Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fossils, Race, and the U.S. Military


Fossils can be revealing about aspects of deep time, but, as I’ve often discovered, they can cast light on somewhat more contemporary history.  In the past several weeks, fossils have served as a bridge to two episodes, new to me, involving African Americans and the U.S. military.  One is from the Civil War; the other dates from World War II.  At first I found these episodes both disturbing and fascinating.  Ultimately, they have come to be a source of inspiration.

Dutch Gap Canal and Potomacapnos apeleutheron

The first of these occurred during the U.S. Civil War.  At its heart was General Benjamin Butler, a decidedly controversial figure, known as “Beast Butler” when he commanded the Union troops controlling New Orleans in 1862.  Butler, a politician and attorney in his pre-war life, played a significant role early on in structuring the official policy of the U.S. military toward slaves who had fled to Union lines.  While in charge of Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1861, he declared fugitive slaves to be “contraband” which meant they would not be returned to their masters as Union forces had been doing.  This policy was quickly endorsed by the Lincoln Administration.

In what I would characterize as an expedient step, but also a humanitarian one, Butler directed that rations be given to all of the refugees under his control, and that the able-bodied among them be employed and paid wages, though their wages would be reduced to compensate for the cost of the rations given to the unemployed.  (Patricia C. Click, Time of Trial:  The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867, 2001, p. 36-37.)  (Admittedly, Butler’s motives in this and nearly any other action he took were, and still are, more likely to be questioned than not.)

This overall approach of employment and care for former slaves was explicitly followed elsewhere as stated policy, including in the freedmen’s colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina,which is somewhat ironic given how Butler and these Roanoke Island freedmen intersected later in the war.  The colony had been established by the military after the Union launched a successful assault on the island in 1862.  Its history, ably described and analyzed by historian Patricia Click, is a sad tale of generally good intentions foundering on the shoals of racism, extensive needs, misunderstanding, and mismanagement.

In 1864, there was no love lost between Ulysses Grant, General-in-Chief of the United States Army, and Butler who at the time led the Union Army of the James.  Charged with putting pressure on the Confederate capital of Richmond from the south while Grant fought his way from the north, Butler had only managed to get his army bottled up in Bermuda Hundred, a large peninsula formed by the James River.  Historian Bruce Catton asserted that “[p]robably no campaign in all the war was as badly mishandled as that of the Army of the James in the spring of 1864.”  (A Stillness at Appomattox, 1953, p. 209.)

Frustrated by Confederate artillery batteries which maintained control of a long and critical section of the river, Butler decided to avoid the batteries altogether by digging a canal across Dutch Gap, a narrow neck of land created by a loop of the James River.  He reasoned that, once finished, this canal would enable Union gunboats to bypass that portion of the river under Confederate guns and move toward Richmond.  On the map below, a completed Dutch Gap Canal is shown (at the arrow I added) and a portion of Butler’s lines appears in blue, while Confederate lines are colored red.  Several artillery batteries (abbreviated “BTTY”) of both armies are also identified.  (The full map, from which this section was taken, was prepared in 1867 under the direction of General Nathaniel Michler.  I worked with the version of this map published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1883 as #32 in a collection titled Military Maps of the United States.  It is available from the Library of Congress.)


In early August, 1864, African American troops under Butler’s orders began digging the canal which was to run for 500 feet, at a depth of 45 feet and a width of 60 feet.  In typical fashion, the Army turned largely to its black soldiers for this thankless and extremely dangerous assignment.  Soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, under white command, were asked to volunteer for extra pay to undertake this hardship duty (described to them as “hard digging” under enemy fire).

Early on progress was rapid, the soil was easily dug, but, in time, “the cutting got down through the top layers of soil and loose clay to the tougher hard-pan,” enemy fire, particularly mortars increasingly took a toll, and disease moved through the ranks.  The canal had become a “horror.”  (As described by Colonel John W. Ames of the 6th U.S. Colored Troops in an article titled Dutch Gap Canal which appeared in The Overland Monthly, January 1870, p. 33, 35.  I have ascribed the article to Colonel Ames based on material appearing in Noah Andre Trudeau's Like Men of War:  Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865, 1998, p. 283 et seq.)

