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On Invading, Blockading, Covering-Up White House Smoke Stains, Presidents and Preparedness

Larry Wines: While you don't expect much of the medium, you wouldn't think the strangely-renamed "American Heroes Channel" (AHC) to be a purveyor of "fake news."

We'll spare you any repetition of hand-wringing about a new occupant heading for the White House and all those who swear he's resolved to burn down cherished institutions. We'll stick with things that have actually burned down, and offer some disparate perspectives. Including how history's humiliations and experiences of horror become ball game ritual and fodder for comedy. Surely, that's as American a story as there is.

american civil war

When they work on the White House, you can still see the smoke stains, scars when it was burned in a foreign invasion. There's a lot of twists and turns in the story. Some are still with us every day. Hollywood has never managed to tell it. They'd likely screw it up anyway, to make room for a central fictional character possessed with manufactured angst. And somebody's rework for more effective use of dramatic license. As if they could.

At least movies can take a fair amount of time to fictionalize what happened. Unlike television, where every problem must be fictionalized and satisfactorily resolved in 60 minutes. Minus 17 minutes of commercials and clutter and selling superfluous junk from the corporation's other subsidiaries.

While you don't expect much of the medium, you wouldn't think the strangely-renamed "American Heroes Channel" (AHC) to be a purveyor of "fake news." Or maybe you would, contrasting the name of the channel with programming that's as much about gangsters and banksters and other reprehensible characters as about anybody else. Not exactly the "American Heroes" you'd want your kids to read about. If you could get them to read a book.

While you don't expect much of the medium, you wouldn't think the strangely-renamed "American Heroes Channel" (AHC) to be a purveyor of "fake news."

This all started because there's a new weekly AHC series, "Blood & Fury: America's Civil War." It not only re-explores a body of material that's been re-covered on TV more times than a 150-year-old parlor chair. And that's just since Ken Burns put us in his time machine 20 years ago. Like all such efforts, this one promises "greater realism than ever before." Despite the fact that hundreds of soldiers blown apart by a single cannon firing "cannister" -- a big can slid down the barrel, full of golfball-size iron balls, whatever metallic junk, and handfuls of rocks and broken glass -- creates carnage so unimaginable it can never be represented by the FX department for American television.

With that caveat -- which is also why nobody on TV ever shows the results of an IED in the Middle East -- the hype for these shows is a bit ridiculous. And, given the built-in inability to depict war realistically because it is characterized by lots of hair, teeth and eyeballs and amputated limbs -- there's truly no excuse for getting anything else glaringly wrong. In the case of the Civil War, it's so far from living memory that it gets us past the cognitive dissonance of current conflicts, based solely on its temporal distance, like Troy or Thermopylae. There are entire libraries of books on every battle and field commander and regiment and cavalry brigade and battery of cannon, on every cause and effect and question of timing, on every kind of examination of America's original sin of slavery. Plus monthly magazines devoted to fresh ruminations on every nuanced subject. And university faculties of experts to consult about all of it.

The central question is whether something -- anything -- can come remotely close to conveying the feel, the smell, the blood-soaked ground, the peed pants, and why any rational beings would put themselves into such a hell. Or whether it's all given over to videogame-grade cgi of flaming images with no smell and no blistering heat. And to flashes of ranks of muskets that crackle like vinyl record pops and don't scythe all the vegetation or send chunks of trees hurtling into flesh. The cg imagery either knocks down a generated image of a soldier that never drank from your canteen and left the taste of the onion he was eating, or an image of a horse whose mane you had to brush and whose feed you had to find. It knocks a meaningless image down or it does nothing. Certainly it does nothing that you might get on you.

When we suggest the producers of a "Civil War" show get something wrong, we're not talking about some esoteric point of whether Halleck assembled his brigade to the right or left of a grove of trees that aren't there now, or whether the visibility through gunpowder smoke was 20 yards or 35 yards and that's why nobody saw whomever coming in time.

We won't even suggest that some particular thing made all the history teachers cringe.

So now, when we select something for you after that build-up, it may seem rather benign. But that characterizes how history usually works. So here it is, from the narration script:

"Lincoln had to contemplate an invasion of Washington, D.C. At no other time in history did a president have to face the fact that the nation and its capital were under threat of invasion."

Okay, we know our society's historical memory today is a national embarrassment. But that script suggests Americans at the time of the Civil War couldn't tell you a damn thing about what happened 50 years before their time. And that would be a disservice to them.

Because, uh, somebody needs to tell that to Dolly Madison that no president ever had "to face the fact that the nation and its capital were under threat of invasion."

