Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

The Massacre at Wounded Knee, part of the Ghost Dance War, marked the last of the Indian Wars and the end of one of the bloodiest eras in American History, the systematic and deliberate slaughter of Native American peoples and their way of life. It was an American Holocaust. During a 500 year period, approximately 100,000,000 Native Americans were killed as citizens of the United States pushed West in the name of manifest destiny and destroyed the Native American territories that had been their home for thousands of years. These events will never take a place on the front of our history books, but they must never lose their place in our national memory.

Armed conflict was still prevalent in the American West in the 1880s between the U.S. Army and the Native American population, even after most of the tribes there had been displaced or had their populations reduced in great numbers. The Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 had been the most fierce of the wars with the Sioux, which had started in the mid-1850s, when Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had gone to war to defend the Black Hills after the U.S. violated the treaty that they had signed stating the land was the property of the Sioux. After the Battle of Little Bighorn, a gradual depletion of Sioux forces occurred and Crazy Horse surrendered in 1877.

The remaining Sioux were spread out in their reservations and eventually were placed onto a central reservation in the Dakota territory and were practicing a ritual known as the Ghost Dance. The dance was supposed to drive the white men from Native American territory and restore peace and tranquility to the region. Settlers were frightened by the dance and they said it had a “ghostly aura” to it, thus giving it its name.

In response to the settlers’ fears, U.S. commanders arrested several leaders of the Sioux, including Chief Kicking Bear and Chief Sitting Bull, who was later killed.

Two weeks after Sitting Bull’s death, U.S. troops demanded that all the Sioux immediately turn over their weapons. As they were peacefully doing so, one deaf Sioux warrior did not understand the command to turn over his rifle. As his rifle was being taken from him, a shot went off in the crowd. The soldiers panicked and open fired on everyone in the area.

As the smoke cleared, 300 dead Lakota and 25 dead U.S. soldiers were laying on the ground. Many more Lakota were later killed by U.S. troops as they fled the reservation. The massacre ended the Ghost Dance movement and was the last of the Indian Wars. Twenty U.S. soldiers were later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during this campaign. The National Congress of American Indians has called on the U.S. government to rescind some or all of these medals, but they have not yet taken action to do so.

The American public’s reaction to the massacre was positive at first but over time as the scale and gravity of the massacre was revealed, the American people began to understand the brutal injustice that occurred during this encounter. Today, we need to remember the Massacre at Wounded Knee for the human cost and to make sure that events like this never happen again in our nation. We also need to make sure to honor and remember all Americans and their histories, even when it is not easy to read or take responsibility. For how can we truly be a nation where all are created equal if the treatment of our histories are not?

Val Crofts is a Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin, and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

Abraham Lincoln is usually considered one of our nation’s greatest presidents. But, what many people may not know is that Lincoln was not a very popular president during his first term and he nearly was not reelected in 1864. For many months leading into the presidential election of that year, Lincoln resigned himself to a simple fact that he was not going to be reelected. He told a visitor to the White House in the fall of 1864, “I am going to be beaten…and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.”

Lincoln’s administration had presided over hundreds of thousands of young men killed and wounded in the then three-year-old struggle to give our nation, as Lincoln declared at Gettysburg, its “new birth of freedom” during the Civil War. The year 1864 had been the bloodiest of the war so far and Union armies were being decimated as Union General Ulysses S. Grant was making his final push to destroy the army of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and bring the war to an end. At the same time, General William T. Sherman was moving toward Georgia in the summer of 1864, hoping to destroy the Confederate armies in that region as well.

Lincoln was a tremendously unpopular president in 1864 inside and outside of his own political party. Democrats hated Lincoln and blamed him for the longevity of the war. Radical Republicans did not feel that he went far enough to extend equal rights to African-Americans. The war was unpopular and seemed unwinnable for the Union. Lincoln’s recent Emancipation Proclamation had also turned many Northern voters against Lincoln as they believed that equality for former slaves was something that would occur and they were not ready for it.

Between the Emancipation Proclamation and the casualty numbers of the Union army, Lincoln felt as though his administration would be leaving the White House in 1865. He urged his cabinet members to cooperate with the new president to make the transition of power easier, which would hopefully bring the nation back together quicker. A series of events were taking place in the Western theater of the war where one of Lincoln’s generals was about to present him with two gifts in 1864: the city of Atlanta and the reelection of his administration.

