III, was the son of a Navy officer who’d fought in the Spanish American War and WWI, wherein he commanded two battleships.  Unconcerned with his son’s self-esteem, he routinely unleashed “a steady stream of sharp-tongued verdicts on the younger McVay’s Navy performance and demanded that he cover himself with glory befitting an admiral’s son” (p. 28).  The younger man, like has father, graduated from the Navy Academy, was commissioned in 1920, and rapidly rose through the ranks.  During WWII, he received a Silver Star for gallantry for his action in the Solomon Islands.  He was sensitive to the needs of his men and worked hard to maintain morale.  

During its activities in the Pacific Theater of WWII, the Indianapolis took part in many battles, including the Battle of Okinawa, where the Japanese fought tenaciously and sent hundreds of suicide-bombers to attack the American fleet.  The conflict was costly:  “36 ships sunk, 368 damaged, 763 aircraft lost, more than 12,000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines dead, drowned. or missing” (p. 72).  One of the ships struck was the Indianapolis, leaving her with “damage too serious for repairs at sea” (p. 35).  So she limped back to San Francisco to undergo repairs, and her captain, Charles McVay, assumed she’d see no more combat since the war seemed to be quickly approaching its end.  But as soon as the repairs were done McVay was called to a highly-secret meeting and ordered to take an important shipment back to Okinawa.

Though Japanese forces were retreating, it had become evident to Admiral Nimitz and President Truman that any invasion of the home islands might incur ghastly casualties.  Serious discussions in the very highest sectors ensued, and it was debated whether or not to use the recently-tested atomic bomb to force Japan to surrender.  Using an airplane to transport the bomb across the Pacific was considered imprudent, so it was decided to use Indy for the task.  “The contents of the shipment were not to be revealed to anyone aboard Indianapolis, even McVay” (p. 68).  On July 16, 1945, her voyage began.  The cruiser was built for speed, and McVay ordered her to move fast, since he’d “been told that ever day we take off the trip is a day off the war” (p. 95).  Ten days later Indy anchored at Tinian Island and unloaded her secret cargo.  It would then be placed in the hold of the Enola Gay, which would on August 5 make history by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. 

Having completed her mission, the Indianapolis sailed from Okinawa to Guam, preparing to sail on to Leyte, in the Philippines.  No naval officers thought this journey would be particularly risky since it would be on the periphery of the combat zone.  As Commodore “Jimmy” Carter said, “‘The Japs are on their last legs and there’s nothing to worry about” (p. 116).  Some intelligence reports indicated a handful of enemy submarines were prowling about in the area, but they were thought to be some distance from the Indy’s projected route.  The ship sailed on July 28 and planned to arrive in Leyte on July 31.  Following established procedures, the ship zigzagged during daylight but resumed base course when it became completely dark.  Then, just before midnight, July 30, a Japanese submarine commanded by Mochutsura Hashimoto launched six torpedoes toward the Indianapolis.  Built for speed, Indy had rather thin armor plates and some authorities had speculated that even one torpedo could sink her.  The Japanese torpedo “carried a huge explosive payload designed to mortally wound battleships and cruisers” (p. 151).   Two of them struck the Indianapolis, and she rapidly began sinking, disappearing 12 minutes. 

Facing the inevitable, Captain McVay ordered the men to abandon ship.  Many had died in the explosions, of course, but some 800 managed to escape and survive the initial disaster.  Yet their trials had only begun!  Clinging to life rafts and debris, they assumed rescue forces (planes and ships) would soon arrive to save them.  Indeed one of the great questions the authors raise is this:  “How was it possible that no one had known Indianapolis was missing?” (p. 262).  But day after day the survivors scoured the horizon and saw no one coming to their assistance.  The merciless sun seared their bodies and there was little food or water to sustain them.  Then came the sharks!  Since the authors interviewed many of those who survived, their description of these days renders the men’s suffering palpable.  Many of them had been injured by the torpedo blasts and quickly expired.  Each day hundreds of them disappeared.  The men prayed fervently.  Many of them behaved courageously.  And, of course, some behaved abominably.  After three days in the water they were spotted by an airplane and help began to arrive, with Captain McVay and the last survivors being rescued on August 3.  They were “ emaciated and shark-bitten.  Some had lost as much as forty pounds.  Their skin looked like burned bacon and was pocked with oozing sores.  Many were delirious” (p. 273).  In all, of the 1200 crewmen manning Indy, only 311 survived (a handful only for a brief time).  Sadly enough, hundreds more would have survived if rescue efforts had come quickly. 