Dolly Madison was the First Lady to President James Madison. He was a signer and major figure in the writing of the Constitution. She's the one who barely managed to cut the portrait of George Washington out of its frame, roll it up, and run with it. That's barely remembered, and it's a better story than whatever fictional superhero is in the latest hundred-million-dollar Hollywood epic. Because in the War of 1812, a full 50 years before the Civil War, the occupants of the White House -- from the First Family to the military garrison to the staff and servants, some of the latter free, some of them slaves -- had to literally run for their lives as British assault troops, firing volleys, entered Washington. After dining on the Madisons' still-warm abandoned dinner, Major General Robert Ross and his British redcoats burned the White House. They burned the rest of Washington, D.C., except for the post office.

Of course, the whole place was a sort-of city, poking up out of a swamp. The British quickly recognized the smoldering ruins were not defensible, and as the smoke dissipated, the mosquitos came back. So they left. Not that it was the same swamp that the incoming president wants to drain. The development of D.C.'s sewers and planking-over creeks took care of the literal swamp. But not until President Benjamin Harrison sorted it out during his term as the 23rd president, from 1889-1893.

Before that, including all through the Civil War, epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and malaria were common in the swamp that was D.C. Too bad our national memory is so short about so many things. Like being able to understand being on the receiving end of an invasion. Or the necessity of keeping the swamps drained. Those things woulda saved us a lot of 21st century grief.

Oh, by the way, that British Invasion and burning of the nation's capital had its own "Remember Pearl Harbor" iconography. It's still with us today. The Palladian mansion that is the White House wasn't called the White House until after it was burned by an invading army. Before that, it was called the Executive Mansion. It wasn't even white. It was a natural pale sandstone color. After the fire completely gutted the building and the interior was reconstructed, there were unsightly black smoke stains out the tops of every window and door opening. Nobody could have gotten them out. Even with Bon Ami. So, to hide them, the entire exterior was painted white. The intricate exterior wall carvings of roses and acorns were painted white. These, representative of the skill of Scottish stonemasons who completed the carvings about 1796, were likewise coated, even saturated, with smoke.

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Since the country was young, James Hoban, the building's original architect, was brought back to put Humpty Dumpty back together. He completed his reconstruction in 1817. Adding that coat of paint that has become inseparable with the building's identity.

From time to time, a bit of those smoke stains reveal themselves when a bit of wall receives maintenance for a leak or the installation of something nobody can talk about. Twice in modern times, the full scope of those swaths of carbon soot have revealed themselves again. It first happened when Harry Truman was president. His daughter Margaret (who grew up to be a political novelist) was a teenager playing the upstairs piano. Suddenly, one piano leg punched through the floor and emerged from the ceiling below. Turned out the building was eaten-up with dry rot and termites, infesting all the structural wood from Madison's post-burning rebuild. Truman's determination saved the building when plenty in congress were ready to call the wrecking ball and opt for Frank Lloyd Wright to step-in.

More than anyone else, it was Truman who forced a plan that would stop, at the exterior walls, the gutting of everything. As those walls were repaired, it afforded a view nearly the same as Madison had inherited when he returned to the capital. Harry Truman personally supervised meticulous salvage of everything that could be saved for adaptive re-use in the house. Refinished sections of old beams became newly surfaced wood paneling in places the house had had plain plaster, or unfinished basement walls, or where the rooftop third floor residence of the First Family had never existed before. Plus, when countless layers of old whitewash and white paint were sandblasted off the stone? There, once again, were the British army's smoke stains.

The second time those black smoke-stained sandstone walls became visible again was in the 1990s, when a major exterior rehab was conducted during the Clinton administration. Once again, large sections, even entire exterior walls, displayed the black carbon soot that had so completely impregnated the stone.

Early in the next administration, the newest part of the White House -- the West Wing -- is scheduled for an extensive retrofit. The heaviest work is slated for the Oval Office. This time, it's about enhancing security by physically beefing-up windows and other weak points. It's about making that entire end of the building impervious to gas and biological attacks, along with installing the highest grade of bulletproof windows. There isn't an option to make phone calls between saw cuts or when the food truck pulls in for the hardhat crew. The plan is for the new president to work across the street, inside the classic French Empire architecture of the Old Executive Office Building, during the four months of required work. The president would use the same office where President Teddy Roosevelt ran the nation's affairs, before the West Wing was first constructed. It was Teddy, in 1900, who actually made the name "White House" official. And it was his successor, the brobdignagian William Howard Taft, who became the first Chief Executive to move into the Oval Office.

Is it possible that an old joke has its origins there? The comic observation, "When he sits around the office, he rally sits AROUND the office." Is it strictly vaudevillian in origin, yet sure, in our time, of collecting a nasty rebuke about "body shaming," or did a contemporary pundit aim it at Taft? The man did have an unusually massive bathtub installed in the White House, and Winston Churchill was said to have enjoyed it when he was a guest there through the winter of 1942 -- after which he strolled the halls stark naked to get back to his room. (Keep your holiday guests in context.)

