Category: History

Beautiful Loser

When I was a kid, my mom took my brother Matt and I to see the Harlem Globetrotters at the Civic Arena. It was a hell of a show, even for a kid like me who wasn’t much into sports. I never gave much thought to the Washington Generals, the team that the Globetrotters always demolish, but here are a few assumptions I made.

Globetrotters games are like professional wrestling. The whole game is a “work” (a fake) and the Globetrotters and the Generals work for the same company, travel together in the same busses, and eat together in the same restaurants. The Generals are probably second string Globetrotters themselves and maybe you need to pay your dues as a General for a few years before you become a Globetrotter.

Wrong on all counts.

Red Klotz, the best loser in the history of sport, recently passed away. Red was the owner, coach, and point guard for the Washington Generals.

Here is the story of Red Klotz’s extraordinary life, his one glorious night of victory, and his 14,000 glorious nights of defeat.

Some Things Never Change

In a previous post, I explained that I am interested in history because I love stories. Not everyone shares this interest, however, and they reasonably ask why they ought to study history at all. Peter Stearns offers a strong response to this objection and describes the many practical benefits of an historical education. Often, these justifications get dumbed down to some variation of the old cliché: “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”

The irony of this statement is that anyone who does bother to read history discovers that it is, in fact, one long chronicle of the same mistakes being repeated over and over again. Only the costumes change.

Well, not just the costumes, of course. Circumstances and conditions can change quite a lot from one era to the next. Bronze gives way to iron. Horse drawn carriages give way to automobiles. The belief that we become ill due to imbalances in “humors” yields to germ theory.

With all this apparent progress, then, why do we continue making the same errors again and again? A careful reading of history reveals the answer. The lesson–which is rarely discussed in history classes because it contradicts dearly held modern notions–is that one very important domain remains untouched by the relentless march of progress: human nature itself.

My little daughter Helen, born just three months ago into the most technologically advanced and materially wealthy culture the world has ever known, is running the same basic “software” as a little girl born into a hunter-gatherer tribe 15,000 years ago.

If history doesn’t convince you, literature will. Read Shakespeare and you will find yourself encountering characters who live in a dramatically different world from your own. Look past the cultural set-dressing, however, and you’ll find people just like yourself. The same ambition to amount to something. The same blinding infatuation of new love. The same grief at the death of a loved one. The same sense of bewilderment and rage in the face of betrayal. And the same desire to transcend all of this, to somehow reach for something higher or better.

If you take an interest in evolutionary psychology, you will find that it confirms what the great artists and historians have been telling us all along. Namely, that basic human psychology has remained largely unchanged in the face of all our material and scientific progress.

That may seem like a grim reality, but there is good news. The history, literature, art, and philosophy of past ages applies as much to you as it did to the people who created it. The great treasure house of human wisdom–from the cave paintings of paleolithic times to the novels of Flannery O’Connor–are yours.

Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Paradise Lost, and The Great Gatsby were written by and for people just like you. Confucius, Epictetus, the Buddha, and Augustine are speaking to you. Michaelangelo, Turner, Bosho, Rodin, and Dogen have made things for you.


I have seen The David,
Seen the Mona Lisa, too.
And I have heard Doc Watson
sing Columbus Stockade Blues.
-Guy Clark, Dublin Blues

Genealogy of Adam Nicely, Sr.

About a year ago, I discovered that Adam Nicely, Sr., a veteran of the American Revolution, is my sixth great grandfather. My uncle, a dedicated genealogist himself, was surprised by this news and has asked to see the evidence. He (my uncle) does his research the old-fashioned way, by going to courthouses and cemeteries. I do my research the same way I do virtually everything else–by staring a little glowing screen while I smoke a cigar. (His way seems a lot more fun and satisfying.) I am willing to bet that he’s seen some documents that I’ve never seen, and it’s possible that I’ve seen some documents that he hasn’t seen.

I’m posting the evidence here because I suspect that some other members of my family might also be interested in this information. If you’re from Western PA and your name is Butina, Burd, Bridge, Karns, Kerns, or Nicely, you may find this interesting. If you’re not, this might help you the next time you’re trying to fall asleep. (Note: Names in bold are in the direct line of descent.)

Adam Nicely, Sr. was born in 1730 in Lancaster County, PA. At the age of 30 (1760), he married Elizabeth Eichert from Philadelphia, PA. He served in the American Revolution as part of the West Md. County Militia in 1777. He lived to be 96 and died in Donegal Township, Westmoreland County, PA and was buried in Keltz Cemetery in Ligonier (now part of Darlington). His grave can be seen there today, and it would appear that the original headstone has been replaced.

Evidence of military service and burial.

Evidence of military service and burial.

