Presentation at the Eldred World War II Museum

 

PT Boat 490 Photo Courtesy: McElfresh Map Company LLC

PT Boat 490
Photo Courtesy: McElfresh Map Company LLC

The naval battle of Leyte Gulf was fought on October 25, 1944 in the waters off the coast of the Philippines.  It was not only the greatest naval battle of the Second World War, it was also the largest naval engagement ever fought on the high seas.

In a presentation this coming Saturday at 2:00 PM, October 25, the Seventieth Anniversary of the battle, at the Eldred, Pennsylvania World War II Museum, Earl McElfresh will describe the events leading up to this battle and the part his father, Lt. John M. McElfresh, as skipper of P.T. 490, played in this enormous sea fight that effectively knocked the Japanese navy out of the war.

Lt. McElfresh is mentioned prominently in every account of this battle, which involved 200,000 men and 244 ships, including the two largest and most powerful battleships every launched, Japan’s Yamoto and Musashi.

Crew of PT 490  Photograph Courtesy; McElfresh Map Co. LLC

Crew of PT 490
Photograph Courtesy; McElfresh Map Co. LLC

In a talk entitled, “My Dad vs. the Empire of Japan,” McElfresh will detail the actions of his father as he earned the first of two silver stars awarded to him by the President of the United States: “For conspicuous gallantry as officer in tactical command of P.T.’s 490, 491 and 493 in action against enemy Japanese forces during the battle for Leyte Gulf on October 25, 1944.”

Earl McElfresh of Olean is a Cattaraugus County Legislator and owner of McElfresh Map Company.  The World War II Museum is located at 201 Main Street in Eldred.

 

A Small Tribute to a Short Speech

1000 Voices at Olean High School Photo Credit:  Mrs. Skrobacz

1000 Voices at Olean High School
Photo Credit: Mrs. Skrobacz

Our local high school put on a special program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettyburg address.  A retired teacher put together the presentation which included videos, re-enactors from local regiments, the Bucktails and 154th NY, and period music.  I was invited to give a five to ten minute presentation.  The highlight of my presentation was my daughter’s introduction.  She is a senior and so very poised in front of a microphone.  Anyway with no further a-do here is my presentation:

Given the mythic proportion that Lincoln has achieved, there is a persistent notion that the Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an envelope by Abraham Lincoln as he made his way by train to Gettysburg.

There are several reasons to doubt this.

First off, Lincoln’s presence at Gettysburg was an afterthought. He actually had to petition the organizers of the cemetery dedication to include him in the dedication ceremony. The very fact that Lincoln called his effort an “address” indicates that he’d prepared it, not for a general delivery but for a specific occasion and a select audience.

Lincoln recognized that this gathering was an opportunity to bring the country “up to speed” –as we would put it–on the meaning and worth of the sacrifice these Union soldiers had made and all the others were making. He wanted to remind the nation that while this war was being fought at an enormous cost in lives and treasure, it was being fought for an immeasurably valuable prize. Lincoln would not take an opportunity like this lightly and he would traditionally prepare very carefully for such an event.

Secondly, Lincoln liked to think on his feet. Literally. All his life, he walked while he thought and he thought while he walked. He walked back and forth in his White House office when he was puzzling out or preparing something. That’s a little difficult on a moving train.

He also had a habit of reading things out loud –whether he was reading someone else’s writing –a funny story or a newspaper article–or was composing a letter, or a speech or a proclamation.  The cadence, the content, the impact of what he was working on seemed much clearer when he heard it spoken aloud.

Lincoln was always extremely unwilling to speak off-the-cuff. The night he arrived at Gettysburg a crowd gathered outside the house he was visiting. The crowd called for a speech and Lincoln resolutely refused to say anything but an extended version of “Good evening.” He didn’t want, he said, to say anything foolish.

This last concern was particularly important because Lincoln’s only direct access to his fellow countrymen was through the written word. So each word he spoke or wrote for the record had to be very carefully crafted. There was no radio. No television. Lincoln hardly ever left the White House. This trip to Gettysburg was one of the longest trips out of Washington that he took during his whole Presidency. Lincoln spent probably 95% of his presidency in his White House office. The country came to him. Anybody willing to wait long enough would have the chance to briefly meet and speak with Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln spoke for the record, reporters took his words down more or less accurately in short hand. His words appeared in the newspapers in black and white for his friends and enemies to read. It was the president’s standard forum when he wanted to “speak” to the country. Lincoln was by profession a lawyer. So he designed his speeches as a lawyer would, using precise language to develop a compelling argument.