General Sherman met president Lincoln in 1861 at the beginning of the war and he was not overly impressed with him. He felt President Lincoln’s attitude toward the South was naive and could damage the Union’s early response to the war. Lincoln was not particularly impressed with Sherman at their first meeting either. But, those attitudes would change as the war progressed.

Sherman had achieved great success in fighting in the Western theater of the war from Shiloh to Chattanooga and was poised to strike a lethal blow into the heart of the Confederacy by marching his armies through the state of Georgia and capturing its capital city of  Atlanta. The capture of Atlanta would destroy a vital rail center and supply depot, as well as demoralize the Confederacy.

Sherman and his 100,000 troops left Chattanooga in May of 1864 and by July, Sherman and his army had reached the outskirts of Atlanta. On September 1, Confederate forces evacuated the city. The Northern reaction to the taking of Atlanta and victories in Virginia at the same time was jubilation. Instead of feeling the war was lost, the exact opposite opinion was now prevalent. It now seemed that the Lincoln administration would be the first reelected since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

President Lincoln won the 1864 election by receiving over 55 percent of the popular vote and winning the electoral vote 212 to 21 over his Democratic opponent, former general George B. McClellan. He was then able to manage the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning slavery in the United States forever. His presidency would be remembered as the reason why our nation is still one nation, under God, and dedicated to “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Washington created our nation, Jefferson and Madison gave it life and meaning with their ideas and  words, and Lincoln saved it. He may have not had the chance to do so without the military success of General Sherman and his armies in 1864.

Val Crofts is as Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

Abraham Lincoln traveled East in February of 1860. He was asked to deliver an address at the Cooper Institute in New York City on the momentous topic of the era, slavery. Lincoln had been a popular orator and politician in Illinois, but had yet to solidify himself as a national politician. His sense of humor, frontier charm and folksy wit appealed to his political and debate audiences in the West, but if he was going to attract a national following and possibly earn the nomination from the fledgling Republican Party as their presidential candidate, he needed to appeal to voters in different areas of the country.

Before he gave his Cooper Institute speech, Lincoln made his way to the New York studio of photographer, Matthew Brady. He was going to sit for a portrait that was going to introduce him to the American people. Brady’s portrait of Lincoln shows a confident, 51 year old Lincoln staring into the camera with his left hand resting on two books. He pulled his collar up in the portrait to partially obscure his long neck. He looks distinguished, but his hair is a bit disheveled as he stands ready to make arguably the most important speech of his life in a few hours.

A crowd of around 1,500 people crowded into the Cooper Institute on the night of February 27, 1860 to hear this Republican orator from the West deliver a carefully researched and crafted speech to explain to the nation why they should not fear a Republican president and why the views of the Republicans on slavery mirrored those of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln was about to reinvent himself as an orator and to establish himself as a national politician and serious contender for the presidency.

Some eyewitnesses claimed disappointment when Lincoln first stood to address the crowd. His tall (so tall as someone said) appearance with his arms and legs created an awkward appearance and some in the crowd expressed pity for how Lincoln looked that night. But then, he began to speak.

Lincoln began by informing his audience that 21 of 39 Founding Fathers felt that the federal government should be able to control slavery in territories of the United States and that the Constitution verifies this. The Republican Party had pledged to stop slavery from spreading into the Western territories and Lincoln felt that the basis for this decision came from the basis for our legal cornerstone, the Constitution of the United States.

He then denied that the Republicans were a Northern political party intent on inciting slave rebellions. He talked about how John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to start a slave rebellion in Virginia, was no Republican and he urged the South to understand the Republican Party was an American party and not a sectional one. He was attempting to explain to the South that Republicans were allies and not enemies. He further explained that for the South to threaten to secede if a Republican president was elected, was similar to an “armed robbery” of the Union.

He then addressed fellow Republicans to leave the South alone and to convince the South that they would continue to do so. Southern fears of Republican interference was fueling the flames of rebellion and Lincoln urged it to cease. Lincoln felt that if Republicans were not able to stop slavery where it existed, because the Constitution did not give them power to do so, then they must stop it from spreading into the Western territories. Then, he ended one of his longest public speeches by saying, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Lincoln laid out what he perceived to be the fears of the South and had done his best to calm them. He had also given his opinions on what Republicans could do to stop the further escalation of the division between the two regions. The speech was a huge success.

