What It Means to Be American
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Ideas

The Union Army Regiment That Survived Andersonville

Defeated and Humbled in Battle, the 16th Connecticut Volunteers Gained a Measure of Redemption by Enduring a Year in a Brutal Confederate Stockade

By Lesley J. Gordon
November 1, 2018

More than 40 years after the Civil War ended, machinist George Q. Whitney, formerly a private in the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, helped to dedicate a monument to his state’s prisoners of war. The statue, nicknamed “Andersonville Boy,” was a duplicate; the original had been erected at the site of the former Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia in October 1907. Whitney told a crowd assembled in Hartford that, “many of you know nothing of the Men whom I represent, so …

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Identities

The Sarcastic Civil War Diarist Who Chronicled the Confederacy’s Fall

Raised in Plantation Privilege, Mary Boykin Chesnut Was Unprepared for the Trauma of War and Defeat

By Mary DeCredico
August 6, 2018

“February 18, 1861…. I do not allow myself vain regrets or sad foreboding. This Southern Confederacy must be supported now by calm determination and cool brains. We have risked all, and we must play our best, for the stake is life or death.”

With that entry, Mary Boykin Chesnut began her diary, chronicling the momentous four years that encompassed the American Civil War. Chesnut’s diary is one of the most significant and intimate sources for understanding the Southern Confederacy. Chesnut …

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Identities

The Black Nurses Who Were Forced to Care for German Prisoners of War

Prohibited From Tending to White GIs, the Women Felt Betrayed by the Country They Sought to Serve

By Alexis Clark
May 14, 2018

On the summer afternoon in 1944 that 23-year-old Elinor Powell walked into the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Phoenix, it never occurred to her that she would be refused service. She was, after all, an officer in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, serving her country during wartime, and she had grown up in a predominantly white, upwardly mobile Boston suburb that didn’t subject her family to discrimination.

But the waiter who turned Elinor away wasn’t moved by her patriotism. …

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Identities

The Revolutionary War Couple Who Shed Their British Loyalty—One Letter at a Time

Henry and Lucy Knox Sacrificed Family, Home, and Beliefs to Adopt Their New American Identity

By Phillip Hamilton
April 16, 2018

In late 1783, General Henry Knox, formerly a bookseller from Boston who had become a trusted military subordinate to George Washington, wrote the first draft of an address to be presented to the commander-in-chief by his officers. Their Revolution won, the Continental Army’s leaders wanted to express their heartfelt gratitude to the general, “under whose auspices,” as Knox wrote, “the Army have been led to glory and victory, and America to Freedom and Independence.” Young Knox also urged his comrades …

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Engagements

When the Great War Reached Wisconsin, Free Speech Was the First Casualty

President Wilson's Government Criminalized Dissenters, Socialists, and German Immigrants as Traitors

By Richard L. Pifer
January 18, 2018

Woodrow Wilson did not want to go to war. On two different occasions during the weeks leading to the 1917 declaration of war that brought the United States into World War I, the president expressed reservations regarding the course he was contemplating.

Because war is autocratic, he feared that free speech and other rights would be endangered. The President told Frank Cobb of the New York World: “Once lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there ever was such …

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Identities

The Reporter Who Helped Persuade FDR to Tell the Truth About War

After Witnessing the Bloody Struggle with Japan, Robert Sherrod Thought the Public Should Face the 'Cruel' Facts

By Ray E. Boomhower
January 8, 2018

Betio, part of the Tarawa Atoll, is a small, bird-shaped island along the equator in the central Pacific. Early in the morning on November 20, 1943, elements of the Second Marine Division boarded tracked landing vehicles (“amtracs”) and headed for Betio’s beaches. As part of an operation codenamed Galvanic, the Marines hoped to clear the heavily defended island of Japanese forces under the command of Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki and capture its vital airfield. The Japanese commander had boasted to …

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Identities

In Atlanta, Honoring Two Civil War Generals Opens a Discussion on Race and History

Restoring Twin Monuments to the Blue and Gray Unites a Changing Neighborhood

By Henry Bryant
March 3, 2017

One hundred and fifty years ago, my colorful East Atlanta neighborhood sat two miles outside of the city limits. By July 22, 1864, Union troops had set up their front lines along a trail that later became our main street. When the Confederates decided to bring the fight to their enemy, these quiet woods became the location of the devastating Battle of Atlanta, where some 12,000 men were killed—including, rather unusually, two opposing generals.

Today, a short walk from my house, …

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Encounters

The American Revolution Story Has a Hole the Size of Spain

While the Marquis de LaFayette Gets a Share of the Glory, Names Like Gardoqui and Gálvez Are All But Forgotten

By Larrie D. Ferreiro
November 29, 2016

Americans like to think of our nation as exceptional in nature, a dramatic break from all that came before it. Being exceptional, it’s inconvenient to acknowledge that two European powers provided invaluable assistance in our struggle for independence from Britain. So we usually don’t. The American origin story thus has scrappy colonists fighting the British alone, with little outside help except for France’s Lafayette, and a cameo by General Rochambeau at the very end. But Americans could have never won …

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Engagements

Coming of Age Under a Flying Fortress

Being a Teenager in L.A. During World War II Meant Blackouts, Rations, and B-17 Bombers

By Manuel H. Rodriguez
August 11, 2016

That Sunday, as on most Sundays, the family was gathered around the kitchen table listening to the radio. It was too early in the day for drama and comedy programs so we listened to a music show. The date was December 7, 1941. I was 11 years old.

“We interrupt this program to bring you this important news bulletin, ‘The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor by air, the White House announces!’”

The world war that followed was …

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Places

The Quebec Battle That Opened the Door to America

By Beating Back the French in 1759, British Colonials Defeated a Big Obstacle to Their Own Independence

By D. Peter MacLeod
August 2, 2016

You can go to Quebec City, about 100 miles from the nearest U.S. border crossing, for the spectacular scenery, fine dining, great museums, and strolls through neighborhoods that date to the beginning of the 17th century.

Or you can go for the American history. Those who know of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham—fought September 13, 1759 on a plain named for the early French settler Abraham Martin—often remember it as a fight between a French army commanded by Lieutenant …

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