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Archive for December, 2010

Top Ten Pieces of History for 2010

Since April 2010, we’ve brought you more than 100 Pieces of History. Nothing too small, too strange, or too obscure has escaped the spotlight of our blog or the scalpel of your clever comments.

And we are still discovering new pieces of history every day here at the National Archives! But before we go forward into the 2011, let’s take a look back at some of the posts that our readers (and us, the writers) liked best.

TEN: Admittedly, Horace Greeley does not have the most massive chin whiskers of our Facial Hair Fridays stars, but the word “neard” has been introduced into our vocabulary. The world will never be the same.

NINE: With the “Discovering the Civil War” exhibit in full swing, it turns out there is a lot we didn’t know about the Civil War. Ten things, in fact.

EIGHT: Though the Constitution might have preventing her from voting, it did not prohibit Jeanette Rankin from joining the House of Representatives.

SEVEN: Time and space collide when William Shatner is Norton P. Chipman!

SIX: West Virginia–is it actually a state in the Constitutional sense?

FIVE:  The people of Alaska wake up new American citizens and eleven days in the future.

FOUR: Is that a moleskine in your pocket or a mole skin in your file?

THREE:  What’s in your wallet? The Secret Service wants to know.… [ Read all ]

A hot dog for the King

Following upon the spate of movies in recent years about British female royalty (the Elizabeths and Victoria), we now have one about British male royalty, The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as George VI.

It focuses on George VI (the current monarch’s father) and his struggle to overcome stuttering and stammering, especially when he spoke in public.

He became King in late 1936, when his brother Edward VIII abdicated to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. He also became the first reigning British monarch to visit the United States—in June 1939—just after a state visit to Canada.

After spending a few days in Washington, DC, the King and Queen traveled with President and Mrs. Roosevelt to Hyde Park, NY, the President’s home (and now the site of his Presidential library), where they had an American-style picnic at FDR’s retreat, Top Cottage.

On the menu were traditional American picnic fare, such as ham and turkey and strawberry shortcake—fit for a King. And FDR, the patrician with the common touch, also served their majesties the great American treat—hot dogs. And, yes, according to news accounts, the royals did indeed down their first-ever hot dogs.

The royals were delighted, and their visit helped cement U.S.-British relations just a few months before World War II began on September 1, 1939.

A complete account of the royal visit is on … [ Read all ]

The must-have Christmas gift of 1776

In 1864, Savannah, Georgia, was offered to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. But in 1776, George Washington delivered one of the greatest gifts in American history: the United States.

Winter was a bad season for Washington. His Continental Army had been driven out of New York, and then it was driven out of New Jersey, leaving just a few thousand men shivering on the far side of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, while the British made camp in New Jersey.

The Continental Army was desperate for a victory. Many men had left the military after finishing their enlistments. Others were low on morale after the series of bitter defeats. Santa, it appeared, was siding with the British forces.

On December 25, George Washington ordered the few thousand men at his disposal to cross the Delaware River. Ice flowed down its waters–further downstream a unit that was supposed to join him couldn’t cross because of the ice flow–but Washington forced his men across, and was one of the first to land on the shores of British-occupied New Jersey.

Through the cold night air and sleet and snow, his men marched another nine miles, and then in a few quick maneuvers, launched a surprise attack against the Hessian forces encamped at Trenton. He took a thousand soldiers prisoner. He killed over 20 and injured almost … [ Read all ]

The CIA’s catalog of covert conundrums

In 1992, George Washington University’s “National Security Archive” submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), soliciting information from the Central Intelligence Agency. Their request was inspired by a 1973 memorandum issued from then-CIA Director James R. Schlesinger, who requested that all CIA employees, past or present, “report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or that have gone on in the past, which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this Agency.”

The reason for Schlesinger’s request? The 1972 break-in at the Watergate by veteran CIA officers who had alleged cooperation from within the Agency.

What resulted from the request was something else altogether: over 700 pages of illegal CIA activities ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s. Former CIA Director William Colby called the report the “skeletons” in the CIA’s closet.

In 2007, the CIA delivered the report, dubbed the “Family Jewels” to the National Security Archive. It detailed assassination plots, illegal surveillance of journalists, drug testing, warrantless wiretapping, break-ins, and a litany of other illegal operations (sadly there was nothing on the CIA’s “Tunnel of Love”).

The full report is available on the CIA’s CREST database at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and on the CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room. Below are just a few of the highlights of the lengthy report:

  1. Watergate burglar
  2. [ Read all ]

A temporarily insane Congressman

The first use of the temporary insanity plea to beat a murder charge happened in 1859 and was employed in the defense of a man named Dan Sickles, who had killed his wife’s lover. A story such as this might be relegated to the footnotes of law review books were it not for the fact that Sickles was a Congressman, that the man he killed was the son of Francis Scott Key, and that one of his defense lawyers was future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

While publicly scorned for his defense at the outset, the public was soon enraptured by the sensational trial, and by the equally sensational Sickles. When Sickles was acquitted of the charges,  even President Buchanan weighed in, saying he was “delighted.”

As for Sickles himself, when asked if he meant to kill Key, he simply replied, “Of course I intended to kill him. He deserved it.”

Sickles went on to serve as a general in the Union Army, where he lost his leg, an infliction far less temporary than losing one’s mind.… [ Read all ]