But Lincoln also possessed the soul of a poet. He had, in fact, written some actual poetry –all of it terrible, dreary and gloomy –really bad – but when his poetic inclination was tempered by his need for lawyerly precision, the results were some of the most remarkable and carefully prepared political speeches ever delivered. The only ad-lib, the only improvised words in the Gettysburg Address, were the words “under God” in the phrase “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”  Lincoln was an “agnostic” meaning he was someone who did not deny the existence of God but didn’t acknowledge the existence of God either.  Apparently, somewhere between Fort Sumter and November 19, 1863 – as the war took a turn for the better with major Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, God was beginning to look pretty good.   

Lincoln had read widely and his writings had obvious influences: the Bible for sure –he could quote relevant passages from the Bible to suit almost any occasion. He was an aficionado of Shakespeare…he read the plays and attended performances of them regularly in Washington… he admired and studied classic political orators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. One less noted but very obvious influence on Lincoln was the telegraph. The President spent an inordinate amount of time at the telegraph office, which was situated a brisk walk from the White House. It was his sanctuary from the cares and activities of the White House and it was also the nerve center of the war effort. Lincoln telegraphed constantly to his commanders in the field. These telegrams had to be short, exact and put in terms that could not be misunderstood. Lincoln developed an affinity for the blunt “shorthand” communication of the telegraph. The influence of this “compressed” language helps account for the brevity of the Gettysburg address.

The actual physical presentation of this address is interesting to visualize. Lincoln sat with dozens of local and national dignitaries on a raised platform on a breezy hillside in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. November 19th can be cold and blustery. A large crowd, thousands of people, filled acres of space to listen to noted lecturer Edward Everett, the featured speaker, give a two hour speech –which he had memorized. His talk encompassed the Gettysburg battle in some detail and he expounded on the significance of the battle and the meaning of the war.

Then Lincoln stood up and gave his two-minute address, which he read. There were no microphones. There was no amplification. Lincoln had a rather high-pitched voice but it was a voice that carried wonderfully. So the original delivery of the Gettysburg Address was not some solemn, sonorous presentation but a belted out rendition by an expert stump-speaking political pro, one of whose principal qualifications for office in pre-electronics 19th century America was a voice that carried to the farthest person back in an enormous crowd in a large open field while the wind was blowing. What distinguished Lincoln in this specialized field of orators and politicians was that the short hand reporters dispatched to document his speeches would stand listening, completely enthralled, and forget to write down what he said.

Lincoln sat down-there was prolonged applause–yet he sensed that the speech had not gone down well. “That speech didn’t scour,” was the phrase he used, meaning the speech hadn’t carried through smoothly, as a plow would. He didn’t know it at the time but he was probably feeling the effects of the mild case a small pox that he developed soon after returning to Washington. Some newspapers ridiculed his effort but Edward Everett, an old political adversary of the President, wrote to him that Lincoln’s two minute effort had come closer to the “central idea of the occasion” than Everett had in his two hours.  

In evaluating Lincoln’s stature on the stage of history – and he stands way, way up there – the Gettysburg Address is certainly important on his resume. If there can be any question of his genius, it’s merely necessary to ask who else on earth could come up with a phrase that became one of the most famous passages in the English language and that will be remembered so long as the language is spoken. What did he come up with when all he was trying to say was “87 years ago?”  Four score and seven years ago.

This is not “train ride, back of an envelope material.”

Some New Civil War Classics

When the Civil War Sesquicentennial came around, it reminded me of the sets that were published to coincide with the Centennial of the Civil War. I decided to dust off Bruce Catton’s three volume Centennial History. I had the impression that modern scholarship had made this set obsolete but I was quickly jolted out of this notion within pages of picking up this book. If the scholarship was not up to today’s standards (mostly because Catton’s researcher E. B. Long probably had to manually copy any notes or quotes he wanted to use–he couldn’t simply Xerox pages and pages from the O.R. or from archives or library materials) the writing more than makes up for that. If any war or period was ever dramatic it’s the Civil War era. And Bruce Catton’s portrayal of the actors and the drama being played out surpasses anything that contemporary historians are publishing. Modern historians may provide more facts but they lose out in terms of providing a vivid feel for the people and the era.
 