To capitalize on the speech and its success, Matthew Brady began to circulate the photo in several sizes for people to purchase. Harper’s Weekly converted the photo into a full page drawing of Lincoln which accompanied their story of the Cooper Institute speech and Lincoln’s success there. The image became the public’s first encounter with this rising star in the Republican Party.

Lincoln’s Cooper Institute speech was considered one of his greatest successes. If he had failed to engage and impress his New York audience, he may not have received the nomination as president in 1860. Had that not happened, he may have returned to Illinois to live out his days as a lawyer in Springfield and the history of our nation would have been very different. Lincoln credited Brady and the Cooper Institute speech with helping him to secure his nomination as the Republican candidate for president and ultimately putting him in the White House. Those two very important events in New York City in February of 1860 may have ultimately helped to preserve the Union.

Val Crofts is as Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

George Washington deserves to be remembered as possibly the greatest figure in American history. He led the Continental Army to victory over the British in the American Revolution against unbelievable odds. He was the only president in U.S. history to be unanimously elected. Washington served as the first president of the United States for two terms, establishing the office and its precedents and customs for all future presidents to follow. We may not even have had a United States of America without Washington’s contributions. Twice during his life, Washington achieved great accomplishments by doing something very uncharacteristic. He gave up. More specifically, he gave up power.

Washington was honored and humbled to have been commissioned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army by the 2nd Continental Congress in June of 1775. He did not think that he was adequate for the task given to him and even tried to avoid it, but Washington’s unending commitment to duty, honor, and his country prevailed. The humble statesman reluctantly accepted the position as commander-in-chief. General Washington proved himself an inspiring leader and innovative soldier as he commanded his men throughout the remainder of the war.

When military victory was secured at Yorktown in 1781, General Washington believed that he needed to stay in charge of the army until peace was secured. He could not step down until the British army left the United States, the American Revolution was totally resolved and the new nation was firmly standing on its own, ready to take its place in the world. Only then would he feel comfortable resigning the powers given to him by Congress in 1775.

General Washington was given great powers by the 2nd Continental Congress. The civil and military control he received were similar to a military dictator. He could have simply grabbed power and served over the United States as an absolute ruler or an “American King.” There were also some who felt that this should be what Washington should do to maintain stability for the new government and nation. But, like the story of the Roman general, Cincinnatus, Washington gave his power back to the people, where he felt it belonged.

Washington would have been familiar with the classical story of the Roman general, Cincinnatus, who was a former Roman general  given military and political power back when Rome was invaded. After repelling the invasion, Cincinnatus resigned his position and returned to his retirement. Washington longed to do the same thing. Because of the similarities between the two men, Washington is sometimes referred to as the “American Cincinnatus.”

Washington actually “retired” for the first time in 1758 and returned to his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, to be a farmer and gentleman for the rest of his life or so he thought. But, as tension mounted in the American colonies in the 1770s, Washington came out of retirement and attended meetings of the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses. Because of his military experience and reputation, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and served in that capacity until 1783.

In late 1783, Washington felt it was time to retire again. British soldiers had left New York, the Treaty of Paris was signed, and peace appeared to be a reality in the new nation. He was anxious to go home to Mount Vernon again and live out his days in the company of his wife, family and friends. He decided to give his powers and position back to the Congress and the people that had granted them to him in 1775.

He arrived in December of 1783 in Annapolis, Maryland, the then capital of the United States and delivered his remarks to the assembly present at the Maryland State House. He thanked Congress for their trust in him and stated his intent to resign from the service of his nation. Washington thanked the officers who had served with him throughout the war and whom he considered members of his family. Washington recommended Congress take notice of those officers and their service to the young nation. He then prayed that God would watch over the United States and its people. Washington followed by resigning his commission and departing to spend Christmas at Mount Vernon with his family.

Rarely in history do you find someone giving up power. The more power you possess, the tougher it may be to let it go. But, when you are selfless and think of what is best for others, specifically your nation, the decision may come easily. George Washington was this rare, selfless leader who had a tremendous love for this nation which he helped create. He knew that if the nation were to move along, he needed to give his power back to the people. By doing so, he helped to finish the final act of the war and to make the American Revolution a true revolution of power from kings to the people.

