Your Inner Fish/Tiktaalik Update

Tiktaalik illustration by National Science Foundation's Zina Deretsky

Tiktaalik illustration by National Science Foundation's Zina Deretsky

Earlier today we posted a brief review of Neil Shubin’s
Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, following three earlier excerpts from the text on The Hard Parts – Conodonts & Ostracoderms, on Why History Makes Us Sick and on the fascinating primitive tetrapod Tiktaalik.

For those who have read the book, or whose attention has been captivated by one or more of the excerpts mentioned, a number of recent and relatively recent reports have appeared in Science Daily which may well prove to be of further interest.

Just today, a report on recently published research by Shubin and colleagues appeared in the article Evolution of Fins and Limbs Linked With Gills. Additional and related information is available in the earlier New Genetic Data Overturn Long-held Theory Of Limb Development and in Scientists Discover Evolutionary Origin of Fins, Limbs. Other germane items may be found in Primordial Fish Had Rudimentary Fingers and Coelacanth Fossil Sheds Light On Fin-to-Limb Evolution.

Also of interest might be the National Science Foundation’s release New Fossils Fill the Evolutionary Gap Between Fish and Land Animals, from which the illustration above was derived.

Published in: on March 25, 2009 at 4:32 pm  Comments (1)  

Andrew Jackson, Preview 2


The Battle of New Orleans Continued

[For the first part of this excerpt from Sean Wilentz’s Andrew Jackson see Andrew Jackson, Preview 1: The Battle of New Orleans]

“On December 13, scouts spotted the British invaders proceeding from the Gulf of Mexico toward Lake Borgne, just west of the city. Three days later, Jackson declared martial law in New Orleans. His own command still numbered, at most, seven hundred, and there was no sign that reinforcements would arrive before the British did, and so the American general improvised. Upon arriving in New Orleans Jackson had sneered at the Baratarians as ‘hellish banditti,’ but now he struck an alliance with Lafitte. Over the objections of local slaveholders, Jackson also organized two battalions of free black soldiers; and a small contingent of loyal Creek Indians also joined the American side. Finally, on December 20, Jackson’s old friend General John Coffee arrived with a little more than six hundred veterans, including cavalry; the next day, fourteen hundred Tennessee recruits under another old friend, newly elevated Major General William Carroll, marched into town, as did more than one hundred Mississippi dragoons under Major Thomas Hinds. As they swarmed through the streets of New Orleans, the Americans at least resembled a credible fighting force. But unlike his forays against the Creeks, Jackson would have to fight a defensive battle – and this time his army would be gravely outnumbered.

“On December 23, Jackson received two agitated Creole messengers who informed him that the British were closing in without resistance. Jackson calmly offered his visitors some wine, thanked them for their intelligence, and then reportedly swore: ‘I will smash them, so help me God!’ Jackson redeployed his main force five miles east of the city, behind an old millrace. The British repeatedly bombarded Jackson’s forces in an effort to soften them up. Dug in behind mud ramparts, sugar barrels, and cotton bales, the Americans, aided by fire from the Louisiana, a ship anchored in the Mississippi, withstood the assaults. By the morning of January 8, more than two thousand Kentucky militiamen had arrived, although only one-third of them carried guns. Jackson now had about four thousand men on his front line with only about another thousand in reserve. Less than a mile to the east were three columns of British regulars and a regiment of conscripted West Indians – a grand total of more than five thousand troops, most of them hardened veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, with another five thousand held in reserve. Their commander was Lieutenant General Sir Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington. At dawn, a British Congreve rocket soared above a cypress swamp to the left of Jackson’s line, signaling the start of Pakenham’s assault.

“The Americans were lucky as well as skillful. Pakenham had hoped to seize the opposite bank of the Mississippi, outflank Jackson, and pin down the Americans with crossfire. But the river would not cooperate, and plans to ferry over fifteen hundred troops in barges had to be drastically scaled back. Meanwhile, the British Forty-fourth Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullens was positioned to spearhead the British attack by carrying ladders and sugarcane bundles that the main force would later use to scale Jackson’s breastworks. Only when Mullens’s men were in attack position did they realize that they had left the ladders and cane bundles behind. By the time the redcoats retrieved their equipment, the battle was well under way.

“Despite these mishaps, some major deployment errors by Jackson might still have handed victory to the British. Although a smaller number than Pakenham had expected, five hundred British troops under Colonel William Thornton did cross over to the western bank of the Mississippi, and easily dispersed the token American defense force (its weakness the result of what might have been a critical misjudgment on Jackson’s part). Thornton’s men rushed to the American batteries where they could rake Jackson’s troops undisturbed. But Thornton’s men had actually landed well to the south of where they had intended, and arrived in position too late in the battle. On the eastern bank of the river, meanwhile, Jackson had left the American line nearest the Mississippi vulnerable, and early in the fighting a brigade of the Ninety-third Highlanders, commanded by Colonel Robert Rennie, managed to gain the top of the ramparts overlooking the canal. American artillery and marksmen let loose a volley that cut down Rennie’s front ranks (including Rennie himself), but the rest of the Ninety-third’s column, under Major General John Keane, might easily have breached Jackson’s line. Instead of following Rennie’s lead, however, Keane’s Highlanders stuck to their original orders from Pakenham and veered toward the center of the field that lay before them. There, with their bagpipes blaring, they were butchered, along with Pakenham’s main column. Behind their embankments, Jackson’s motley collection of resisters – most effectively twenty cannon crews – poured volleys of grape, canister, and rifle fire into the advancing enemy.