Back to the present. There are suggestions that the in-place plan to walk across the street to work isn't going over especially well with President-elect Trump. Seems he wants to use the Oval Office without any relocations, temporary or otherwise.

Well now, seems we roamed through all this interesting history from an unlikely starting place -- because a TV documentary series forgot about the burning of Washington in the War of 1812.

The same war that gave us the attempted British invasion of Baltimore, and when the bombardment of the harbor fort failed to subdue it, the island fort kept the world's most powerful navy and its invasion force of troop ships out of Baltimore harbor. The exact opposite outcome as would be the case in Charleston harbor, with its island fort, as the opening provocation of the Civil War, 49 years later.

In Baltimore, a poem was written by a young American lawyer being held captive aboard a British warship firing on the fort. That poem, commemorating the fort's victory, was "The Defense of Fort McHenry." The eyewitness-turned-poet's name was Francis Scott Key. Almost immediately, he began shopping for someone to set it to music, since that was, and is, the best way to get people to learn your rhyming words. Soon, the poem was set to the melody of an old British beer drinking song titled, "To Anacreon in Heaven." The song had even become the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen's club of amateur musicians in London. And, after the first British Invasion, with Key's new lyrics, it became America's National Anthem.

Now, "the British Invasion" only gets recognition as a gaggle of '60s musicians. That's the 1960s, not the 1860s, which would be during the Civil War that got us talking about all this. With no relation to the first British Invasion or how its most lasting remnant involves the amateur British musicians of the Anacreontic Society and their song. Which all became important to us because the fourth intended invasion of an American city in the same war failed (that one being Baltimore), even after the first had succeeded in Detroit, the second had succeeded in Newark, and the third succeeded in Washington, D.C. Oh, and along the way, that original British Invasion took and burned Fort Dearborn, which would later become Chicago.

The attempted British Invasion of a fifth American city, New Orleans, was stopped by General Andrew Jackson, in a battle that propelled him to the presidency. (That was after he lost the Battle of Emuckfau -- everybody's favorite name for a battlefield -- and the Battle of Enotachopco Creek.) Jackson won the battle that kept New Orleans, even though that battle was fought after the war was over. Long after the British had petitioned for peace in Ghent, Belgium. Which led to the war being over. Except nobody knew that. Boats from Europe being slow in the age of sail.

Speaking of boats, that facilitates mention of the Union naval blockade of Southern ports -- the entire coast of the Confederacy -- as Lincoln's "Anaconda Plan" in the Civil War. For the British, that was been there, done that. In the War of 1812. The Royal Navy successfully blockaded the entire Southern and Mid-Atlantic coast, then later extended their blockade to all of New England.

So, yeah, America has been blockaded, twice, depending on which ports you're talking about. And, Richmond and the Confederacy aside, we've been invaded, with occupation and destruction of major cities, including the nation's capital. And somehow, even through the domino hysteria, nobody managed to remember and invoke any of that. Maybe they were too afraid of offending Southern sensibilities, since the two tales are so similar, and shoving Civil Rights down the throats of a lot of sunburned necks was about all anybody could handle.

But we got a song out of it that nobody can sing. About a war nobody remembers. And it is THE National Anthem. And it's a celebration of conflict, combat, flames, bombardments, and bombs bursting in air.

Packed with enough explosions to be worthy of a "B" action movie. Just don't cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Francis Scott Key. No von could ondahstand him ven he reads da poem. Dey vouldant get dat it's dah song und den deh'd be lost ven somebody said "play ball."

And somehow, it's all enduringly appropriate -- especially that song -- for an America with a $600 billion dollar annual war-making budget masquerading as "defense" spending, promoted by corporate mega-giant media that is functionally or literally a wholly-owned subsidiary of the same merchants of death that make all the deadly toys. The toys sold in that $600 billion dollar orgy of things that go bang in the night. Plus the foreign sales that "help our economy," easily driving it all over a trillion dollars a year. Sales enabled by the money we give those countries to buy arms and sophisticated weapons systems from us. That is, from our military-industrial-cybersecurity complex.

All sales, foreign and domestic, secured by chicken hawks on the public payroll who have never worn the uniform. But they get re-elected with their inaccurate but impassionedly emphatic rhetoric. About proud history. About keeping America strong. By maintaining readiness to be evermore ready with more weapons. To deter the threat. What "Peace Dividend" because the Soviet Union fell? We must renew our nuclear arsenal. Make it bigger. So we will never, ever get invaded. To which, curiously, they never add, "again." To any of it.

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Larry Wines