The Solution to the POTUS


The closest the world has ever come to nuclear war (outside of a Bond film) was during thirteen days in October 1962. Thanks to a last-minute compromise, we are all still breathing and not glowing (well, maybe except for a few people in New Jersey.)

When Cuba became a communist country and aligned with the Soviet Union in 1959, the US quietly put nuclear missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet Union. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, when the US tried to use CIA-trained Cuban refugees to invade Cuba with an eye to toppling its communist government, Cuba agreed to allow Soviet nuclear missiles on its land. This put the nukes within 90 miles of the US, which understandably made President Kennedy kinda nervous.

The pilot of an American spy plane took pictures of the missile installation on October 14, 1962. Kennedy’s military advisors wanted him to invade Cuba and eliminate the threat. Kennedy decided to try a naval blockade first. Khrushchev made it plain his ships would ignore the blockade. The two countries were on the brink on war.

Then Aleksander Fomin of the Soviet embassy staff approached an ABC news reporter with a solution, which was soon echoed by a letter from Khrushchev. The US would withdraw from Cuba, and the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba. Khrushchev added that the US also had to take away the missiles in Turkey. Kennedy agreed, though he kept the part about Turkey a secret. Both leaders were able to look strong for their people, and war was avoided. Phew!


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The Problem of the POTUS

sweating president Kennedy

 So, you want to be president, eh? Ever wonder why they all end up with gray hair? After this little challenge, your hair may be gray too.

Bad news, Mr. President. One of our scouts has discovered something while flying over our not-so-friendly neighbor. We’ve kept a close eye on him since he openly joined with our archenemy. Now, our neighbor has nuclear missiles, only 90 miles away, and they are pointed right at us. You hold the lives of millions of people in your hands. What will you do?

Choose one of the following to see the consequences.

(Answers at the bottom of the page)

1. Invade the not-so-friendly neighbor and eliminate the threat.

2. Use your navy to prevent your enemy from delivering any more hazardous materials to your not-so-friendly-neighbor.

3. Agree to everything your enemy wants to keep the peace. Maybe they’ll withdraw.

Want to see what really happened? Tune in Friday, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!


Really, I mean it. Stop now!
1. Invade the not-so-friendly neighbor and eliminate the threat.
Total fail! You already tried this once, in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and failed miserably. It’s bonehead moves like this that made Russia put missiles in Cuba in the first place.

2. Use your navy to prevent your enemy from delivering any more hazardous materials to your not-so-friendly-neighbor.

Now you have a huge confrontation at sea. Your enemy has stated he plans to completely ignore your blockade. You’d better hope all the naval captains on both sides are clear-headed enough not to fire on each other. The slightest altercation could spark a nuclear war and destroy life on the planet. Nice job killing us all.

3. Agree to everything your enemy wants to keep the peace. Maybe they’ll withdraw.

Well done! You’ve agreed to leave Cuba alone and to remove your missiles from Turkey, where they were threatening the Soviet Union. In return, Khrushchev has removed the missiles from Cuba. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, except maybe people who like Cuban cigars, which are now illegal in the US. But that’s a different story.

The Solution to the Draft

vietnam war protest

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Jerry Seinfeld


On October 15, 1965, there was a rally in New York protesting the build-up of American armed forces in Vietnam.

A friend asked David Miller to give a five-minute speech at the rally about non-cooperation with the draft. Unable to come up with material for his five-minute speech, Miller decided to simply burn his draft card instead. His friends warned him about the dangers of his action, given the new law banning deliberate destruction of a draft card.

Unwilling to either let his friend down or to admit his own fear of public speaking, Miller pressed ahead. When the time came, he held up his card and said, “I am not going to give my prepared speech. I am going to let this action speak for itself. I know that you people across the street really know what is happening in Vietnam. I am opposed to the draft and the war in Vietnam.”* Then he set his card on fire.

He spent 22 months in Federal prison.

The conflict in Vietnam was a product of Cold War thinking. When North Korea became communist, the American administration was afraid the rest of the countries in the region would fall to the communist ideology like dominoes. Although Congress gave the president broad powers after North Vietnam attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, war was never officially declared.