“By eight in the morning, less than two hours after it had begun, the shooting stopped. Jackson walked from position to position congratulating the soldiers, as the army’s band struck up ‘Hail Columbia.’ Then the Americans looked out over their fortifications.

“The heaps of fallen British stretched out unbroken for as far as a quarter-mile. ‘The slaughter was shocking,’ John coffee said after he had regained his composure. Eerily, while the battle smoke cleared off, there was a stirring among the slain soldiers, as redcoats who had used their comrades’ bodies as shields began arising out of the gore. Even Jackson was shaken: ‘I never had so grand and awful an idea of the resurrection as on that day,’ he later recalled. By one account, the British lost nearly three hundred killed and more than fifteen hundred wounded – all told, roughly 40 percent of Pakenham’s attack force. American casualties that day totaled, according to Jackson’s report, just thirteen killed and thirty-nine wounded. The disparity was almost impossible to comprehend.

“As a strategist and tactician, Jackson had met his match in Sir Edward Pakenham. The Americans’ slowness in massing their forces below New Orleans and their failure to secure the western bank of the Mississippi might easily have proved disastrous. Jackson, refusing to acknowledge any blunders on his own part, blamed the near-disaster on ‘[t]he want of discipline, the want of Order, a total disregard to Obedience, and a Spirit of insubordination’ supposedly displayed by the beaten soldiers. But Jackson’s unswerving confidence had emboldened both the citizens of New Orleans and his own soldiers when they had seemed doomed. He had handled the fighting on the east bank expertly. Staving off the temptation to mount a risky counterattack, he had thrown the redcoats back to Lake Borgne. Two weeks after the battle, they headed back out to sea.

“A month later, in early February, news of the outcome in New Orleans finally reached Washington – followed, just a bit more than a week later, by the news that on Christmas Eve, while Jackson’s forces were digging in for combat, the British and Americans had signed a peace treaty in Ghent. By the time Jackson won his triumph, the war had been formally over for two weeks. Yet the irony did nothing to diminish the public exaltation . . . . President Madison sent General Jackson a special commendation. Congress unanimously passed a lengthy resolution of thanks and ordered a gold medal be struck in his honor. The city of Washington, still climbing out of the ashes, erupted with delight, as did cities from Philadelphia to Nashville. Newspapers printed testimonials from Jackson’s men attesting to their general’s leadership and bravery

“Old Hickory, although a physical wreck, basked in the adulation. He had risen from next to nothing to become the most renowned American general since George Washington – the greatest hero of what some were calling the second American Revolution.”

Published in: on March 16, 2009 at 3:55 pm  Comments (2)  

Andrew Jackson & the Nullification Crisis


Today, of course, is the 242nd anniversary of the birth of Andrew Jackson, combative and controversial seventh President of the United States.

Jackson’s legacy is viewed with greater ambivalence today than it was even just a few decades ago. His adamant belief in slavery and white supremacy, and genocidal policies toward native Indian peoples, along with his deleterious economic policies, have seriously tainted his traditional image as defender of the common man and proponent of democratization. In a later post, we’ll look at Sean Wilentz’s Andrew Jackson, one of the 27 biographies in the American Presidents series of Henry Holt and Company recently added to the library’s shelves. But before we do so:

Daniel Howe’s superlative What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 is one of the finest volumes in the Oxford History of the United States series. In his chapter on “Battles Over Sovereignty,” Howe assesses “the most serious constitutional crisis faced by the American republic between the adoption of the Constitution and the Civil War” – the Nullification Crisis – and concludes that “Jackson’s response to the nullification crisis stands as his finest hour”:

Andrew Jackson and the Nullification Crisis

“On November 24, 1832, South Carolina’s Nullification Convention passed an ordinance declaring that ‘it shall not be lawful’ after February 1, 1833, ‘to enforce payment of duties imposed by the said acts within the limits of this state.’ The deadline was later extended; its purpose was to provide time for Congress to repeal the protective features in the tariff under this new ultimatum. The ordinance concluded with a threat to secede if the federal government attempted to coerce the state. Carrying out the mandate of the ordinance, South Carolina’s state legislators commenced preparations for resistance to federal authority, including raising twenty-five thousand volunteer militiamen, though they expected to avoid armed conflict. They summoned Robert Hayne back from Washington to become governor of the state and elected [John C.] Calhoun to replace him in the Senate, showing that (despite the threat of secession) the most extreme Radicals would not be in charge. Accordingly, Calhoun resigned his lame duck vice presidency on December 28, 1832, and took his seat on the Senate floor.