According to 13 separate family trees found on, in 1765, Adam and Elizabeth had a daughter, Maria Polly Nicely who married John Kerns (sometimes spelled Karns and Karnes). In 1780, they had a son, also named John Kerns (1780-1850).

Maria Polly Nicely is the weakest link in the chain. Despite appearing in so many different family trees, there are a few discrepancies. Her marriage to John is frequently listed as 1783, three years after the birth of their first child. Although out-of-wedlock births weren’t unheard of at the time, it’s hard to imagine a socially acceptable circumstance where the couple would wait three years to get married. One possible explanation is that Maria’s husband John also served in the Revolutionary War and married her upon his return. This would fit his age and the timeline pretty well, but I can find no record of his service.

John Kerns married Catherine Soxman in 1803. Among their children were Anna Marie Kerns (1804-1852).  

In 1825, Anna married Simeon Burd (1804-1861).

In 1843, Anna and Simeon had a son, also named Simeon Burd (1843-1908). Simeon married Virgina Carbis (marriage date unknown). Simeon and Virginia had a daughter, Florence Baptista Burd (1875-1932).

In 1902, Florence married Edward Vincent Bridge (1872-1946). In 1913, they had a daughter, Virginia Bridge (1913-1979), my grandmother. If all the links in this chain are accurate, then Adam Nicely, Sr. is my sixth great grandfather and my Dad and my uncle’s fifth great grandfather.

Both Great & Good

George Westinghouse, Jr. was born in 1846 in upstate New York. He was the eighth of ten children, and his father–the owner of a tooling company–didn’t think his namesake would amount to much. George did poorly in school and preferred to spend time working on machines in his father’s shop.

The Civil War broke out when George was 15, and although he wanted to enlist right away, his father forced him to wait until he reached the age of 17. George first joined a cavalry regiment but was quickly transferred to the Navy, where his mechanical abilities were put to good use.

After the war, George attended Union College, but dropped out after only three months at the urging of the college president, who assured George that he was already a great engineer and that he was wasting his time in the classroom.

In 1868, George invented the airbrake, a device that not only improved the efficiency of trains, but saved the lives of thousands of brakemen who routinely died operating the old-fashioned manual brakes. This combination of innovation alongside a concern for the welfare of others would characterize his life.

George continued to invent things, eventually accumulating 360 patents. He also created a business empire encompassing 34 firms and about 50,000 employees. George treated his employees well, giving them more time off than any of his contemporaries and, unlike Thomas Edison, ensuring that the engineers who worked for him were rewarded for the inventions and innovations they developed while on his payroll. He was also the first industrialist to employee women engineers.

Perhaps the greatest compliment he ever received was an insult from fellow business leader Andrew Carnegie: “Westinghouse could have made a lot more money during his lifetime if he hadn’t treated his workers so well.”

Then, as now, big business was synonymous in the public mind with worker exploitation, corruption, and ruthless market manipulation. In the era of robber-barons, George Westinghouse was living proof that a businessman could be both great and good.

He is, in short, a capitalist hero, and should be seen as a role model for anyone who wishes to be both successful and virtuous.

If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied. -George Westinghouse

Who Would Have Thought It?

Pride goeth before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs, 16:18


Four decades of service in His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards had given Edward Braddock courage, intelligence, and toughness, but it had failed to embed in his character the one virtue he needed most: humility.

Braddock was the first English general to set foot in the American colonies, and he had not been sent on a pleasure tour. His task was to drive the French from the contested Ohio Valley, and he intended to make a quick job of it.

As the Commander-in-Chief of North America, Braddock set the strategy for all British forces on the continent. He was not the sort of man to sit in a comfortable chair while other men fought, however, so he took personal command of a force of 2,100 British Regulars and colonial militia charged with capturing a series of French forts.

The first stop for this expedition was to be Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River (present day Pittsburgh). Impatient with the slow progress of his army through the wilderness, Braddock  split his force in two. About a third of his men stayed behind in a supply camp so that the remaining 1,300 could move forward to Fort Duquesne more quickly.

Only a few miles from the Fort, Braddock’s men ran square into a force of about 800 enemy fighters. Braddock was not intimidated. He may have held a grudging professional respect for the 70 French Marines in the company, but he knew that the 150 Canadian militiamen and 600 Indian warriors before him had never seen anything like the highly-disciplined British Regulars at his disposal.

As he expected, the enemy broke after the first volley of British musketry. How could they not? That wall of fire and lead would have intimated even a well-trained European infantry force. It must have been absolutely devastating for a bunch of undisciplined colonial trash and their savage allies.

At this point, however, the expected thing stopped happening. The French and Indian force scattered, but it didn’t retreat. Instead, it spilled out into the woods on either side of Braddock’s force and picked off Braddock’s men from behind the trees with startling accuracy.