Any military conflict invites debate on duty and morality. The war in Vietnam invited even greater debate for many reasons: because of the tactics used – such as napalming the jungle; because the prevalence of television meant more people were seeing footage of battles and their horrific aftermath; and because the South Vietnamese leadership was not democratically elected, and in some cases was oppressing the Vietnamese people to stay in power.

David Miller, burning his draft card, was part of a much larger group of people concerned about Vietnam.** As the war in Vietnam dragged on, a protest movement swept America, eventually growing so large that in 1973 the government abolished the draft and made the U.S. Army an all-volunteer force.

Americans were sharply divided over the war in Vietnam. Some felt it was a patriotic duty to fight for democracy anywhere in the world, that it was an honor to answer a call to serve your country. They felt it was cowardly, unpatriotic and treasonous to oppose the government. Others felt just as strongly that the war symbolized a form of unchecked authority, that civil disobedience was not just their right, but their duty when they saw the government’s actions as illegal or immoral.

There were good people on both sides of the debate, many of whom had the best of intentions. Much has been written about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and how we still feel the aftereffects today.

In examining this dilemma – what to do when called to fight in a war you don’t believe in – two things stand out vividly: fear, and courage. Naturally, war engenders fear in everyone involved – the soldiers, the civilians, and the families waiting at home. But this war was also about institutional and ideological fear. Fear of communism. Fear of what might happen if lots of people followed an economic and political model radically different from yours. Humans are afraid of what they don’t understand, and that includes ideologies opposed to their own beliefs.

More compelling, however, is the tale of courage.

For it takes enormous courage to stand for what you believe is right – whether that means you are standing in a jungle waiting to shoot or be shot, or that means you are standing in front of a hostile crowd declaring your decision not to fight.

Vietnam War Facts:

Two-thirds of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were volunteers, and those drafted were disproportionately drawn from the poorer, more rural, or less well-educated parts of the American population. Draft boards in more affluent areas were more willing to give deferments.

More than 2 ½ million Americans served in Vietnam before it finally fell to the communists in 1975. 1 in 10 soldiers were killed or injured in Vietnam. Some still suffer the effects of PTSD or Agent Orange today.

68,000 men fled the country to avoid the draft. President Carter issued a general pardon in 1974.

More than half of the three million people who were killed in Vietnam were Vietnamese civilians.

On November 15, 1969, the largest anti-war protest in US history took place when over 250,000 people marched on Washington, DC.

*Miller, D. (2002). Memoirs of a Draft-Card Burner.

**And public speaking.

Fact Check:

Atwood, P. (2012). Called to Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 42(3), 527-530.

Fennell, T., Branswell, B., & Wood, C. (2000, April 24). Hell no, they won’t go. Maclean’s, 22-22.

Foley, Michael S., Confronting the war machine draft resistance during the Vietnam War, University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Hershberger, M. (2004, March 1). Confronting the War Machine. Journal of American History, 1537-1538.

Kusch, F. (2015, March 1). Building Sanctuary: The Movement to Support Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, 1965-73. Canadian Journal of History, 181-184.

Miller, D. (2002). “Memoirs of a Draft-Card Burner”, excerpted from I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Communists, Retrieved June 30, 2015, from

October 15, 1965

Vietnam War History, Staff, 2009,,accessed June 11, 2015, A+E Networks

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The Problem of the Draft

The document in my hand trembles a little. I knew it was coming, though there’s a big difference between knowing something and experiencing it first-hand.

Experiencing first-hand. That’s the question. What am I choosing to experience first-hand? Slaughter in a jungle in a cause I don’t believe in? Prison for five years? Permanent exile from my home and family?

The army needs all the men it can get to fill the relentless maw of the war machine. We’ve gone through so many men – good men, men who are fighting for what they believe in – that we’ve run out of volunteers. Every man between 18-26 can be called to serve.

I’ve just been called. Now what do I do?