“The nullifiers felt encouraged by Jackson’s support for South Carolina’s Negro Seamen Law and for the Georgians in their defiance of the Cherokees’ treaty rights, both of which might well be considered forms of nullification. But they were wrong to think he would support them this time. Jackson was the last person to back away from a confrontation, and he took nullification as a patriotic and personal challenge from a man he had already come to distrust and loathe. The president regarded the nullification movement the same way he did the national bank, as a conspiracy against republican liberty prompted and led by a demagogue’s ambition. Though he and Calhoun were both Scots-Irish cotton planters born in South Carolina, and both considered themselves heirs of Jeffersonian Republicanism, they actually differed significantly in temperament and outlook. Calhoun represented a mature slaveholding aristocracy and conceived himself its philosopher-statesman. Jackson thought and spoke as an outsider to aristocracy. He typified the slaveholding man-on-the-make made good, an old soldier rather than a philosopher. Like Calhoun he was preoccupied with sovereignty, but to him it represented not a theory but a matter of deeply felt personal authority. As commander in chief, Old Hickory would not tolerate mutiny. Calhoun and Jackson shared an old-fashioned concept of manly honor that required vindication at any cost. The most serious constitutional crisis faced by the American republic between the adoption of the Constitution and the Civil War was also a showdown between two resolute individual men.

“Jackson’s response to the nullification crisis stands as his finest hour. He combined firmness with conciliation. The firmness appeared unmistakably in his historic presidential proclamation on December 10. Nullification, the president told the people of South Carolina, was ‘in direct violation of their duty as citizens of the united States’ and ‘subversive of its Constitution.’ In Jackson’s straightforward logic, nullification was tantamount to secession. The president must execute the law; resistance to such execution would have to forcible. Calhoun’s arguments for peaceful nullification were specious, Jackson declared. ‘Do not be deceived by names Disunion by armed force is treason.’

“The proclamation drew upon the legal acumen of Secretary of State Edward Livingston, who had faced the foe with Jackson eighteen years before at New Orleans. Besides exposing the impracticality of nullification, it defended the constitutionality of protective tariffs and refuted Calhoun’s theory that states retained complete sovereignty within the Union. To many contemporaries, including the dying John Randolph, it seemed Jackson had forsaken the Old Republican faith and endorsed the nationalism of Daniel Webster and John Marshall. Back in 1830, as senator from Louisiana, Livingston had endorsed a synthesis of nationalism and state rights based on a theory of divided sovereignty, shared by both state and national authority; this was the standard doctrine in the Democratic Party and would remain so for many years to come. But in December 1832, Jackson insisted that his proclamation endorse the unqualified principle of national sovereignty.

“In the face of South Carolina’s challenge, Jackson responded with both toughness and responsibility. The commander in chief reinforced the garrisons of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney in Charleston harbor and dispatched two armed revenue cutters to the scene. People both within and without South Carolina started to fear civil war. Eight thousand armed South Carolina Unionists enrolled, ready to answer a presidential call to oppose the state militia. The president ordered General Winfield Scott to prepare for military operations, but like Lincoln a generation later he cautioned that if violence broke out, the federal forces must not be the aggressors. To deter the nullifiers from attacking the Unionists in their midst, Jackson warned a South Carolina congressman that ‘if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.’ When Robert Hayne ventured, ‘I don’t believe he would really hang anybody, do you?’ Thomas Hart Benton replied, ‘Few people have believed he would hang Arbuthnot and shoot Ambrister . . . I tell you, Hayne, when Jackson begins to talk about hanging, they can begin to look out for ropes!’ In January 1833, the president asked Congress for power to deal with the emergency, notably by shifting the collection point for customs duties to offshore federal ships and forts, beyond the range of the nullifiers’ control. Angry Carolinians dubbed it ‘the Force Bill,’ thought the measure actually rendered an armed clash between state and federal authorities less likely. At the same time Representative Gulian C. Verplanck of New York, a Democratic free-trader, introduced a drastic tariff reduction backed by the administration, which would immediately cut duties in half. Jackson wanted to make sure of the loyalty of the rest of the cotton South, and on the tariff issue he was willing to compromise.

“The really critical issue of the situation would be the response of the other southern states to south Carolina’s initiative. Only with their support could a single state make nullification a viable precedent. In the end, this support did not come. Not even Mississippi and Louisiana, where the percentage of slaves in the population was almost as high as in South Carolina, came to their sister state’s aid, for neither shared her attitude toward the Tariff of 1832. Enjoying newly cultivated, rich soil, southwestern cotton-growers did not feel as hard pressed as those in South Carolina, while Louisiana sugar-growers actually favored protectionism. So no call went out for a new constitutional convention to settle the validity of tariff protection. Instead, legislatures in eight southern states passed resolutions condemning South Carolina’s nullification . . . .

“While Jackson’s willingness to coerce South Carolina if necessary undoubtedly worried southerners and doughfaces, his new support for tariff reduction, his record on Indian Removal, his professions of faith in strict construction, and his undoubted devotion to slavery and white supremacy combined to reassure them. His Force Bill provoked eloquent congressional oratory on state and national sovereignty, but little serious opposition. The Force Bill passed the House with more than a three-quarters majority (149 to 48) and the Senate with but one dissenting vote (though nine southern senators, including those from south Carolina, stayed away). For the time being at least, the slaveholding South appeared content to rely for protection on normal politics, with a sympathetic president representing the will of a majority of the electorate, rather than on a novel and drastic theory about state sovereignty.”