Almost as soon as the tragedy transpired, it was necessary to blame someone!  Trying to escape personal accountability, high-ranking Navy officers (preeminently Fleet Admiral King), tried to blame Captain McVay and ordered him brought to trial for the disaster!  Amazingly, he was the only captain of the hundreds of Amerrican ships sunk in the war to be brought to trial.  But he was, at the end of 1945, court-martialed and his naval career effectively ended—finishing his career stuck in an insignificant posting in New Orleans.  At the time—and increasingly as the years passed—many observers thought McVay was punished to protect some of his superiors who were actually responsible.  Thus the authors devote a significant section of the book to describing “the Fifty-Year fight to exonerate an Innocent Man,” for “to a man, the survivors believed McVay was innocent” (p. 292).  Meticulous researchers and courageous witnesses were able, in time, to provide irrefutable evidence that McVay had been railroaded and was in fact innocent of the charges leveled against him.  But it would not be until George W. Bush was President that McVay was finally exonerated, so in the end his reputation (if not his career) was redeemed. 

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Now and then I read a book I wish I could have written.  This is particularly true of John Sedgwick’s Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation (New York:  Simon & Schuster, c. 2018; Kindle Edition), since it deals with the same material I detailed in my 1976 PhD dissertation, entitled Brother Brother Slew:  Factionalism in the Cherokee Nation, 1835-1865.  (In fact, Sedgwick references my dissertation several times in his footnotes, demonstrating how exhaustively he researched the subject!).  The factionalism I discussed is portrayed by Sedgwick as a conflict between two men who personified this conflict:  “The Ridge—short for He Who Walks on Mountaintops—was a big, imposing, copper-skinned Cherokee, a fearsome warrior turned plantation owner, whose voice quieted any room, and whose physique awed anyone who crossed his path.  Smaller, almost twenty years younger, [John] Ross was descended from Scottish traders and looked like one:  a pale, unimposing half-pint who wore eastern clothes, from laced shoes to a top hat.  If The Ridge radiated the power of a Cherokee who could drop a buck at a hundred paces, Ross could have strolled into an Edinburgh dinner party without receiving undue attention.  Tellingly, The Ridge spoke almost no English, and Ross almost no Cherokee” (p. 3).  Ross and Ridge were one-time friends and allies who fell apart under the pressures for removal applied by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s.  During those years there erupted a “blood feud” which morphed “from personal vendetta to clan war to a civil war that swept through the entire Cherokee Nation before it got caught up in the even greater cataclysm of the American War Between the States” (p. 4).

Sedgwick devotes the first section of his book (“Paradise Lost”) to the history of the Cherokees during from 1770-1814.   (Invoking the word “paradise” to describe that world reveals the author’s rather romantic approach to the natives, inasmuch as my reading of the primary sources certainly unveils a great deal of violence, blood feuds, revenge killings, superstition, insecurity, factionalism, etc. that made the Cherokees something less than Edenic peoples!  Anyone wanting a more realistic depiction of Native Americans would do well to read the  multi-volume Jesuit Relations, or Kevin Seiper’s Conquistador Voices, or Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years).  During these years the Cherokees watched their territory shrink as a result of conflicts with the first English and then the Americans.  Military conflicts and treaties and trade brought the Indians and Anglo-Americans together in disparate ways, leading to the emergence of a unique Cherokee embrace of the white man’s “civilization.” 