One thing however that’s obvious is that Bruce Catton misjudged his ability to cover the war in three volumes. Vol. 2 ends at Antietam. That leaves Catton with a single volume to cover the rise of Grant and his campaigns and battles, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Sherman’s rise and his campaigns…the third volume is like a “flashcards” history of the war. But the writing is, in a word, magnificent. Also, and because I wasn’t ready to put Catton down, I read the Lloyd Lewis/ Bruce Catton biography of Grant. It ends with the Civil War–perhaps Catton didn’t want to face the bleak interlude between Appomattox and Mount McGregor–but I was ready to start the book again as soon as I’d finished it. Catton (and Shelby Foote) had a magical, stirring feel for the War and it’s dramatis personae.   

C-Span Book TV Presentation

On Thursday, December 2,1999 C-Span Book TV videotaped a presentation by our cartographer, Earl McElfresh to the Huntington (Long Island) Civil War Round Table at The Book Revue, an independent bookstore.  The talk was attended by approximately one hundred people.  The presentation was a little over an hour with a question and answer period.  On the C-span website we were able to make a short four-minute clip about Jed Hotchkiss.  Please follow this link if you wish to see it:

C-span Clip

If you would like to see the entire presentation, please follow this link:

C-Span Entire Mapping Presentation

ONE IF BY LAND

ONE IF BY LAND is about the roads we drive on, the places we pass and the maps we have open on the seat beside us.  ONE IF BY LAND is about where we are going, how to get there, and understanding, perhaps, where it is we’ve been.

If you are motoring north along Route 281 in north central Kansas, you might want to take a left on Smith County Route 191 and start slowing down.  Ease off onto the shoulder of this back road and step out of the car.  Congratulations!  You are now just a couple of feet away from the exact geographic center of the conterminous United States.  You are at the dead center of the 48 states.  Private individuals have placed a monument here at latitude 39 degrees 50 minutes north and longitude 98 degrees 35 minutes west to mark the spot.  There’s nothing official or especially scientific about this designation.  There wasn’t any intensive statistical analysis and no higher math was involved.  It just so happens that this is “that point on which the surface of the lower 48 states would balance if it were a plane of uniform thickness.” In other words, if you did a cutout of the 48 states and balanced it on say, the point of a pencil, this “center of gravity” or pencil point would leave a mark on the cutout right here at this very spot.

The significance of this place is purely circumstantial and entirely symbolic.  But pause here a minute or two – think of cowboys and Pilgrims, feel the gentle breeze, take in the seemingly endless fields and the surely endless sky – and see if something about this wide great Republic doesn’t mean something special to you here, at its very center.

Notice the distinctive badge-like sign that tells you that you are on Smith County Route 191.  It wasn’t always easy to know where on earth you were, never mind in Kansas.  In the early days of the automobile, the best directions an intrepid driver could hope for were visual.  Roads had no consistent names or numbers.  Hardly anyone ever traveled far enough to get lost.  Road maps consisted of a sheaf of postcard-like photos in a flip folder.  There were photos of crossroads, of intersections and of forks in the road.  Black arrows were superimposed on the road to insure that the correct route was followed.  Directions and commentary appeared as captions below the photographs.  Then the growing popularity of automobiles brought more and more oil companies into the brand new gas station business. 

As competition grew keen, the oil companies looked for ways to build customer recognition and loyalty.  They began giving out free road maps.  (A happy tradition that the mid-1970’s oil embargo ended.) For the purpose of their maps, each oil company came up with their own numbers for roads and proceeded to mark the roads with their own distinctive signage.  Some chose badges, others chose shields.  Some chose stars.  Soon enough, telephone and telegraphs poles were festooned with different route signs, each with unique numbers, each keyed to a different oil company’s map.  The system was not perfect but it gave state and local governments the idea to work out a more coherent and comprehensive arrangement.  The now familiar system was adopted and coordinated, first on a state by state basis and then nationwide.  Some of the routes developed their own mystique and entered the lexicon of American cultural icons as surely as Gettysburg and Coney Island and Dodge City.  But that is another column.

 

Civil War Questions with High School Students–Final Questions

Question 12  Did you Ever consider that map-making wasn’t for you?  What do you like the most about making maps?  The least?

Once I started making maps I never looked back. It’s a very satisfying activity and I like every aspect of it. The research is fun, the drawing is fun, using watercolors is fun, deciding what to include on the reverse side of the map is fun, the process of taking the original manuscript of the map to the printer is fun (great inky smells, huge thundering printing presses) and getting paid for doing something fun is fun.