Published in: on March 15, 2009 at 12:01 am  Comments (2)  

Andrew Jackson, Preview 1


Sean Wilentz, now successor to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as editor of Henry Holt and Company’s series on The American Presidents, authored the series’ 2005 biography Andrew Jackson, a 166-page review of the life of America’s seventh and still controversial president.

With Jackson’s 242nd birthday tomorrow, it seems appropriate to offer an excerpt or two from this brief, balanced but very sympathetic, and worthwhile biography. Let’s begin with a two-part view of the event which made Jackson’s national reputation and punctuated the conclusion of the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans:

The Battle of New Orleans — Prelude

“The Indian threat routed, Jackson turned his full fury against the British, who, the Americans calculated, were planning an invasion somewhere along the Gulf coast. After repulsing a British attack on Mobile, Jackson made war against the Spanish in West Florida who, in conjunction with the British [he told Rachel], were ‘arming the hostile Indians to butcher our women & children.’ The only snag was that the United States was not formally at war with Spain. Caring little for technicalities, Jackson threatened to invade Florida; the alarmed Spanish governor invited the British to land at Pensacola, in violation of Spanish neutrality. Now fully justified in his own mind, Jackson invaded, seized Pensacola, rendered it militarily useless, then gave it back to the Spanish. A week later, Jackson learned that the British had launched an invasion force from Jamaica, numbering about ten thousand troops and sixty ships, aimed at New Orleans – and that he had been placed in charge of the city’s defenses. He fortified the existing American defenses at Mobile, and then scrambled two thousand soldiers in nine days, arriving with about seven hundred troops in a jumpy city that was unprepared for battle.

“The war had entered a critical phase. A British diversionary force had burned Washington in early August and sent Madison and his cabinet scurrying into the Virginia night. But American militiamen somehow succeeded in halting the British advance at Baltimore. In Anglophilic, Federalist New England, where the war had always been deeply unpopular, there was open talk of secession and pursuing a separate peace; antiwar dissenters planned a convention to meet at Hartford, Connecticut, in mid-December. Across the Atlantic, in the Flemish town of Ghent, an American delegation, including John Quincy Adams, lately the American minister to St. Petersburg, and Henry Clay, had undertaken peace talks with the British, but was running into diplomatic roadblocks. News traveled slowly, and it was impossible to know whether an honorable settlement, continued military stalemate, or national dissolution was in the offing.

“New Orleans was an entryway to the immense territories obtained in the Louisiana Purchase, the bulwark of what Thomas Jefferson had envisaged as an American empire of liberty. If the British could seize the city, they would control the entire lower Mississippi Valley – and, if they linked up with royal forces sent from Canada, they would then effectively control all of what was then the American West. As the British government had never recognized the spanish retrocession of these western lands to the French in 1800. The invaders could claim that the entire Louisiana Purchase had been illegitimate and that, by right of conquest, the land belonged to Britain. But regardless of such scheming, possession of New Orleans was crucial to the outcome of the current fighting. Should the Americans lose the city – and if no settlement was forthcoming at Ghent – they would almost certainly lose the war. And although New Orkleans, surrounded by lakes and bayous, enjoyed formidable natural protections against invasion, the American situation there was highly uncertain.

“Louisiana had been admitted to the Union in 1812, but New Orleans, with its long-resident Creole French and Spanish population, could not be counted on for undivided loyalty and support. South of the city, control of the bayous around Barataria Bay belonged to a band of well-armed privateers and smugglers, commanded by Haitian-born Jean Lafitte, whose only loyalties were to themselves. As in any southern state, there were fears of slave unrest. In January 1811, then territorial governor W.C.C. Claiborne had ruthlessly suppressed a rebellion of upwards of five hundred slaves, who burned several sugarcane plantations north of New Orleans and briefly menaced the city itself. Now, with a British armada at Louisiana’s doorstep, there was reason to fear that the invaders would mobilize the bondsmen.”


Published in: on March 14, 2009 at 11:49 am  Leave a Comment  

The Sword of Lincoln, Preview 2


A second, and very brief, look at Jeffrey D. Wert’s history of the Army of the Potomac, The Sword of Lincoln:

“During one action [at Chancellorsville], a Rebel sharpshooter killed Brigadier General Amiel W. Whipple, a Third corps division commander. When Private John Haley of the 17th Maine heard of Whipple’s death, he was astonished. ‘How any bullet ever pierced General Whipple’s armor of dirt is a mystery of mysteries,’ exclaimed Haley. ‘I considered him perfectly safe from any missile weighing less than a ton, having a casing of dirt of unknown thickness supposed to be invulnerable.'”

[It is worth noting that the first territorial capital of Arizona was named Fort Whipple, in honor of the fallen general.]

Published in: on March 12, 2009 at 9:24 am  Leave a Comment  

The Sword of Lincoln, Preview 1

Major General John Sedgwick, killed at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, for whom Sedgwick County, Kansas is named

Major General John Sedgwick, corps commander in the Army of the Potomac, killed at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, and for whom Sedgwick County, Kansas is named

Jeffrey D. Wert’s The Sword of Lincoln is a comprehensive new look at the history of the Army of the Potomac throughout the course of the Civil War, thoroughly researched, well-documented and unquestionably the best complete one-volume look at that sorely-tried host since Bruce Catton’s classic three-volume The Army of the Potomac more than half a century ago.