Embodying this transition was The Ridge, formerly known as a great warrior and hunter, who declared:  “‘The hunting is almost done & we must now live by farming, raising corn & cotton & horses & hogs & sheep.  We see that those Cherokees who do this live well” (p. 69).  He and his wife discarded “the habits of their race” and took up “Christian employments.”  Intrinsically industrious, The Ridge soon built a fine house and oversaw a thriving plantation.  He supported the political organization of the tribe, beginning in 1808 with a tribal council passing its first “law.”  He sent his children to a nearby Moravian school, insisting they become literate and ready to prosper in the emerging Cherokee Nation.  Initially uninterested in the missionaries’ Gospel message, he was in time drawn to “the fall and salvation of man” story they shared.  When the great Tecumseh (a Shawnee from Indiana) came visiting in 1812, he implored the Cherokees to join in his conspiracy, averring “that the Great Spirit was furious to see the Cherokee with the whites’ gristmills, cotton clothes, liquor, featherbeds, and house cats” (p. 93).  But the Ridge and most Cherokees declined to join him. 

In fact, when the War of 1812 broke out and Andrew Jackson launched an expedition to punish the “Red Stick” Creeks in 1813, The Ridge and many Cherokees joined him, enthusiastically killing and scalping their ancient foes at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  For his warrior-skills and courage, The Ridge was made a major—thenceforth to be called, much to his pleasure, “Major Ridge.”  In a critical phase of the battle, he killed six knife-wielding Red Stick warriors, and Jackson’s ultimate success in the battle at New Orleans was facilitated by his Cherokee allies.  Sadly enough, while the Cherokees were helping Jackson, the Tennessee militia had charged through their lands “like an avenging army, stealing horses, slaughtering hogs and cattle, destroying corncribs, tearing down fences, seizing private stores of corn, maple sugar, and clothing and what few possessions the Cherokee could call their own” (p. 115).  Helping Jackson would not, in the long run, help them!  In fact, when they asked him for compensation for these “spoliations,” he

confiscated some of the Cherokee lands!  Like Major Ridge’s son, John, began to realize, “Old Hickory” was also a “snake in the grass.”

To establish themselves in the face of the advancing frontier—some 14,000 Indians confronting hundreds of thousands of Anglo-Americans (mainly Georgians) forging westward—the  Cherokees rapidly formed a government following the pattern of the U.S. Constitution, the first to be crafted by any Indian tribe.  They launched a national newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, thanks to the phenomenal work of Sequoyah, an illiterate genius who single-handedly designed a Cherokee syllabary that enabled adult Cherokees to become literate in a few days.  In fact, “it was so easy to learn that schools didn’t bother to teach it, since children could pick it up on their own.  Remember the eighty-six symbols, sound them out, and you had it.  More than a Gutenberg, Sequoyah was a Leonardo, an inventor who created not just an invention, but modernity.  It is hard to find in all of recorded history as dramatic a transformation of a people in such a brief period of time.  It unleashed an outpouring of notes, letters, essays, records, reports, newspapers, Bible translations, books” (p. 146).  Using the weapons of the press and petitions and lawsuits and delegations to Washington, the Cherokees (led by Principle Chief John Ross) endeavored to deal with the white man on his own terms, vowing:  “Not one foot of land in cession.”  And he was fully supported by Major Ridge, elected as “first counselor to the principal chief, a post that made him, after Ross, the second most powerful man in the nation” (p. 170).

