High Stakes at Antietam

A largely accidental battle, pitting Robert E. Lee against George B. McClellan, became the single deadliest day in America's history and changed the course of the Civil War.

The day of Antietam—September 17, 1862 — was like no other day of the Civil War. “The roar of the infantry was beyond anything conceivable to the uninitiated,” wrote a Union officer who fought there. Read more »

On The Road To Harriet Tubman

She has become one of the most famous of all American women, but to the biographer she is a tantalizingly elusive quarry

Like all biographers, I search for compelling figures with universal appeal. I seek someone who will keep me awake nights, who will take me on strange detours, who will make me crazy with curiosity. Those very vital questions that form the core of an individual’s experience will engulf and overwhelm, and perhaps even undermine me—as, once again, I take the plunge. I feel lucky indeed to have found such a subject in Harriet Tubman.

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The Chicken Story

A CENTURY AGO you’d eat steak and lobster when you couldn’t afford chicken. Today it can cost less than the potatoes you serve with. What happened in the years between was an extraordinary marriage of technology and the market.

King Henri IV of France was a great king. He was also, perhaps, the world’s first real politician—for in the course of his ten-year battle to secure the French throne for the Bourbon dynasty he began deliberately enlisting public opinion and even invented the political slogan to help him do so. Instinctively knowing the shortest route to his people’s hearts, he told them, “I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he is unable to have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” Read more »

Shanghaied!

The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, but right on into this century sailors were routinely drugged, beaten, and kidnapped to man America’s mighty merchant marine

William Davis, a cabinet-maker, left his home near Great Salt Lake in the Utah Territory in the mid-1870s and headed for Northern California, a fast-growing region where he hoped to earn up to six dollars a day by adapting his expertise to ship carpentry. He made the eight-hundred-mile trek with his wife, Isabelle, and three small children, the youngest of whom was just six weeks old. Read more »

The Tyranny Of The Lawn

For more than a century now, American homeowners have been struggling to remake their small patch of the environment into a soft, green carpet just like the neighbor’s. Who told us this was the way a lawn had to be?

When it comes to lawn care, my father has always insisted on doing it the hard way. No shortcuts or modern conveniences for him. After my parents bought a new house in San Diego in the early 1970s, he refused to break up the soil with a Rototiller the way most people did. His more thorough alternative involved digging a foot down with a shovel, pulling the rocks out, and forcing the dirt through a mesh screen.Read more »

School For Sailors

A novelist and historian takes us on a tour of the Academy at Annapolis, where American history encompasses the history of the world.

Watery is the first word that comes to mind as you enter the main gate of the U.S. Naval Academy, at the foot of the Maryland town that has become the school’s other name, Annapolis. The broad Severn River greets the sea reaches of Chesapeake Bay a few hundred yards away. A few miles farther out is the Atlantic. Just across Prince George Street is Annapolis harbor, crammed with sloops and power boats. This is obviously a good place for a school for sailors, a nursery of admirals. Read more »

The Terrible Price Of Freedom

The bloodiest day’s fighting in our nation’s history took place on ground that has hardly changed since 1862. Antietam today offers a unique chance to grasp what a great Civil War battle was actually like.

During the recent Third Battle of Manassas—the struggle in northern Virginia between a shopping-mall developer and the Manassas National Battlefield Park—I noticed among the flying brickbats a letter to the Washington Post from a William Heyman. Mr. Heyman wanted to see the shopping mall built on ground where the Second Battle of Manassas was fought for what struck me as a novel bit of reasoning. “Battlefields glorify death,” he wrote. “Shopping malls celebrate life.” Read more »

Consider The Oyster

It saved the early Colonists from starvation, it has caused men to murder each other, it used to be our most democratic food—in short, an extraordinary bivalve

The oyster is an ancient species, and one that has evolved little over millions of years. It is found in the tidal waters of every continent but Antarctica, on the shores of every sea but the Caspian. It flourishes best in the bays and estuaries where salt- and fresh water mix and people build resorts. And despite the saying that it was a bold man who first ate one, the oyster has been consumed by humans since before the oldest certifiable man-made artifact. Read more »

Johns Hopkins

HOW A FARSIGHTED QUAKER MERCHANT AND FOUR GREAT DOCTORS BROUGHT FORTH, WITH MADDENING SLOWNESS, ONE OF THE FINEST MEDICAL CENTERS IN THE WORLD

In 1884, after he was offered an appointment to the medical faculty of the newly created Johns Hopkins University, Dr. William Henry Welch wrote to his stepmother: “Such great things are expected of the medical faculty at the Johns Hopkins in the way of achievement and of reform of medical education in this country that I feel oppressed by the weight of responsibility. A reputation there will not be so cheaply earned as at Bellevue, but in so far the stimulus to do good work will be the greater.Read more »

Maryland Their Maryland

For over a century the colony was the feudal property of the Lords Baltimore. It turned out to be a fee of troubles.

Beneath a picture of dancing Negroes in a Maryland Schoolbook are the words of a song that slaves of the tidewater country sang at Christmas and on other feast days.