In the following passage, Wert discusses the conduct of Major General John Sedgwick during the course of the battle of Chancellorsville, arguably Robert E. Lee’s most audacious defeat of the Army of the Potomac:

“Union Major General John Sedgwick was an officer ill-suited for the role assigned to him in the Chancellorsville Campaign. Appointed a wing commander, Sedgwick directed operations of his Sixth Corps and John Reynolds’s First Corps below Fredericksburg. His orders specified that if the Confederates retreated toward Richmond, he should pursue them, and if they marched to oppose the Federals at Chancellorsville, he should ‘attack and carry their works at all hazards.’ The duty required of Sedgwick alertness, initiative, and flexibility amid fluid circumstances. Unfortunately, caution and deliberateness characterized his generalship.

“From April 29, when his forces crossed to the enemy side of the Rappahannock, through May 2, Sedgwick held his troops in place. Observers in balloons kept him informed of enemy movements from their lines behind Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. The Southerners who remained in front of Sedgwick manned the hills and ridges along a six-mile front. They numbered less than half of Sedgwick’s 24,000-man Sixth Corps. Artillery fire and skirmishing marked the action. Sedgwick ordered weak demonstrations, but undertook no attacks, despite seeing most of the remaining defenders pull out and march west on May 2.

“To be sure, Sedgwick wrestled with telegraphic breakdowns – the wire between Chancellorsville and Falmouth had been strung on lances – lost couriers, and conflicting orders. Joseph Hooker shifted the First Corps to Chancellorsville on May 2, under the mistaken belief that Sedgwick had recrossed the river. Nevertheless, Sedgwick squandered an opportunity to strike the weakly held works on May 2. He finally stirred into action when Hooker sent him a peremptory order to seize the town and to attack the Rebel lines. Hooker sent Gouverneur Warren to Sedgwick to make certain the general acted. Warren confided subsequently to Hooker that he believed Sedgwick would not have moved against the enemy had Warren not been present.

“It was minutes after ten o’clock on the morning of May 3 when ten Sixth Corps regiments in three attack columns advanced at the double-quick toward Marye’s Heights. Jubal Early’s ranks had been stretched so thin that only eight cannon crews and 1,200 Mississippians manned the hill when the Yankees appeared. The Southerners opened fire, lashing the heads of the columns. Casualties mounted among the blue-coated soldiers, but in the words of a staff officer, ‘Sedgwick’s men could not be stopped, they were for blood.’

“The attackers, as ‘if moved by a sudden impulse,’ poured over the infamous stone wall at the base of the hill and wrenched it from the Mississippians. Up the slope they went, seizing the eight cannon and hundreds of prisoners. The assault had taken less than thirty minutes, but at a cost of more than six hundred in killed and wounded. Early managed to gather up his scattered units and retreat south away from Fredericksburg.

“With the road open to Chancellorsville, Sedgwick hesitated to advance westward until he had consolidated his divisions. His orders required a rapid march, but caution owned the soul of Uncle John. By the time the Sixth Corps resumed its march, Lee had dispatched a division from Chancellorsville to oppose the Federals. Five Confederate brigades held the wooded terrain around Salem Church, three miles east of Chancellorsville.

“Two brigades of Brigadier General William Brooks’s Union division advanced on the enemy position about four o’clock. Some of Brooks’s troops had received bounties to enlist, and as they went in, he allegedly called them ‘two hundred dollar sons of bitches.’ Bounty men or not, they charged with spirit, breaking through a section of the Rebel line. ‘We fired as fast as we could,’ claimed a Yankee, ‘and Johnny Reb done the same.’ But the Confederates rallied, counterattacked, and repulsed the Federals. Brooks’s men streamed to the rear.

“In all Sedgwick had committed only 4,000 troops to the attack. Evidently, he and his other generals underestimated enemy strength. The assault cost Brooks more than 1,500 casualties, or roughly 40 percent of those engaged. Southern losses amounted to less than half their opponents’. The Sixth Corps ‘rested on their arms,’ along and north of Orange Plank road.

“Sedgwick endured a long and difficult night of May 3-4. His chief of staff recounted that the general ‘scarcely slept.’ He paced, listened to the sounds through the darkness, and tried to sleep. In his report, Sedgwick said that he heard enemy reinforcements move into position. His corps was miles from the main body of the army, with the Rebels between them. If the Confederates retook the heights at Fredericksburg, his troops would be boxed in on three sides. ‘The might was,’ said his aide, ‘inexpressibly gloomy.’

“At daylight on May 4, Sedgwick shifted his divisions, forming a broad U-shaped position, with both flanks on the Rappahannock. The only instructions he received from Hooker came in a dispatch from Warren, who directed him to remain on the defensive unless the Federals attacked at Chancellorsville, ‘look well to the safety of your corps,’ and to cover his retreat route at Banks’s Ford. They were not reassuring words to a general of Sedgwick’s temperament.