When progress slowed and the conditions became ever more dangerous and vile, the men had to be rotated out and the voluntary nature of the effort ended.  Colonel Ames wrote:
The canal was the dread of all troops liable for detail; a butt for the gibes and sneers of the doubters and the personal enemies of the General [Butler].  Court-martials even ventured to punish criminals, by sentence to the canal; one of them epitomized its opinion of the nature of the work and its probably duration, by sentence of a culprit to “two years’ hard labor at Dutch Gap Canal."  (p. 36-37)
War artist William Waud sketched the work underway at the canal in October 1864.  (This image is from the Library of Congress and titled Gen Butlers Canal at Dutch Gap.)


The demand for laborers for the Dutch Gap Canal reached deep into the ranks of black freedmen elsewhere.  In late August, 1864, General I.N. Palmer, of the District of North Carolina, ordered that any available freedman on Roanoke Island should be pulled into the effort in Virginia.  Palmer pledged that the freedmen would be paid $16 a month, though force was used if they did not come willingly.  Later, a letter of protest to General Butler from 45 of the Roanoke Island freedmen who had been impressed by the military, outlined the reprehensible ways they had been swept up by the military and mistreated.  Army guards had scoured Roanoke Island for laborers, grabbing “young and old, sick and well,” indeed, “the soldiers broke into the coloured people’s house’s taken sick men out of bed.” (The quoted text taken is taken verbatim from Click, Time Full of Trial, p. 131.)  Needless to say, the pay failed to materialize as promised.

Work on the canal continued with involuntary labor by freedmen until, on the last day of December, 1864, engineers blew up the final bulkhead that separated the James from the canal, hoping to create a channel that would be scoured clear by rushing water from the river.  Bruce Catton wrote,
[T]he fallout [from the explosion] refilled much of the canal.  An observer called it a “perfect fizzle,” but he could have been describing the whole effort.  (The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, edited by James M. McPherson (1996), p. 522.)
By that juncture, events of the war had left the Dutch Gap Canal behind and it never fulfilled its wartime purpose.  The photograph below, dated April, 1865, shows what is identified as the “completed canal.”  (The image is from the Library of Congress.  No photographer is given.)


Fossils connect to this sorry episode because, during the long months that men valiantly labored to dig the canal, they were cutting through sand and packed clay of the lower Cretaceous Potomac Formation.  Indeed, I would like to think that some of the men spotted the fossil plants the clay contained.  Nevertheless, by virtue of their labor, the canal banks were exposed.  In his 1896 publication The Potomac Formation in Virginia, geologist William Morris Fontaine wrote that, though “fine fossils are sparingly and irregularly scattered in both banks of the canal,” they were there to be found, with Dioonites buchainus “by far the most common plant.”  “Impressions of very large leaves” of the Dioonites appeared, sometimes a foot and a half long.  (Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey No. 145, p. 36)  The drawing of leaves of the D. buchainus below is from the Maryland Geological Survey (Characteristic Fossils of Maryland Formations brochure).


For many decades plant fossils have been collected from this site.  Indeed, this year, paleobotanists Nathan A. Jud and the late Leo J. Hickey published an important analysis of three fossils collected at the Dutch Gap Canal in 1971, 1990, and 1991.  They concluded that these distinctive fossils are from a previously unknown genus and species of flowering plant, making the new species among the oldest flowering plant species and the oldest eudicot (identified in part by its distinctive pollen) ever found on this continent.  Eudicots are common today.  The new species is named Potomacapnos apeleutheron.  (Potomacapnos apeleutheron Gen. Et Sp. Nov., A New Early Cretaceous Angiosperm from the Potomac Group and Its Implications for the Evolution of Eudicot Leaf Architecture, American Journal of Botany, Volume 100, Number 12, December, 2013; Evolution, Civil War History Meet in Fossil With Tragic Past, University of Maryland College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, November 26, 2013;  Surprising Science, This Could Be the Oldest Flowering Plant Ever Found in North America, Smithsonian Magazine blog, November 29, 2013.)

The holotype specimen for P. apeleutheron appears below in a picture taken by Nathan Jud and included in the University of Maryland publication cited above.  It appears with his permission.


According to the article, the genus name, Potomacapnos, references the Potomac River “along which the fossils were collected.”  That’s curious, since the fossils were actually collected along the James River and it would seem to make more sense for it to refer to the Potomac Formation (or the Potomac Group as it is often referred to in the literature) where they were found.  Indeed, that’s what Jud is quoted as stating in the Surprising Science blog entry cited above.  Capnos is from the Greek for “smoke” which links the genus to the fumitories or “smoke worts” which its members resemble.  [Later edit:  As noted in the comment below, the article was subsequently corrected to attribute the genus name to the Potomac Formation, not the Potomac River.]