  1. Go, serve my time, and hope to come home alive and relatively unscathed.

So many have already been killed or maimed. The ones that survive come home with psychological scars that are in some ways worse than the physical ones. Besides, what about my principles and morals? I feel this war – which is undeclared, some would say illegal – is supporting an immoral regime, and using questionable tactics to achieve its goals. Can I really support it with my actions?

  1. Leave the country and live in exile.

I could choose to leave my home and family and live out the rest of my life in Canada. I hear the Canadians are friendly and welcoming. But I might never be able to come home again. What if my family has a crisis and needs me? What if my parents get sick or die?

  1. Try to appear ineligible at my exam.

A lot of my friends have told me about ways to fail the physical – binging on sugar before their physical, so they seem to be diabetic; smoking cigarettes dipped in ink, so they look like they have TB on an x-ray; faking psychological symptoms; getting into serious relationships with other men; or taking lots of drugs before their exam. That doesn’t seem any more ethical than fighting for a cause I don’t believe in.

  1. Stand up and very clearly state my objections and refuse to go.

This is the most honest response. In fact, I already tried – I went to the induction center, unfurled my banner which said, “End the draft. Stop the war.” I marched in a circle for a while, but nothing happened. Eventually, I just went home.

But now I’ve been asked to speak at a demonstration against the war. If I really believe that the war is wrong, I could always state my objections and then openly burn my draft card.

This is risky. Some people did the same thing in Boston and were nearly killed by the crowd. The police did nothing to protect the draft-protestors or to punish their attackers.

Also, Congress recently passed a law making it illegal to damage or destroy a draft card. I could be fined $10,000 or go to jail for up to 5 years. No one has risked breaking this new law…yet.

What should I do? What would you do? Write your choice in the comments.

See what I did this Friday.

The Solution to the Ambitious Friend

julius caesar

On the last night of his life, Julius Caesar went to a dinner party with his good friend Decimus Brutus. Over dinner, the discussion turned to what kind of death is best. Caesar replied, “Sudden and unexpected.”

How surreal that moment must have been for Decimus Brutus, who was already planning Caesar’s assassination.

The conspiracy to kill Caesar included some 60 people, mostly aristocrats. Central figures included Caesar’s good friend and trusted lieutenant Decimus Brutus, Marcus Brutus (whose life had been spared by Caesar’s mercy), and Cassius, a Senator and ringleader of the plot.

After debating various times, ways, and places to kill him (push him off a bridge, poison, ambush, and so forth), they decided to kill him during a Senate meeting on March 15.

Caesar almost didn’t go to the meeting.

He’d had a dizzy spell (possibly epileptic) the night of the 14th, which left him woozy. In addition, his wife Calpurnia had suffered ominous dreams and urged him to stay home. His personal soothsayer warned the omens were bad.

But good old Decimus Brutus came to Caesar’s house and talked him into attending the meeting.

‘What is this, Caesar? Are you a man to pay attention to a woman’s dreams and the idle gossip of stupid men, and to insult the Senate by not going out, although it has honored you and has been specially summoned by you? But listen to me, cast aside the forebodings of all these people, and come. The Senate has been in session waiting for you since early this morning.’ This swayed Caesar and he left.[i]

Caesar balked again before entering the temple portico for the meeting because the ritual sacrifices boded ill. Once again, Decimus Brutus and the knowledge that everyone was waiting for him pressured Caesar, and he let Brutus lead him in by the hand.

Around a dozen men had come to the meeting with daggers hidden in document cases and under their togas. They clustered close to Caesar, who sat on the dais in his golden chair. Lucius Cimber grabbed Caesar by the toga, holding him in place. This was the signal, and the circle closed around Caesar, stabbing him with 8-inch-long iron blades. The men were frenzied, stabbing Caesar 23 times, and occasionally accidentally injuring each other. At first, Caesar tried to defend himself, but he soon fell and covered his face with his toga. In minutes, he lay lifeless in a pool of blood at the foot of a statue of his greatest rival, General Pompey.

Caesar was dead. Was the Republic saved?

No. Within a year of Caesar’s death, his second-in-command, Mark Antony, and Caesar’s grandnephew Octavian had seized control, confiscated property, and executed their enemies.