“Contrary to what Sedgwick believed, Lee had not sent additional units out the Plank Road during the night. But the Rebels were coming on the morning of May 4. Jubal Early’s veterans reoccupied a vacant Marye’s Heights – John Gibbon’s Union Second Corps division had been ordered to occupy Fredericksburg, not the high ground to the west – and then turned toward Sedgwick’s corps. From Chancellorsville, Lee sent three brigades. In all, the Southerners massed three divisions, or more than 20,000 troops, against the Sixth Corps.

“It took the Confederates most of the day to deploy for an assault. It was not until six o’clock before they charged Sedgwick’s line. The fighting was centered on the Union left, held by Brigadier General Albion P. Howe, a native of Maine and a West Pointer known for his ‘unsociable disposition.’ The combat was fierce at points. One Federal soldier remarked afterward, ‘I no more expected to get out of that place alive than I expected to fly.’ Blue-jacketed artillerymen and Howe’s veterans repulsed the attacks, carried out by only four Rebel brigades. Under the cover of darkness, Sedgwick compacted his line toward Banks’s Ford.

“Throughout the day, Sedgwick sent a stream of telegrams to Hooker and the army’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, who had stayed at Falmouth during the campaign to coordinate communications and movements between the two wings. The tone of his dispatches revealed a general overwrought with the dangers in front of him. Hours before the Rebels attacked he insisted, ‘The enemy are pressing me hard.’ Fifteen minutes later, he asked Hooker, ‘Can you help me strongly if I am attacked?’ He reported that deserters placed the number of troops opposed to him at 40,000. Despite the repulse of the Confederates, he was committed to a withdrawal of his corps across the river.

“At 1:00 A.M., on May 5, Butterfield directed Sedgwick to cross the Rappahannock. Sedgwick received the order an hour later and replied, ‘Will withdraw my forces immediately.’ At 1:20 A.M., Hooker countermanded the order, but the dispatch did not reach Sedgwick until 3:20 A.M. By then it was too late to stop the crossing at Banks’s Ford. By daylight, the Sixth Corps had filed to the north of the river, and the pontoon bridges had been cut loose from the south bank.

“The next day, May 6, Sedgwick wrote to his sister, ‘I am perfectly satisfied with the part my corps took in it, and their conduct was admirable.’ Indeed, the Sixth Corps troops had fought well, but their commander had restricted their role in the campaign. Hooker had expected much more from them, but he had misjudged Sedgwick’s capability for an independent command that required aggressiveness. In his letter to his sister, Sedgwick warned her to ‘believe little that you see in the papers. There will be an effort to throw the blame for the failure on me, but it will not succeed. My friends here will do me justice.’

“Unfortunately for the army, Sedgwick’s performance typified one of the curses that plagued its senior leadership. He was ‘perfectly satisfied’ with minimal performance. There was no urgency to his movements, no pressing desire to go to the sounds of battle at Chancellorsville. While Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and their subordinates sought a reckoning, despite the odds, Sedgwick searched only for obstacles that prevented him from fulfilling his primary mission. The contrast between the differing mind-sets characterized the great divide between the two armies. A firm admirer of George McClellan, Sedgwick shared his former commander’s approach to battle. It had crippled McClellan, and it crippled Sedgwick.”

Published in: on March 9, 2009 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tiktaalik — Your Inner Fish, Preview 3


In an early section of his book Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, Neil Shubin discusses some aspects of the light shed on human evolution by the discovery of the transitional fossil form Tiktaalik, a kind of intermediate between fish and tetrapod:

“It is a long way from Tiktaalik to humanity. The important, and often surprising, fact is that most of the major bones humans use to walk, throw or grasp first appear in animals tens to hundreds of millions of years before. The first bits of our upper arm and leg are in 380-million-year-old fish like Eusthenopteron. Tiktaalik reveals the early stages of the evolution of our wrist, palm, and finger area. The first true fingers and toes are seen in 365-million-year-old amphibians like Acanthostega. Finally, the full complement of wrist and ankle bones found in a human hand or foot is seen in reptiles more than 250 million years old. The basic skeleton of our hands and feet emerged over hundreds of millions of years, first in fish and later in amphibians and reptiles.

“But what are the major changes that enable us to use our hands or walk on two legs? How do these shifts come about? Let’s look at two simple examples from limbs for some answers.

“We humans, like many other mammals, can rotate our thumbs relative to our elbow. This simple function is very important for the use of our hands in everyday life. Imagine trying to eat, write, or throw a ball without being able to rotate your hand relative to your elbow. We can do this because one forearm bone, the radius, rotates along a pivot point at the elbow joint. The structure of the joint at the elbow is wonderfully designed for this function. At the end of our upper-arm bone, the humerus, lies a ball. The tip of the radius, which attaches here, forms a beautiful little socket that fits on the ball. This ball-and-socket joint allows the rotation of our hand, called pronation and supination. Where do we see the beginnings of this ability? In creatures like Tiktaalik. In Tiktaalik, the end of the humerus forms an elongated bump onto which a cup-shaped joint on the radius fits. When Tiktaalik bent its elbow, the end of its radius would rotate, or pronate, relative to the elbow. Refinements of this ability are seen in amphibians and reptiles, where the end of the humerus becomes a true ball, much like our own.