In the species name, a wonderful sense of humanity shines forth; apeleutheron pays tribute to the men whose forced labor created the banks in which the fossils were found more than a hundred years later.
The specific epithet apeleutheron is the plural genitive case of the Greek word apeleutheros, meaning “freedman.”  This name honors the freedmen who dug the Dutch Gap Canal in Virginia during the U.S. Civil War in 1864, exposing the sediments from which this fossil [the holotype] was collected.  (p. 2440)

A Coda:  Paleontologist Julia Anna Gardner and the Triple Nickles

In my most recent post on this blog, A Paleontologist Pens a Few Words for Her Alumnae Magazine , I wrote about Julia Gardner, a pioneering paleontologist.  I described her service during World War II with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Military Geology Unit and, specifically, her role in determining that the balloons carrying incendiary bombs that were landing in the northwestern United States and Canada originated in Japan.  Researching the efforts undertaken to combat the effects of these incendiary devices, I learned about the “Triple Nickles.”

The Triple Nickles (that’s the way it’s spelled) was the 555th Parachute Infantry Company which in 1945 was sent to the west coast where its paratroopers were trained as “smoke jumpers” to help the U.S. Forest Service fight forest fires.  Though constituted in 1943, this company never saw action in the war overseas because its ranks were made up solely of African Americans.  In the segregated U.S. armed forces, the value of black troops remained in doubt.  In Beyond Value:  World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat (2001), Patrick K. O’Donnell writes that the Triple Nickles were instrumental in breaking the “racist standards” of the U.S. military.  The unit was among the few all-black units to have an all-black officer corps.

Walter Morris, 2nd Lieutenant with the Triple Nickles and instrumental in forming the unit, recounted later,
They [the U.S. military] didn’t know what to do with all these black paratroopers, but we got lucky because at that time the Japanese were sending over aerial balloons across on the trade winds, and the balloons were calibrated to fall on the western shore from Canada to California.  The Forest Service’s smoke jumpers were not enough to handle the amount of fires that were caused by the balloons, and the campers, and the lightning.  So the Forest Service, whose responsibility was to fight forest fires, called on the army to help and asked the army if they could spare any paratroopers.  The Army was happy to do that because they had the 555th, and they assigned us to that mission.  (As quoted in Beyond Valor.)
Though, apparently, few if any of the forest fires fought by the Triple Nickles were the product of Japanese incendiary bombs, the unit performed admirably, making over 1,000 individual jumps in this service.

In his obituary which ran a couple of months ago (Samantha Hogan, Walter Morris, Original Member of All-Black 555th Army Parachute Battalion, Dies at 92, Washington Post, October 21, 2013), Morris is quoted as having said,
We didn’t win any wars, but we did contribute. . . . What we proved was that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Paleontologist Pens a Few Words for Her Alumnae Magazine

I was warned in a dream not to write this post.  Well, at least, that’s how I interpret the part of the dream where I was seated in a stately living room with several people (whom I did not know), and was asked to describe the main character in a particular novel.   After offering my exposition, I was the object of unceasing derision because, “Clearly, you didn't figure out who she is.”  Point well taken, for in the dream, I hadn’t finished reading the novel.
Though I read the classnotes section of my alumni bulletins fairly religiously, looking for submissions by classmates, I have to admit that I'm not sure why I do.  It's not always enjoyable.  The little squibs are a very limited kind of writing with a narrow range of content.  And too often in the reports on milestones concerning careers, weddings, children, (and later, retirement and travel), I've sensed just a faint hint of self satisfaction.  Those offerings on the darker passages in life - illness or death - bring sadness and a strong awareness of mortality.  Needless to say, I'm not one who pens such little feeds.  If I did set out to do one, I know I'd agonize over the wording until the whole exercise would bring only pain.

So it was that, when I came across paleontologist Julia Anna Gardner's six word report (written on a postcard) to the 1933 notes for the Bryn Mawr class of 1905 (her undergraduate class), I was hooked by her words because they didn't exactly fit with my preconceptions of the genre.  (1933 Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, p. 28.)  I was drawn to learn more about the woman who wrote them.  She and, presumably most of her classmates, had just entered their 50s, a momentous threshold, at least chronologically if nothing else.  If I could trace the arc of her life (the professional, if not also the personal), perhaps I might understand what she wrote, reconstruct her tone if I could.  At the risk of turning this post into a "shaggy dog story" (it isn't), I think those six words need all the context I can give them, so they're best held until the end.