Despite the efforts of the Senators, the Roman Republic collapsed, paving the way for the Roman Empire. Caesar’s death did nothing to stop the power of absolute rulers. “The world without Caesar was still a world about Caesar.”[ii]

And Decimus Brutus was forever remembered as the guy who stabbed his friend in the back. Literally.

”The Assassination of Julius Caesar, 44 BC,” EyeWitness to History, (2004).

[ii] Strauss, Barry. The Death of Caesar. Simon and Schuster, 2015. Print.

Fact check:

“The Assassination of Julius Caesar, 44 BC,” EyeWitness to History, (2004).

Kimball, Roger. “The Moral of Caesar.” New Criterion. Vol. 33 Issue 9, 0. 4–12. Print.

Strauss, Barry. The Death of Caesar. Simon and Schuster, 2015. Print.

Woolf, Greg. “Preface.” Et Tu Brute? The Murder of Caesar & Political Assassination. Profile Books, 2006. Preceding p. 1. Print.

Picture Courtesy of Wikispace

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The Problem of the Ambitious Friend

I am friends with the most extraordinary man in the world.

And I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill him.

I’m not exaggerating his impressiveness. Pretty much everyone recognizes his excellence. First of all, he’s a military genius. He rose to fame winning battles as a general. He went on to conquer multiple countries on two continents. That’s awe-inspiring, but there have been lots of great military leaders. My friend is more than some brutish fighting man.

He’s also a skilled speaker and writer. In fact, his writing set such a powerful new standard for clear prose that kids in school study his technique. He’s a witty companion and a skilled politician. He supports the common man and stands for a more equitable distribution of land and wealth. And of course he’s very popular with the ladies…lots of them.

His troops would do anything for him. And that’s the problem.

He brought his men with him when he returned home from battle, which gave him the power to declare himself ruler of the country. That was bad enough. Then he decided he would be ruler for life.

My country is a Republic. Representatives share power and make decisions. Rulers are supposed to be elected. They’re not supposed to seize power – for life! – just because they have the army on their side. We’ve thrived all these years because we don’t have absolute rulers; we got rid of kings centuries ago.

Lately, my friend has been acting more and more like an absolute ruler, making only the smallest nods to the way the country is supposed to be run. There have been rumors that he seeks to be king. True, when his second-in-command publicly offered him a crown, he refused it, saying that only God is King. But lots of people think he was testing out the idea.

No one denies my friend is powerful, rich, popular, and ambitious. He’s planning a new war against our bitter enemy. When he wins – and he will – no one will be able to stop him becoming king, if that’s what he wants.

Some say a king is an absolute ruler who has an enlightened, magnanimous regard for his subjects, whereas a tyrant is ruthless and cruel.

Others say that the mere act of trying to become sole ruler through military might defines my friend as a tyrant, regardless of his actions in office.

Does my friend, in his quest for power, threaten the Republic? Has my friend crossed the line and become a tyrant? If so, what is the right thing to do?

Is the death of a tyrant like the removal of a diseased limb that would imperil the survival of the body? Can murder ever be justified? Does the good of the outcome outweigh the awfulness of the crime?

How do I weigh the good of the many against the good of the one?

What should I do?

  1. Nothing. Let my friend prove through his actions whether he is a positive ruler with a regard for his people or a tyrant. He’ll have to be cunning enough to protect himself in the meantime.
  2. Assassinate him. A large group of powerful men is starting to whisper about saving the Republic by forcibly ending my friend’s rule. Should I join them?
  3. Warn him about the plot against him. Save his life by warning him about the plans of his enemies. There’s a chance he might change our country for the better.

What would you do in my place? Write your answer in the comments.

See the solution this Friday – same bat time. Same bat channel.

The Solution to the Reluctant Traitor

Elizabeth Van Lew

Her tombstone reads:

Elizabeth L. Van Lew
She risked everything that is dear to man
– friends – fortune – comfort – health – life itself –
all for the one absorbing desire of her heart –
that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.[i]

Elizabeth Van Lew grew up as a rich and privileged Southern belle. Her father owned a successful hardware store in Richmond; her parents hosted the cream of society at balls and garden parties at their mansion on Grace Street. Their guests included former President John Adams and Edgar Allen Poe. (Though not at the same time. That would have been weird.)