“Looking now at the hind limb, we find a key feature that gives us the capacity to walk, one we share with other mammals. Unlike fish and amphibians, our knees and elbows face in opposite directions. This feature is critical: think of trying to walk with your kneecap facing backward. A very different situation exists in fish like Eusthenopteron, where the equivalents of the knee and elbow face largely in the same direction. We start development with little limbs oriented much like those in Eusthenopteron, with elbows and knees facing in the same direction. As we grow in the womb, our knees and elbows rotate to give us the state of affairs we see in humans today.

Our bipedal pattern of walking uses the movements of our hips, knees, ankles, and foot bones to propel us forward in an upright stance unlike the sprawled posture of creatures like Tiktaalik. One big difference is the position of our hips. Our legs do not project sideways like those of a crocodile, amphibian, or fish; rather, they project underneath our bodies. This change in posture cam about by changes in the hip joint, pelvis, and upper leg: our pelvis became bowl shaped, our hip socket became deep, our femur gained its distinctive neck, the feature that enables it to project under the body rather than to the side.

“Do the facts of our ancient history mean that humans are not special or unique among living creatures? Of course not. In fact, knowing something about the deep origins of humanity only adds to the remarkable fact of our existence: all of our extraordinary capabilities arose from basic components that evolved in ancient fish and other creatures. From common parts came a very unique construction. We are not separate from the rest of the living world; we are part of it down to our bones and, as we will see shortly, even our genes.”

For further information on the extraordinarily interesting “fishapod” Tiktaalik see the University of Chicago’s Tiktaalik roseae site, the Tiktaalik roseae entry in Devonian Times (which has much contextual information of considerable value), the 2006 National Geographic article on Tiktaalik, and the original University of Chicago press release announcing Tiktaalik’s discovery. You might also want to see this brief entry at


Published in: on February 25, 2009 at 7:19 pm  Comments (2)  

Your Inner Fish – Preview 2: Why History Makes Us Sick

Another brief excerpt from Neil Shubin’s delightful and perceptive Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body – on “Why History Makes Us Sick”:

“My knee was swollen to the size of a grapefruit, and one of my colleagues from the surgery department was twisting and bending it to determine whether I had strained or ripped one of the ligaments or cartilage pads inside. This, and the MRI scan that followed, revealed a torn meniscus, the probable result of twenty-five years spent carrying a backpack over rocks, boulders and scree in the field. Hurt your knee and you will almost certainly injure one or more of three structures: the medial meniscus, the medial collateral ligament, or the anterior cruciate ligament. So regular are injuries to these three parts of your knee that these three structures are known among doctors as the ‘Unhappy Triad.’ They are clear evidence of the pitfalls of having an inner fish. Fish do not walk on two legs.

“Our humanity comes at a cost. For the exceptional combination of things we do – talk, think, grasp, and walk on two legs – we pay a price. This is an inevitable result of the tree of life inside us.

“Imagine trying to jury-rig a Volkswagen Beetle to travel at speeds of 150 miles per hour. In 1933, Adolf Hitler commissioned Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to develop a cheap car that could get 40 miles per gallon of gasoline and provide a reliable form of transportation for the average German family. The result was the VW Beetle. This history, Hitler’s plan, places constraints on the ways we can modify the Beetle today; the engineering can be tweaked only so far before major problems arise and the car reaches its limit.

“In many ways, we humans are the fish equivalent of a hot-rod Beetle. Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers – and you have a recipe for problems. We can dress up a fish only so much without paying a price. In a perfectly designed world – one with no history – we would not have to suffer everything from hemorrhoids to cancer.

“Nowhere is this history more visible than in the detours, twists and turns of our arteries, nerves and veins. Follow some nerves and you’ll find that they make strange loops around other organs, apparently going in one direction only to twist and end up in an unexpected place. The detours are fascinating products of our past that, as we’ll see, often create problems for us – hiccups and hernias, for example. And this is only one way our past comes back to plague us.

“Our deep history was spent, at different times, in ancient oceans, small streams, and savannahs, not office buildings, ski slopes, and tennis courts. We were not designed to live past the age of eighty, sit on our keisters for ten hours a day, and eat Hostess Twinkies, nor were we designed to play football. This disconnect between our past and our human present means that our bodies fall apart in certain predictable ways.

“Virtually every illness we suffer has some historical component. The examples that follow reflect how different branches of the tree of life inside us – from ancient humans, to amphibians and fish, and finally to microbes – come back to pester us today. Each of these examples show that we were not designed rationally, but are products of a convoluted history.”

Published in: on February 20, 2009 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rutherford B. Hayes Postscript 3: The Electoral Controversy of 1876

An interesting perspective on the electoral controversy of 1876 is offered by the website in Finding Precedent: Hayes v. Tilden – The Electoral College Controversy of 1876-1877. The feature uses resources gleaned largely from Harper’s Weekly, the “definitive newspaper of record for the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth . . . [with] broad national distribution and some international, a circulation that exceeded 100,000 and peaked at 300,000, and effective readership of at least half a million people.” It includes an overview and daily chronology of the political crisis, a number of relevant historical cartoons, biographies of all the principals, and the text of the settlement plan, among other items. You can also find more information on the campaign of 1876 in another equally interesting feature offered on the site, The Presidential Elections 1860-1912.