During her professional career, paleontologist Julia Gardner was one of the country’s leading authorities on mollusks and stratigraphic paleontology.  As a woman in a male dominated scientific world, she was a pioneer who reached the top of her profession.  My first encounter with Gardner came when I did research for a post of mine that appeared two years ago, titled Fragility of the Ecphora.  I noted that Gardner had been honored in the naming of the extinct gastropod, Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae Wilson, whose shell was selected later as the State of Maryland’s official fossil shell.  (Though elsewhere I've referred to Gardner as a geologist, which was certainly her official title with the U.S. Geological Survey, she was, I think, first and foremost, a paleontologist.  That was the field in which she earned her doctorate and (my personal bias) it's her work identifying and distinguishing among fossils that has been of most value to me.)

Gardner was born in 1882 in South Dakota and, in her teens, moved to Massachusetts with her mother.  When she entered Bryn Mawr in 1901 and studied geology and paleontology, she was foreordained to be a pioneer because she studied under geologist Florence Bascom.  Bascom, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University and the first female geologist appointed by the USGS, taught and mentored many women who went on to careers in the sciences.

Gardner earned her A.B. in 1905.  Two years later, she became the first “regularly admitted” woman to the geology department of The Johns Hopkins University (apparently Bascom had not been so admitted – indeed, Bascom had taken her courses at Hopkins sitting behind a screen to keep her presence from the men in the classes). (USGS Science Features, Florence Bascom, Pioneer Geologist, October 16, 2012.)

Gardner earned her doctorate in 1911 and continued an on-again, off-again relationship with Hopkins as a paleontology research assistant and instructor until 1917.  In the meantime, she began field work under contract with the USGS; the contract apparently ended in 1917.

Upon the death of her mother and the outbreak of World War I, Gardner was motivated to aid those suffering from the war.  She went to France with the American Red Cross and served as an auxiliary nurse.  With the cessation of hostilities in 1919, she joined the American Friends Service Reconstruction Unit providing humanitarian assistance to war ravaged areas of France.  While with the Reconstruction Unit, she was injured in an accident (about which I have learned nothing); she then returned to the States.

That preceding paragraph is not much of an account of her war experiences, but it may be all she wanted us to have.  In an article Gardner wrote for The Johns Hopkins University Alumni Magazine (Volume 28, Number 2, 1940, p. 37-42), titled Notes on Travel and Life, she dealt with her time in France in an understated, matter-of-fact tone, revealing little.  Indeed, she disposed of her wartime experiences at the outset of the piece:
Late in March, 1920, I entered the port of New York after an absence of more than 2 years in a foreign land.  During that time, I had lived in the present, neither looking back upon the years of training at Hopkins nor forward to the necessity of finding a job in a country basically changed by the World War.
That's it for the war.  The rest of the piece consisted mostly of often humorous accounts of the vicissitudes of field work.  The initial lengthy anecdote concerns her efforts to learn to drive so she wouldn't be a burden on other scientists when venturing out to do field work.  (This puts the lie to the claim made by some that she drove ambulances while in France.)  The article ended on a somber note, given that, in 1940 (when she was writing), “all Europe seems about to crash.”  That ending offers an interesting symmetry to this essay, all the lightness of her anecdotes about her field work travails are straddled by the darkness of two wars.  A glimmer of insight into her character?  I think so; she chose to emphasize the light.

Immediately upon her return to the States in March, 1920, Gardner was hired by the USGS and began a career with the Survey that lasted until she retired in 1952.  In 1924, she was promoted to associate geologist and then, in 1928, to geologist.  In 1926 and 1929 and, later, in 1937, Gardner traveled extensively in Europe, attending international geological congresses and studying key geological sites.

In the 1920s, she brought out the first five volumes in a seminal series of USGS Professional Papers on The Molluscan Fauna of the Alum Bluff Group of Florida.  Later in her career, she returned to the subject and published several more in this series.  (These reports are available from the USGS.)

During World War II, Gardner joined the USGS’ Military Geology Unit which provided analysis of different terrains of military interest to the U.S. Army.  The MGU produced topographical maps and helped to identify potential airplane landing sites, as well as sources of water, road building materials, and strategic minerals.

