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Capt John Smith and New England

the sea mark  The Sea Mark by Russell M. Layton is a very interesting and revealing book about the little known later life of Capt. John Smith. Most of us have heard or read about Capt John Smith’s association with the ill fated Jamestown colony of 1607. His larger than life exploits with native Americans and Pocahontas have become standard grade school lore.

In The Sea Mark, Mr. Layton has undertaken a very sizable job of sorting out the real John Smith. This is not for lack of written record of John Smith’s life. But, rather, nearly all the material was written by John Smith himself with the goal of promoting the colonization of “new England”. Because of this need to clearly illuminate Smith’s motives and views, The Sea Mark isn’t the easiest book to read. In many critical areas Mr. Layton makes use of direct quotes of John Smith including the original 17th century spelling. Where names of flora and fauna are completely different, Mr. Layton does show there modern identities.

However, as often happens the real Capt John Smith is actually more interesting than the simple man of legend. As background to his voyage to “new England” and explain to John Smith, the man, Mr. Layton describes John Smith’s life before Jamestown. As only a teenager John Smith served as a mercenary fighting the Spaniards. Though not born to the sea and with little formal education, Smith became an excellent seaman. While fighting as mercenary against the Ottoman Turks, he was captured and sold as a slave. As a slave, Smith was taken to the Crimea where he was able to escape after killing his master. He wandered through the continent eventually ending in North Africa where he joined a French ship and was able to make his way back to England.

For readers of northern New England, the chapters of The Sea Mark describing the detailed exploration of the coast of Maine and Massachusetts will read like a travelogue. Mr. Layton provides such detail that many sailors will be tempted to recreate sections of his voyage to experience what Smith saw along the rocky coast of Maine.

After the interesting chapters on “new England”, Mr. Layton turns to the remainder of Smith’s life attempting to return to “new England” and create a permanent colony. Unfortunately, this was to never happen. It is unfortunate that Smith’s efforts to lead a permanent colony never happened. His knowledge of the region and its native peoples would have changed history.

Overall, The Sea Mark is a very engrossing  read (particularly for New Englanders) that fills in little known elements of the Capt John Smith folklore.


Lincoln – The Statesman

Lincoln in the World

Lincoln in the World by Kevin Peraino is not your regular biographical history of President Lincoln during the American Civil War. If you are looking for biography of Lincoln, I don’t recommend this book. However, if you are generally familiar with Lincoln and are looking for a different perspective to fill in your knowledge; this book is for you.

Peraino organizes the book in an usual way, focusing on specific relationships between Lincoln and key persons of the period. In this way Peraino illustrates the development of Lincoln, the statesman and diplomat. While never leaving the United States and much focused on the Civil War, Lincoln certainly had his share of international crises and demonstrated quite a high level of skill in international relations. Perhaps the most important was to ensure that no European power sided with the Confederacy.

In the section Lincoln vs. Seward the reader will learn a good deal about Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward. At first being rivals for the presidential nomination, Lincoln and Seward grew to be quite an effective diplomatic team relying on each others strengths.

I found a quote from Seward to be very apropos of a political view much needed today “I learned early from Jefferson that, in political affairs, we cannot always do what seems to us absolutely best. We must be content to lead when we can; and to follow when we cannot lead; and if we cannot at any time do for our country all the good that we would wish, we must be satisfied with doing for her all the good that we can.”

A second quote from Seward gave me great pause to consider current world and our relationship to China. Seward said “The nation that draws the most materials from the earth, and fabricates the most, and sells the most of productions and fabrics to foreign nations, must be, and will be the great power of the earth.”

In the section Lincoln vs. Palmerston, describes the diplomatic balancing act needed to manage the economic effects of king cotton on the British economy. Peraino’s descriptions of the Trent Affair (abduction of Confederate agents Mason and Sidell from British ship, HMS Trent, in international waters) is an excellent example of the Lincoln/ Seward diplomacy.

Most readers know Karl Marx for his Communist Manifesto. Little known to this reader was that Karl Marx was quite the international journalist and critical observer of the American scene during the Civil War. In the section Lincoln vs Karl Marx, we learn that he was one of the most widely read columnists of New York Tribune.

I found the section on Lincoln vs. Napoleon perhaps the most interesting. In the deep recesses of my memory I knew the basics of Napoleon’s ventures in Mexico and his installation of Maximilian as puppet Mexican emperor. However, what was surprising to me was uproar in the United States to invade Mexico at the same time

Particularly interesting was a 4 hour meeting between the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens, Lincoln and Seward at Hampton Roads, Va on February 3,1865. The topic was a serious proposal by Stevens for the Union and Confederate armies to join forces and invade Mexico to expel the French army! Lincoln was skeptical of the proposal and nothing came of it.

Crystal Clear – How crystals may have won World War II

Crystal ClearI just finished a very interesting book on a little known aspect of World War II history. There have been many books on technological developments of World War II that allowed the Allies to when the war. For example, in ‘The Invention that Changed the World‘, Robert Buderi describes how a small band of scientists and engineers developed radar. This invention was the key advantage during the Battle of Britian.
However, as a ham (radio amateur) of 50 years, I am always interested radio related technologies and ham radio contributions. In his book, ‘Crystal Clear‘, Richard J. Thompson, Jr. describes how the development of military radio using crystal oscillators gave the Allies a major advantage.
Prior to World War II the fledgeling crystal oscillator was dominated by one & two man companies serving the ham radio community and a very limited industry base. The outset of the war, the Signal Corps was still wrestling with the choice between crystal-based radios from this almost nonexistent industry and the more mature master oscillator design. The final decision swung to crystal design because of the poor stability of master oscillators in moving platforms such as armored vehicles and airplanes. Once committed the Signal Corps had the daunting task of creating an industry that could meet wartime demands. From only 100,000 units produced in 1941, the industry grew to produce 5.8 MILLION units in 1942 and a staggering 20.3 MILLION in 1943!
As a direct result of using crystal oscillator radios the Allies were able to have reliable communications at all echelons of command. Allied Signal Corps men could rely on accurate frequency assignments when planning and executing operations across the world.
The story of this amazing growth is one of unprecedented cooperation between the civilian government, the military and industrial rivals. The elements of this effort start with securing the only known source of radio-grade crystals in heart of Brazil to the hand delivery of critical crystals in support of important military operations.