[For the original post on Rutherford B. Hayes, look here. For the two preceding postscripts, look here and here.]

Published in: on January 3, 2009 at 10:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rutherford B. Hayes Postscript 2: Progressive Predecessor


One interesting and often ignored aspect of Rutherford B. Hayes is the degree to which he anticipated many of the various strains of the later Progressive movement. Trefousse [see our earlier review of his Rutherford B. Hayes here] touches upon this point briefly near the end of his biography, observing that . . .

“Another one of his causes was the control of the growing inequality of wealth. At a time when theories of laissez-faire predominated, and when it was believed that the iron law of wages could not be disturbed, to say nothing of the ever-present ideas of the survival of the fittest, his concern about this subject was quite unusual and forward-looking. More equal distribution of property was a question he discussed with friends. Believing that in America the development of a permanent aristocracy of inherited wealth should not be allowed, he thought the answer might be a limitation on inheritance with the public the beneficiary of the remainder of the estate. When in May 1886 the riot on Haymarket Square in Chicago brought about a popular revulsion against violence, he was as wholly in favor of suppressing it by force as the general public. ‘Strikes and boycotts,’ he had thought for some time, ‘are akin to war, and can be justified only on grounds analogous to those which justify war, viz., intolerable injustice and oppression.’ But he still believed that labor did not get its fair share of the wealth it created, and he endorsed President Grover Cleveland’s message calling for the establishment off a Commission of Labor to consider and settle industrial disputes. At the funeral in Cleveland of General Arthur F. Devereux, an old acquaintance, he met the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and he could not overlook the inconsistency of permitting such vast power to be vested in the hands of one man. He thought that great wealth must be controlled and railroad kings curbed. He also felt that the taxation system was unfair, taking a much smaller share of the estate of millionaires than of ordinary citizens. ‘The real difficulty is with the vast wealth and power in the hands of the few and the unscrupulous who represent or control capital,’ he wrote. ‘Hundreds of laws of congress and the state legislatures are in the interests of these men and against the interests of the workingmen.’ As he summed it u, ‘Lincoln was for a government of the people. The new tendency is “a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.”’ This type of social conscience was rare and marked Hayes as an early progressive.”

Published in: on January 2, 2009 at 4:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Rutherford B. Hayes Postscript: Four Years

“Nobody ever left the Presidency with less regret, less disappointment, fewer heartburns, or more general content with the result of his term.”
— letter, Rutherford B. Hays to Guy Bryan, New Years Day, 1881

“The permanent pacification of the country upon such principles and by such measures as will secure the complete protection of all its citizens in the free enjoyment of all their constitutional rights is now the one subject in our public affairs which all thoughtful and patriotic citizens regard as of supreme importance.”
— Rutherford B. Hayes, inaugural address, March 5, 1877

Published in: on January 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Preview 2: A New Human — The Wallace Line

Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee on the ‘Wallace Line’ in A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores, Indonesia:

“The Wallace Line snakes between Bali and Lombok, then north through the Macassar Strait between Borneo and Sulawesi. At first glance, it might seem an arbitrary, inconsequential line to nowhere, but basically it marks the eastern edge of the Asian continental shelf, on which the seas today are so shallow that ships can anchor anywhere over the vast area between the islands. At times of low sea level, this continental shelf was exposed as dry land, and islands such as Sumatra, Java, Bali and Borneo were part of the Asian mainland – and so were populated by a full range of Asian land animals. In contrast, farther to the east, such as Sulawesi, Lombok, Flores, Timor and the Moluccas, were separated by deep-sea barriers from both the Asian and Australian continents. Most land animals lacked the capacity to make sea crossings of such magnitude, and few managed to reach these oceanic islands.

“. . . Wallace first identified this line on the basis of a sharp break in the proportion of Asian to Australian bird species, but more generally it marks the change from continental islands with a wide range of Asian land animals to oceanic islands with few such species. In fact, comparisons between Borneo and Sulawesi show that, while a number of Asian land animals succeeded in crossing the Wallace Line, a much greater number have been stopped by it. For instance, only 13 of 59 species of shrew, 2 of 21 species of deer, 7 of 56 species of civet, and 14 of 196 species of squirrel crossed the Wallace Line. Of the primates, none of the leaf monkeys, the highly specialized proboscis monkeys, gibbons or orangutans managed the crossing – only tarsiers, macaques and humans.

“Wallace realized that for new species to emerge, there had to be barriers preventing breeding between divergent populations, and he had an explanation to account for the extraordinary juxtaposition of two such radically different arrays of animals. ‘I believe the western part to be a separated portion of continental Asia, the eastern the fragmentary prolongation of a former Pacific continent.’ This sentence marks the birth of biogeography, the science of explaining where species originate and why they occur where they do. He was the first to realize that to really understand the distribution of species over the face of the earth, one had to appreciate not only the species’ evolutionary history, but also the geological history of the region where they occurred.”

Published in: on December 26, 2008 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)