Braddock’s men had never experienced fighting like this, and they retreated in chaos, running headlong into Braddock, who was leading reinforcements up from the main body of men. The commander struggled to regain order, swearing and threatening, but it was too late. The panic spread from company to company with such incredible speed that the entire force was soon reduced to chaos.

In the three hours of bloody, confused slaughter that followed, over half the British force was killed or taken prisoner. As the survivors and camp followers–including women and children–crossed the Monongehela River in a desperate attempt to avoid certain death, Indian warriors picked them off from the shore. Some even swam into the river to scalp the recent victims. The injured, left behind by their panicked comrades, were unceremoniously killed by the victors. Some were taken as captives.

Braddock himself was shot in the lung and was evacuated by wagon from the field of battle. What went through Edward Braddock’s mind during his last five agonizing days of existence?

Perhaps he remembered the warning of a Pennsylvania politician named Benjamin Franklin, “The only danger I apprehend of obstruction to your march is from ambuscades of Indians.”

At the time, Braddock’s response was dismissive, “The savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regulars and disciplined troops, Sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.”

Braddock no doubt thought better of his response. Perhaps he even revised his opinion of the “raw American militia.” One such, a young Virginian named George Washington who had served as his aide, offered to lead his men into the cover of the trees and direct them to fight like the enemy. His response to Washington at the time was, “I’ve a mind to run you through the body. We’ll sup today in Fort Duquesne or else in hell!”

Braddock’s prediction rang true. The five days that followed after Washington loaded him onto that wagon must have been hellish indeed. Perhaps he also used this time to reflect on his rejection of the advice of his own Indian advisors.

Looking back on the expedition later, his chief Indian advisor, Monacatootha,  remarked, “He looked upon us as dogs, and would never hear anything what was said to him. We often endeavored to advise him and to tell him of the danger he was in with his soldiers, but he never appeared pleased with us.”

Ignoring Monacatootha may have been Braddock’s most grievous error in judgement. Ben Franklin and George Washington, were, at the time, relatively inexperienced in military affairs after all. Monacatootha, on the other hand, had seen more battles than Braddock himself and could be expected to understand the enemy better than anyone in the expedition.

We can’t know what went through Braddock’s mind in those last days and hours, of course, but his final words give us a clue.

“We shall know better how to deal with them another time,” he said, adding, “Who would have thought it?

The Messiness of Myths

In 1947, historian Otto Eisenschiml referred to the Civil War as “The American Iliad.” He was on to something there.

This month’s issue of The Civil War Monitor features an article by another historian, Mark Grimsley, who observes, “…it is obvious that the Civil War routinely functions as a national myth, a way to understand ourselves as Americans. And like the classic mythologies of old, it contains timeless wisdom of what it means to be a human being. Homer’s Iliad tells us much about war, but it also tells us much about life. The American Iliad does the same thing.”

The political issues that caused and sustained the war are still very much with us. I have a hunch, however, that long after those concerns are past, Americans will continue to return to this national myth.

Myths are not powerful because they are lies, but because they are true. That is, they tell us some truth about what it means to be human, and they convey that truth in a way that mere history cannot.

For many, myself included, I think that what draws us to the war is the same thing that draws us to Shakespeare or Jane Austen: a fascination with the human condition. In the Civil War, we find a cast of characters who possess the full spectrum of human virtue and vice, and they manifest their characters on a grand scale.

But, here’s where it gets very, very tricky. Austen drew on her careful observation of real life to create the characters and events in her novels, but they are not histories. Mister Darcy may or may not have been based on John Parker, but no one in their right mind would suggest that we ought to revise Pride and Prejudice in light of new historical information about Parker. Likewise, though Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was based on the life of a real person, scholars don’t insist on rewriting his dialogue to fit the historical facts.

Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, are a different matter. They are, at once, both myths and historical figures of great scholarly interest–and those two roles are constantly in tension.

If we found that Austen’s impressions of John Parker were greatly in error, it would change nothing of substance in Pride and Prejudice. The great value we see in that work of art would not be touched.

If we discover, on the other hand, that Robert E. Lee’s motives during the Gettysburg campaign were different than we assumed, however, our cherished myth loses some of its potency.

When people dig in over the issue of the Confederate Flag, it may not just be an issue of disagreeing over historical facts. They are defending a myth that is meaningful to them. That myth, and the understandable desire to cherish it, may, in turn, influence how they interpret the historical facts.

No one seriously argues with a Roman historian based on the power of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but people can and do argue with historians of the American Civil War based on their longstanding understanding of figures like Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln and the meaning those stories have in their own lives.

It is, I think, possible to hold on to the value of the myth while acknowledging the historical reality, but I believe that’s a damn tough thing to do.

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