But they faced an implacable foe in Andrew Jackson, who was elected President in 1828.  One of his first concerns, following his inauguration, was passing and implementing the Indian Removal Act.  All Indians east of the Mississippi were to be driven from their homes and resettled in the West.  In resistance, the Cherokees won important legal victories (most notably in the Supreme Court in Worcester vs. Georgia) and found much support throughout the United States, especially in religious sectors.  Jackson, however, cared little for courts or public opinion.  “Incredible as it seemed to Ridge and Boudinot, Jackson had indeed decided that this epic Supreme Court ruling was merely John Marshall’s opinion, nothing more. ‘John Marshall has made his decision,’ Jackson was said to have declared, and rather idly.  ‘Let him enforce it’” (p. 193).  Seeing the writing on the wall, some Cherokees decided it would be wiser to remove to the West (where there was already a settlement of Western Cherokees) on their own rather than wait for the U.S. to force them.  Thus Major Ridge and his extended family, supported by a largely mixed-blood faction, formed what would be known as the Treaty Party—Cherokees willing to negotiate the best removal treaty possible.  They signed a treaty offered them by Jackson’s envoy (Rev. John F. Schermerhorn, a former missionary), taking $4.5 million for their eastern lands and getting lands in Indian Territory.   Though John Ross and the national assembly staunchly rejected the spurious “treaty,” President Jackson claimed it was legitimate and submitted it to the U.S. Senate for approval.  There Jackson “prevailed by just one vote beyond the two-thirds needed.  So, on May 23, 1836, the New Echota Treaty became the law of the United States—and this was one law that Andrew Jackson had every intention of enforcing” (p. 248). 

The Treaty Party (numbering about 1000, including many slaves), led by Major Ridge, his son John, Elias Boudinot (the editor of The Cherokee Phoenix) and his brother Stand Watie, removed on their own.  In what is today northeastern Oklahoma, they settled amongst the “Old Settlers”—Cherokees (including Sequoah) who had on their own migrated west in the previous two decades.   “‘It is superior to any country I ever saw in the U.S.,’ John Ridge declared after he’d had a chance to ride about the territory.  ‘In a few years it will be the garden spot of the United States’” (p. 269).  But when the U.S. Army rounded up and drove west the bulk of the tribe, they were understandably bitter and disillusioned, blaming both the United States and the Treaty Party.  “Of the 15,000 Cherokee who undertook the journey that became universally known as the Trail of Tears, roughly 2,000 died, and countless more simply disappeared en route.  Two thousand more died after they arrived from disease, starvation, and the misery that comes with such suffering” (p. 188).

Their misery prompted thoughts of revenge, and the tribe’s “blood law” justified them.  “No one was to sell Cherokee land without official permission.  No one.  John Ridge had written this law himself, at his father’s instigation.  The fury had been smoldering for some time, possibly from the moment the ink was dry on the page just after Christmas 1835, now almost three and a half long years before.  Did they not know that the land was not theirs to sell?” (p. 297).  Thus a well-orchestrated plot targeted the leaders of the Treaty Party and assassins killed Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot.  The nation divided into a bitter factional strife, punctuated by clandestine killings and political turbulence, sometimes rendered dormant by peaceful interludes supported by all sides.  “With each side cloaked in righteousness, the killing went on and on.  Murder became so common, said one Cherokee, that it was like hearing ‘of the death of a common dog.’  From the end of 1845 to the end of 1846 [for example], thirty-four killings were recorded, nearly all of them political” (p. 338).

Nevertheless, when the American Civil War broke out, the old Treaty Party folks supported the Confederacy and followed Stand Watie, who was commissioned a colonel, leading a corps known as the Cherokee Mounted Rifles.  Ultimately Watie became a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army (the highest rank attained by any Indian during the Civil War), fighting a series of battles in Arkansas and Indian Territory.  “Watie, fighting to the end, was the last Indian commander” to lay down arms “just north of the Texas border.  It was there that Watie officially surrendered, the very last Confederate officer to give up the fight” (p. 392).  The Ross Party, led by John Ross, joined the Union as soon as possible, and many of his followers took up arms and battled for the North in the Cherokee Nation.  “In the Cherokee Nation, the ravages of the American Civil War had been compounded by the internal equivalent. Six thousand Cherokee, a quarter of the population, had died in the battles that occurred in every corner of the nation, or from the terrible starvation and rampant disease that followed them.  It turned 7,000 more out of their homes to roam the landscape in search of sustenance and shelter.  It widowed a third of all Cherokee wives, orphaned a quarter of the children, killed or scattered 300,000 head of cattle, and drove virtually everyone to depend on the federal government dispensing scant aid from the major forts, chiefly Fort Gibson” (p. 394). 

In short:  a Blood Moon shown on the tribe for 30 years wherein “brother brother slew.”