Question 13  What do you think makes your maps about the Civil War better that others?

Our Civil War maps are essentially unique. No one else has done Civil War battlefield maps that contain so much cultural and physical information and present that information is such a stylized format. The corn fields look like cornfields, the fences look like fences, the orchards look like orchards. Our maps give modern visitors to the battlefield the same view of the terrain as the Civil War armies had. That’s why when West Point does its staff rides at Gettysburg or at Saratoga, they carry our maps with them. They want modern soldiers to see the roads and lanes, the farms and fences, the rivers and bridges, the terrain, that Civil War soldiers confronted and contended with. Because these were the features that settled the outcome of the battles.

Question 14 During the Civil War, what do you this was Lincoln’s most strategic move as president?

Lincoln’s most strategic move as president was to ignore the lurid gossip about U.S. Grant, saying to Grant’s detractors, “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” Lincoln, sight unseen, intuitively trusted Grant (a fellow mid-westerner) and when he appointed Grant overall commander of U.S. forces, the Confederacy  was done for because U.S. Grant brought William Tecumseh Sherman to the fore and the Southern Confederacy was done for.

Question 15  What do you think Lincoln would have done  the 13th Amendment hadn’t passed? What would have been his next step?

The 13th Amendment passed. There are no “if’s” in history. Every “if” brings more “if’s” and one drifts away into a mist.

Question 16  Lincoln is always refered to as “honest Abe,”  yet in the movie Lincoln, you see he could be very dishonest at times. 

I don’t see Lincoln being dishonest in the movie “Lincoln.” He was contending with existential challenges and had to manage the give and take of politics in the midst of the iron contingencies of war. And throughout, he had to contend with political opponents who were in fact undermining the war effort in ways that didn’t exist in U.S. politics until the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. But in neither of the latter wars was the nation’s life hanging in the balance. At different times in the Civil War, there were Rebel flags  from the White House.

Question 17  What would you say was the most important fact or scene put into the movie Lincoln?  Meaning, what would you say is the most influential fact about Lincoln we should take away from the movie?

The best thing about the movie was its realistic portrayal of the character Lincoln. He was a consummate politician, a very real man, the wisest of the wise, and the only person in all the country that could have managed the menagerie that was Civil War era America partly with an iron will and an iron fist and partly with the most thoughtful political words ever spoken.

 

Civil War Questions with High School Students–Questions 9, 10, 11

Question 9:  How did the draft work during the Civil War?

The draft was a pretty shabby affair for both sides and it was also manifestly unfair. In the North a drafted man could buy out for $300. That was a lot of money then and only the wealthy could afford that. They would then get a substitute. They were often enough shady characters who would take money, enlist, desert at the first opportunity and enlist again, again for money, using an alias – and on and on. In the South, there were numerous exceptions and the saying was, “It’s a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” In other words, the wealthy men who owned the slaves (and they made up a tiny fraction of the overall population) that the war was really all about were not drafted because they had to stay home and oversee the slaves etc. Initially, in the South, draft age (and there were many occupations, including service in the non-fighting state militias e.g. that were exempt from the draft) was from 18 to 45. By the end of the war, they were taking men from “cradle to grave” 16-65. The draft, for both sides, was pretty much a disaster.

Question 10  Did we have the Medal of Honor during the Civil War?

There was a Medal of Honor during the Civil War. It was awarded much more liberally than the present day Medal of Honor and it was sometimes given to an entire unit for some especially meritorious action. There were several local Medal of Honor winners including a Mr. Oviatt (the street next to Boardmanville school is named for him)  and Stephen Welch. Mr. Welch, your OHS teacher, is a direct descendent. Stephen Welch is buried in Allegany cemetery. Mr. Welch can tell you all about him.

Question 11  What was the most important information a battle map could provide for the armies?  Elevated ground?

The most important information a map could provide a Civil War commander was enough knowledge of the ground that he knew where he could march and maneuver his army (where he could pass through a mountain range, where he could ford a river, where he could feed his men and water his animals, what multiple roads he could spread his army out on and still maintain contact between the separated units and get them to the right place at the same time.) A commander mostly wanted to know from a map where he could go and what he could do and equally important to him, where his enemy could go and what the enemy’s options were. It was while the armies were angling for a battle that maps were most important. Once contact was made and battle was joined, they could scout around for information and to a limited extent see what was going on.