There's a fascinating bit of work the MGU undertook during the war which involved Gardner.  In late 1944, balloons carrying incendiary bombs began dropping from the sky in northwestern US and Canada.  Though it was generally believed the Japanese were behind the balloon assault, the idea the balloons were being launched in Japan was dismissed, given the 5,000 miles they would have had to travel.  Among the scenarios conjured up by military intelligence was that landing parties from Japanese submarines came ashore on U.S. west coast beaches and released the balloons there.  The mystery was turned over to the MGU.  Ultimately it was correctly concluded they had been launched in Japan, a conclusion prompted in part by analysis of the composition of the sand from sandbags used as ballast and recovered from several unexploded balloons.  The MGU identified specific beaches in Japan from which the sand might have come.  Gardner's role in the analysis consisted of determining that there was no coral in the sand, meaning it had from beaches along cold water.  In one fell swoop, she removed the southern third of Japan from the search for the originating beaches.

Her time with the MGU was summed up by geologist Clifford M. Nelson and historian Mary Ellen Williams as follows:
 Her geological skills, fluency in languages, resourcefulness, energy, and gentle humor made her invaluable to the MGU and she was revered by her colleagues. (p. 261)
(This passage appears in the entry on Gardner in Notable American Women:  The Modern Periodedited by Barbara Sicherman, et al., 1980, p. 260-262.  This is a well researched resource and I leaned on it a great a deal in composing this post.  There are several accounts of the Japanese balloons and the MGU work on the mystery of their origin.  John McPhee penned a great one titled Balloons of War, one of three pieces he wrote that appeared in the same issue of The New Yorker (January 29, 1996) under the collective title of The Gravel Page.)

After the war, Gardner went to Japan and Palau, receiving an assignment to the National Resources Section in the Supreme Commander’s headquarters where she worked on mapping the geology of West Pacific islands.  Following her retirement from the USGS in 1952, she returned to the Survey under contract to study mollusks in the West Pacific.

In ill health for the last several years of her life, she suffered a stroke and died in 1960 at home in Bethesda, Maryland.

Julia Gardner reached the top of chosen field, published extensively, and had her share of adventures - during and after two world wars.  Paleontologist Druid Wilson (who named a gastropod for her) characterized her publications as “foundation stones and bench marks in Coastal Plain stratigraphy and paleontology that insure [her] a high place with the pioneers in the geology of the region.”  (Wilson’s useful, though somewhat limited piece memorializing Gardner appeared in the Nautilus (Julia Anna Gardner:  1882-1960, Volume 75, Number 3, July, 1961 to April, 1962, p. 122-123.))

She apparently was exceedingly generous.  The paleontological research literature on mollusks and stratigraphy from the period is marked by authors’ notes of gratitude to her, thanking her for her assistance in helping to identify different fossils or for information she provided on the geology of an area under study.  Wilson wrote that Julia Gardner was known among her “wide circle of friends” for having often offered “some kindness, some encouragement, some tangible assistance, timely, but given unexpectedly.”

Unfortunately, she didn’t write an autobiography.  Notes on Travel and Life, her piece from 1940 in the Hopkins Alumni Magazine doesn’t count, and I was dismayed to read that the bulk of her personal papers was destroyed by her literary executor.

So, back to what launched this ramble, what is one to make of her contribution to the notes of the doings of the class of 1905 that appeared in the March, 1933 edition of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin?

All told, there were eight reports from this class, including Gardner’s.  The news from most of the others concerned their children.  For instance, one alum was traveling to England and France with four of her brood, the daughter of another had married a young man in banking (tellingly described as “a graduate of Lawrenceville and a former student at Princeton” – italics are mine), and the three offspring of one classmate were reported to be at Cornell Medical School (a son), working on a master’s at Harvard (another son), and enrolled as a freshman at Skidmore (a daughter, “my baby”).  It wasn’t all children, one alum had been sick, another was the author of a new book – These United States and How They Came To Be (I think this was this a picture-filled children’s history of the U.S.).

Julia Gardner's offering?
Same name, same house, same job.
Lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek?  Bittersweet about choices made?  A touch sarcastic about choices others had made?  Upon reading her words, I laughed, a response I suspect she intended.  But, I'll be the first to admit, I haven't really figured out who she was.
 
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