Elizabeth went to school in her mother’s hometown of Philadelphia, where she became an abolitionist. Although her father had slaves, after his death she freed them and used her $10,000 inheritance (about $300,000 today) to free their families as well.

Posing as a good Christian women bent on charitable works, and referring to Union prisoners as, “thankless and unworthy,” she got permission to visit them and bring them comfort. The men were held in converted tobacco warehouses. They lived in terrible conditions – crowded, filthy, and starving. Elizabeth’s gifts of fresh food and clothing were important for the prisoners – more than one said she saved his life. She had a larger purpose, however. She smuggled in secret messages, hidden in food containers and coded into books and clothing, and got information from the prisoners out in the same way. The prisoners told her about the rebel numbers and positions they had observed while marching, and passed along information they gathered by listening to the doctors, nurses, and guards.

One guard grew suspicious when Elizabeth kept bringing a special double-layered food container to the prison. The bottom section could be filled with hot water to keep the food in the top section warm. Elizabeth, of course, used the bottom section to smuggle messages in and out of the prison. Someone warned her about the guard. The next time she visited, the guard demanded to inspect the container. Innocently, Elizabeth put the container into his bare hands. He roared with pain; the bottom of the container was filled with boiling water. He never asked to inspect it again.

Despite strong societal pressure and threats, Elizabeth continued to help the Union prisoners throughout the war, providing them with everything from food and clothing to help escaping. But she didn’t stop there.

She took the information she’d gathered at the prison and sent it on to the Union. Elizabeth developed an intricate spy network that included famers, grocers, factory workers, and servants. Using invisible ink and a secret code devised by the Union, she passed on messages hidden in sewing patterns, eggs, and hollow-soled shoes.

As the war continued, Elizabeth’s danger increased. With the passage of the sequestration act, Confederate officials could legally expose and punish female traitors to the South. By the end of the war, the Confederates had seized over five hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property from “alien enemies.”

In her diary, Elizabeth wrote, “From the commencement of the war until its close, my life was in continual jeopardy.”[ii] A New York Times article written after the war stated, “… there was not a moment during those four years [of Civil War] when Lizzie Van Lew could hear a step behind her on the street without expecting to have someone tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘You are my prisoner.’ “”[iii]

The challenge was to appear to be a loyal Confederate who could not possibly be engaging in espionage.

To allay suspicion, she hung a large Confederate flag in her entry parlor and offered southern hospitality to a variety of Confederate soldiers and officials. She even provided housing to Captain George Gibbs, the head of the tobacco prison complex.

There were some close calls. Suspicious officials searched her house several times. They never found the secret information she hid in the decorative brass animals by her fireplace. Once, when she had a coded message hidden in her shopping basket, a stranger came up behind her in the market and whispered, “I’m going through tonight.” The message was urgent, and she was tempted to trust him, but, wary of a Confederate trap, she said nothing and headed home. The next day, she saw the man from the market marching past in uniform at the head of a group of Confederate soldiers.

Despite everything, Elizabeth continued to do everything she could to help the Union. She hid escaping Union prisoners in a secret room in the attic; the hidden door could only be opened by a spring that was concealed behind an antique bureau. By 1864, she was sending three messages a week to General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant later wrote to her, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”[iv]

At the end of the war, Colonel Sharpe of the Union Intelligence agency said, “The greatest portion” of the information passed to the general’s army in 1864-65 was “owed to the intelligence and devotion of Miss Van Lew.”[v] When Grant’s army invaded Richmond, the General spent several hours drinking tea on Elizabeth’s front porch in gratitude for her help in winning the war.

