Happy ‘It’s Not President’s Day’ Day

It’s not President’s Day. I know, I know, the White Sales say differently, so do the five car dealerships I just passed on Route 44. But, it’s not, because there’s no such holiday as President’s Day. It’s just Congress’ way of making Washington’s birthday fit a three day weekend.(Really – see Section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the United States Code).

washWashington’s birthday was a major holiday in the U.S. long before the Civil War, it was formalized as a Federal holiday in the 1880’s, it took an act of Congress in the late 1960’s to muddle the waters.

There was a push to move holidays to the Monday schedule we now enjoy. Given the proximity of Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, Illinois tried to roll Lincoln’s Birthday into the already celebrated Washington’s Birthday Federal Holiday.

Since this new holiday, giving us all a three day weekend in the middle of February, would celebrate two prominent former presidents it was naturally enough labeled ‘President’s Day’.

Who would argue with a day devoted to Washington and Lincoln? Well, Virginia in the mid-1960s for one. The late unpleasantness between the States was only a hundred years old and Virginia didn’t like the idea of a usurper from Illinois sharing the spotlight with its most visible son. Virginia blocked the proposed bill in the House of Representatives in the discussion stage. It never passed.

The third Monday of February was designated Washington’s Birthday, Lincoln’s Birthday remains as it was – a state by state optional holiday. It has never been a Federal holiday.

Interestingly, Presidents since the 1968 Act don’t seem in a hurry to correct those who refer to President’s Day, opting instead to embrace the all inclusive, let’s celebrate all the Presidents Day. As in, it’s a day celebrating all 45 of us (or does Grover Cleveland get to celebrate twice?), because, hey, all President’s are created equal.

It has become the equivalent of ‘every kid gets a trophy’ – except most kids deserve it. Take, for instance:

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Warren G. Harding, he gets a trophy even though he wandered around behind the bench picking daisies while the others played;

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William H. Harrison, he only showed up for two practices and one game, but he wanted to be there;

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James Buchanan, John Tyler, and Franklin Pierce …. even though after election they were the other team’s most valuable player . . .

Could do this all day…. but that would be a waste of a nice, sunny, Washington’s Birthday .

This Day in June, 1876

For a guy who named his company Forlorn Hope, I don’t really get the fascination with the Battle of Little Big Horn.

June 25, 1876. Custer’s Last Stand . . .  has any other piece of our history generated more (a) ‘experts’, i.e. everyone who has seen a movie or read anything on Little Big Horn; (b) books per capita of men engaged in battle – just under 700 troopers with Custer, perhaps as many as 1800 Native American warriors, 4,275 books listed on Amazon today; (c) debates – scholarly and otherwise – over exactly what happened; (d) movies; (e) [really] bad art; (f) [really] bad acting; (g) enduring myths?

Just  to get a bit of perspective, the Seventh Cavalry’s total casualties for the day were 258 killed, 52 wounded – that’s right, wounded, Custer’s command was not wiped out, he split his forces (through the mists of time one can almost hear him thinking “it worked for Robert E. Lee”), the five companies unlucky enough to follow him were annihilated, the others managed to get along under extraordinarily harsh conditions without their leader (who was hardly beloved in any event).  Three hundred and ten casualties – that represents about six minutes of fighting at Antietam, Marye’s Hill, Cold Harbor.

June 25, 1876It’s a curious and very American phenomenon, this veneration, fascination with what amounts to a nasty skirmish. Less than three years later the British would lose 1,300 men (every infantryman) to 20,000 Zulus at Islandlwana.  This generated surprise and disgust in the UK (and the obligatory formal painting) but no sub-culture “Chelsmford’s Last Stand” – although part of that battle was fought during a solar eclipse that gave it a glow of eeriness not present at the Little Big Horn.  June 25, 1876The very next day about 180 British soldiers held off at least 3,000 Zulus for 24 hours at Rorke’s Drift – that was briefly celebrated, then forgotten until the movie Zulu was released in 1964 (on many Top Ten war movie lists, mine included).

There doesn’t seem to be the same fascination with the United States’ worst defeat to Native-Americans. One that dwarfs Little Bighorn.

November 4, 1791 on the Wabash River in Ohio.  One quarter of the full strength of the American army under Gen, Arthur St. Clair met forces of the Western Confederacy under Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. The Native Americans annihilated St. Clair’s forces. Of St. Clair’s 920 men, 632 were killed, 264 wounded. The American casualty rate of 97.4 percent is the worst casualty rate for a single action in American military history to date.

And yet, no books, no movies, no one’s walking the banks of the Wabash by Fort Recovery, Ohio trying to figure out where St. Clair went wrong (he was one of the few survivors, so no general going down … plus, he didn’t wear buckskins).

Custer’s Last Stand, though, endures.  As excellent a writer as Nathaniel Philbrick, fresh off one of the best non-fiction books of past years, Mayflower, saw the need for yet another book about it.(I haven’t read it yet, but I hope he did what David Hackett Fischer did in Washington’s Crossing and included several chapters on mythology, art, books, etc).

Archaeologists still comb the field debating where and when Custer fell (shouldn’t they be looking for the lost Ark or something more . . .  relevant?); 400,000 tourists a year go out of their way visit the field in the middle of nowhere; there’s probably a dozen more books on the way.

On any given day in the middle of the summer there’s probably more people walking the fields than there were combatants, and that’s just …

By the way – is They Died with Their Boots On the most entertaining-least-historically -accurate movie of all time?