The quote by King George III of Great Britain in 1797 poetically and fittingly describes the impact of Washington’s selfless act of resigning his commission. When discussing the legacy of George Washington, the king said that Washington’s actions in giving up his commission made him the “most distinguished of any man living.” Now, we can add that Washington is one of the most distinguished men in history.

Val Crofts is a Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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Guest Essayist: Val Crofts

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Thirtieth to join the United States, Wisconsin, known as “The Badger State,” ratified the     U.S. Constitution May 29, 1848. The Wisconsin State Constitution currently in use was adopted in 1848.

“On Wisconsin!” were words exclaimed by Arthur MacArthur Jr. at the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863 urging his fellow Badgers on during an important phase of the battle for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The state’s official slogan is “Forward!” which embodies the spirit of LTG MacArthur and the spirit of the people who live here today. Citizens of Wisconsin are always looking to innovate, expand and advance, but they are appreciative of their past as well.

Wisconsin received its name from the river that runs through the center of the state named by the Miami Indians. The word “Wisconsin” means “river running through a red area” and may possibly refer to the beautiful red bluffs located near today’s city of Wisconsin Dells. For 10,000 years, Wisconsin has also been home to various Native American tribes including the Oneida, Chippewa, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Sauk and Mahican.

In 1634, European explorer Jean Nicolet was the first European to have landed in Wisconsin near the present city of Green Bay. The French attempted to colonize the area and operated a very successful fur trade in Wisconsin. The French established a military and commercial presence in Wisconsin until after the French and Indian War, when the Great Britain assumed control of the area. The U.S. acquired what is today Wisconsin after the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the American Revolution.

In 1836, the Wisconsin Territory was organized and the first territorial legislature met in Belmont, Wisconsin. In 1848, Wisconsin was admitted to the Union as the 30th state with Madison being designated as its capital city.

The Wisconsin Constitution was written at the state’s Constitutional Convention in Madison in December of 1847 and was approved by the citizens of Wisconsin Territory in 1848. This original Constitution has been amended over 100 times but is still in use today, making it the oldest state constitution outside of the New England states. At first, the Wisconsin Constitution granted suffrage to white male citizens over 21 and to Native Americans who were citizens of the United States but it did allow suffrage to change over time as the state legislature intended it to. The banking industry was very controversial in Wisconsin at this time and the idea of the state chartering a bank was voted on at the same time as the state Constitution was ratified. With this vote, the citizens of Wisconsin allowed the state to charter banks within its borders.

Today’s Wisconsin Constitution consists of a Preamble, thanking Almighty God for the freedoms that citizens of the state are blessed with, and then 14 Articles. The first article is a general declaration of rights as citizens of Wisconsin. This allows Wisconsin citizens to live under the same freedoms as the United States Bill of Rights, to prohibit prison sentences for debt, place military under the control of civil authorities, and guarantees our citizens the right to fish and hunt.

The Wisconsin State Legislature is described in Article Four of the state Constitution and is a bicameral lawmaking body comprised of the Wisconsin State Assembly and Wisconsin State Senate. The 4th Article allow states how state representatives are elected and sets forth the powers and limitations of our state legislature.

Article Five establishes the Legislative Branch in Wisconsin. The state’s executive branch consists of a governor and a lieutenant governor, who are each elected to serve four year terms. The powers and duties of the state executive are also outlined here as well, including the line-item veto over appropriation bills. The succession chain of governance is also outlined here, should the governor resign, be recalled or pass away.

The Judicial branch is established in Article Seven and grants the state a Supreme Court, composed of seven Justices, each holding 10-year terms. The Constitution also creates the Wisconsin Circuit Court system, as well as the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. The state may also set up courts and jurisdictions over cities, towns and villages within the state. The impeachment process of state officials is outlined here as well.

The original Wisconsin Constitution document is unfortunately missing and the copy on display in our state capitol building is a replica. The original may have been sent to a publisher and lost somewhere along the way. Fortunately for the citizens of Wisconsin, the words and ideas embodied within the document still exist and will endure far into the future. On Wisconsin!

Val Crofts is a Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches at Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin and has been there 16 years! He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and is honored to participate in this Study on the States!

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