Her neighbors never forgave her. Although Grant rewarded her with a position as postmaster of Richmond, she lived the rest of her life as a social pariah. “I live – and have lived for years – as entirely distinct from the citizens as if I were plague stricken… Rarely, very rarely, is our doorbell ever rung by any but a pauper, or those desiring my service.”[vi] Having spent the bulk of her fortune on her prisoner-support and spy activities, Elizabeth Van Lew was almost penniless when she died on September 25, 1900, at the age of eighty-two.

Elizabeth was not alone in sacrificing everything for her beliefs; many on both sides of the conflict gave up their lives in the Civil War. At least her efforts were not in vain – her wit and daring made a material difference to winning the war, saving the Union, and abolishing slavery.

Today, she is widely regarded as one of the most successful spies on either side of the Civil War.


For those of you who are new to this blog – welcome! You can expect a new Life and Death Decision in History on the first and third Wednesday of the month, with the solution on the following Friday.


[i]  Winkler, H. Donald. Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles and Altered the Course of the Civil War. Naperville, IL. 2010, p. 87

[ii] Caravantes, Peggy. Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War. Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 2002. Ch. 5

[iii] IBID.

[iv] Winkler, p. 83

[v] Winkler, p. 83

[vi] Caravantes, Ch. 5.

Footnotes from the Problem of the Reluctant Traitor

[i] Abbott, Karen. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Harper, 2014, p. 53

[ii] Winkler, H. Donald. Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles and Altered the Course of the Civil War. Naperville, IL. 2010, p. 52

[iii] IBID, 53

[iv] Winkler, p. 56

[v] Abbott, p. 46

[vi] Winkler, p. 80


Abbott, Karen. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Harper, 2014.

Caravantes, Peggy. Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War. Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 2002. Ch. 5

Smith, Scott S. “Elizabeth Van Lew, a Spy Who Lifted Union Cause.” Investors Business Daily. Encore Arapahoe Library District, 26 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 May 2015.

Winkler, H. Donald. Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles and Altered the Course of the Civil War. Naperville, IL. 2010

Picture courtesy of:

The Problem of the Reluctant Traitor

Yesterday, I was a loyal citizen. Today, I am a traitor. I have not changed.

Until recently, my loyalty to my country, the United States of America, was acceptable. Many people, even people in the legislature, felt the same as I do. But then my state left the Union, and my beautiful hometown of Richmond became the new capital of the Confederate States of America.

Now my neighbors thirst for war. They cry out for it. Mobs are going to private houses to hang those loyal to the Union. Loyalty is now called treason, and cursed. Those of us who remain true of heart are careful, even in our own parlors, speaking to those we trust the most, to only whisper.[i]

I’m used to being different; the people around me frequently disagree with my opinions and beliefs. It’s a lonely life, but I have to stand for what I believe is right. For example, many people around me have slaves, but I find the entire practice of slavery arrogant, cruel, and despotic.[ii]

When my father died, I convinced my mother and brother to free our family’s fifteen slaves. Then I used my inheritance to buy and free the children and relatives of our former slaves. I will fight against slavery until my last breath.

My neighbors look askance at my abolitionist leanings, but mostly they dismiss me as an eccentric spinster. That is not where the danger lies.

How much will I risk for my beliefs? What am I willing to dare to support my country?

At first, my mother and I simply refused to sew uniforms for the new Confederate army. This resulted in personal threats and warnings that our refusal was not acceptable.[iii] With regret, I removed my cherished American flag from its rightful place on the roof flagpole, and resolved to find some way to support the Union.

I am walking a very fine line.

It took me four tries and much flattery to get permission to help the wounded Union soldiers who are held prisoner in terrible conditions. Simply bringing them food and clothing has resulted in threats, scowls and frowns of an infuriated community. “I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things. We had threats of being driven away, threats of fire, threats of death…’You dare show sympathy for any of those prisoners!’ said a gentleman. ‘I would shoot them down as I would blackbirds!’”[iv]

Worse, several articles appeared in the paper this week, decrying my work at the prison. The Richmond Dispatch was the most threatening. It said that if my mother and I aren’t careful, we will be “exposed and dealt with as alien enemies to the country.”[v] It’s one thing to hear nasty gossip. It’s quite another to see it in print.