Civil War Q&A With High School Students–Questions 6, 7, 8

Question 6:  How many people survived the prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia?

There were about 45,000 Union prisoners at Andersonville. Something like 13,000 of them died there, so there was about a 27% casualty rate. The biggest Union POW camp was in Elmira, NY.  There was less excuse for the approximate 25% casualty rate for Confederate prisoners there since the Union, in contrast to the South, was thriving throughout the war.  But those were very hard times and very hard people.

Question 7:  Would you consider Robert E. Lee a traitor?

Robert E. Lee was still in the U.S. Army in early 1861 and he received a promotion. When you receive a new rank, you take a new oath of allegiance.  You swear to defend the United States of America against any enemy, foreign or domestic.  Within weeks of taking that oath, Robert E. Lee was a domestic enemy of the nation he had just sworn an oath to defend.  That pretty much makes him a traitor I’m afraid.

I think the Southern aristocracy—which Lee was part of—had such a high opinion of their personal “honor” that whatever they did had to be honorable because it was their honorable selves doing it. I also think that their absolute power over their black slaves, and the iron handed rule they had over their plantations and their society gave them a bad case of arrested development. Their actions and opinions were so unchallenged that they had been gradually lulled into simple-mindedness.

Question 8:   What was your favorite map to make? Why?

I really can’t say which was my favorite map to make.  Each mapping project is really exciting, first because it’s a new job and it means money and it means you’re going to be profitably and happily employed for months and that’s nice. And it’s also wonderful to have a new subject to delve into, to dig around for resources and information.  So I like that.  It’s also a lot of fun to do the drawing and I really enjoy, for example, doing the lettering of the map titles.  I usually meet some interesting people and get to travel to interesting places when I do the research…And as I got better at doing the maps, the ones done with more expertise were more enjoyable than ones done early on that I look back on and wish I’d done a better job. Long and short, I guess I’d have to say my favorite map is the one I’m working on or the next one I’m about to do. I guess my Pearl Harbor map is right up there though.

 

Civil War Q&A with High School Students–Questions 3, 4, 5

How long does it typically take you to create a map of a famous battle?

 It typically takes six to eight months to do the research, draft the map, and then ink in the data and watercolor the whole concern.  In the midst of that process, I also work out the information and secure the images for the reverse side of the map.  That six or eight months means seven days a week, morning, noon and night.  The maps are great fun but they’re also a lot of work.

 What interests you most about the Civil War?

The most interesting thing about the Civil War is the participants. The panoply of characters, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and more obscure characters like Richard Ewell (he married a widow and always introduced his wife as “Mrs. Brown”), Confederate general Joe Johnston who hated president Jeff Davis so much that you wouldn’t know from his memoir that he was fighting the Yankees, he’s always fighting Davis.  Then George B. McClellan, Union general whose reputation collapsed because the stupid, vainglorious letters he wrote to his wife revealed him to be a supercilious jerk.  There was General George Custer (of Little Big Horn fame) who was a brilliant cavalry leader who perfumed his flowing locks and designed a uniform that made him look like a circus performer.  It was a wild bunch of characters.  England had Dickens’ characters.  We had these guys.  Some of the most noble people in history, and some of the most ignoble, made up the cast of our Civil War.

Also, most wars are futile. For example, the First World War led directly to the Second World War and the Second World War wasn’t even over when the Cold War got underway.  In contrast, the Civil War was fought to end slavery and preserve the United States.  When the Civil War was over, slavery was dead and the United States lived.  Success!

Who do you think was the greatest Confederate General?

I think Stonewall Jackson was the South’s great general but he had the advantage in that regard of dying too early in the war to confront the best Union generals.  But I also think there was something vaguely—for want of a better term—autistic, about him.  He seems kind of blank in terms of personality and he was a bewildering figure to his fellow generals.  And his successes came in the first half of the war when the south fought with the immense advantage of a friendly population and in familiar countryside.  His Valley Campaign, upon which his fame primarily rests, would not have been possible once Union forces knew the roads and topography as well as he did.  But circumstances are what they are and he was, in my mind, the best in the 1861-1863 timeframe.

What is the oldest battle that you mapped?

The oldest battle I’ve mapped is the Revolutionary battlefield of Saratoga in NYS.  It was fought in 1777.  The oldest Civil War battlefield I’ve mapped is Manassas or Bull Run, VA.  Two battles were fought there, 1861 and 1862.