I think the government is suspicious about me. “Visitors apparently friendly are treacherous. I have turned to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces can sometimes be seen peeping around the columns and pillars of the back portico.”[vi] Lately, the Provost Marshal, Thomas Doswell, has been interrogating my friends and neighbors. I know my sister-in-law, Mary, has given evidence against me.

I worry about what could happen. Will I be exiled from my home, leaving behind friends and family? Worse, could I find myself in prison or even on the gallows? Would the government act against a woman?

How can I follow my heart and my conscience in such a dangerous situation? What should I do?

  1. Keep speaking out against slavery, but otherwise support the Confederacy.
  2. Do my part to help by continuing to care for wounded Union soldiers and leave it at that.
  3. Make a point of publicly supporting the Confederacy, while secretly working to help the Union as a spy.

What would you do? Write your choice in the comments. Watch for the solution this Friday!

For those of you who are new to this blog – welcome! You can expect a new Life and Death Decision in History on the first and third Wednesday of the month, with the solution on the following Friday.

The Solution to the Intolerable Conditions

john ross

Cherokee Chief John Ross, 
who came home to find strangers living in his house. 
He’d been evicted by the Georgia Guard.

This is the tale of how the last Native American tribe in the southeastern United States lost their land.

But it’s also the tale of what happens when the government makes conflicting promises to two different groups.

George Washington was the first US president to make a treaty with the Cherokee, promising them sovereignty over their land. Later treaties reinforced this agreement.

However, in 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Georgia Compact. Georgia sold its western territories to the government, and in return Jefferson promised to remove the Native Americans from the area.

Both the state of Georgia and the Cherokee therefore felt they owned the land. Add in a double-handful of land-hungry settlers, spice it with gold found on Cherokee lands, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Some white settlers moved onto Cherokee land to steal livestock, take over abandoned farms, or mine for gold on their own initiative. Others “won” Cherokee lands in a Georgia state lottery.

Cherokee complaints to the government were ignored.

President Andrew Jackson and some Cherokee leaders felt there would never be peace between Cherokee and settlers from Georgia. The solution was simple. Move the Cherokee west of the Mississippi to Indian Territory (near present-day Oklahoma). There they could start anew with no white settlers around. Really, Jackson argued, it would be for their own good.

Some Cherokee disagreed.

Elias Boudinot wrote, “Where have we an example in the whole history of man of a Nation or tribe, removing in a body, from a land of civil and religious means, to a perfect wilderness, in order to be civilized?[i]

In the highly disputed Treaty of New Echota, a small number of Cherokee signed an agreement with the American Government to move to Indian Territory for $5 million in compensation.

Although Cherokee leaders fought the legality of the treaty and brought the battle over sovereignty to the Supreme Court, in the end President Jackson sent the army in to forcibly evict the Cherokee from their lands and houses, frequently with no notice.

“Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths…Men were seized in their fields…women were taken from their wheels and children from their play.”[ii]

Families moved at gunpoint left most or all of their belongings and were herded into prison camps awaiting transportation west.

Everyone knows of the atrocities of the Trail of Tears, both in the muddy and brutally hot prison camps and on the actual journey to Indian Territory. Here are a few facts to spark your memory:

  • Between 12 and 22 Cherokees died of pneumonia each night.
  • “Sick or elderly people who could not climb into wagons quickly enough were whipped or beaten for slowing progress.”[iii]
  • Around 16,000 Cherokee were forced to move.
  • An estimated 4,000-5,000 Cherokees died on the journey west.

Although various members of the Cherokee tried all of the choices given in part one – fighting back, going to court, getting compensation, and refusing to move – in the end they were outnumbered, outgunned…and removed.


Benoit, P. (2012). The Trail of Tears. New York: Children’s Press.

Smith, D. (2011). An American betrayal: Cherokee patriots and the Trail of Tears. New York: Henry Holt.

Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress

[i] Cherokee Phoenix, October 10, 1828, as quoted in Smith, p. 94

[ii] James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (Nashville, Charles and Randy Elde, 1982), p. 130-31 as quoted in Smith, p. 206.

[iii] Benoit, p. 50