Category Archives: War

The Indefatigable Dr. Ferling

John Ferling, Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 (Bloomsbury, 2021, 701 pp., $40)

John Ferling, professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, is one of the most prolific historians writing today—and one of the best. This is John’s 15th book on the colonial and Revolutionary period, and his 10th in the last 21 years. This volume, covering the last three years of the American Revolutionary War, weighs in at 561 pages of text and nearly 150 pages of notes and bibliography.

Long-suffering readers and listeners of Off the Deaton Path know that John and his work have been featured no less three times before, including a two-part interview.

By my count, this is John’s third book that focuses on the military phase of the Revolution, following Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford, 2007), and Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (Bloomsbury, 2015). Of course his biographies of George Washington and John Adams cover the war years as well, as does his political history of the war, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford, 2003), and his prosopography, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2000). Yet he never repeats himself, always offering fresh insights and interpretations.

How does he manage to do this? Here’s what I wrote in a review of his dual biography, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2013): “How, one might ask, does Ferling keep plowing the same ground and still have something new to say? Part of it is simply attributable to his maturity as a scholar. Unlike others who leap from one time period to another with each book, Ferling has spent his entire professional life laboring in the vineyard of the Founding era. Ferling isn’t just dabbling in this period; he knows it as well as anyone can who is now two centuries removed from the time about which he’s writing. He is well versed in what the Founders wrote, what they read, what they believed, and what they hoped to achieve. But he’s not awe-struck by them. Simultaneously, his reflections on people and events have deepened with the years, as he himself has aged. As should happen as we grow older, his own insights about human nature reflect his growth as a human being; he’s more empathetic, more forgiving of human foibles and less harsh on their failures, though he isn’t afraid to point them out and to hold men and women accountable for not only what they achieve, but what they fail to achieve.  He knows what it’s like to live life, make mistakes, and have regrets. It’s the primary reason why people in their 20s shouldn’t write biographies.”

Rick Atkinson, the author of The British Are Coming: The War for America, 1775-1777 (Henry Holt, 2019), the first volume of his Revolutionary Trilogy, recently told me that he believes some subjects are bottomless. No matter how much is written about some historical periods and people, historians hundreds of years from now will still be producing books on Abraham Lincoln, the Second World War, and the American Revolution.

John Ferling’s masterful prose, in this and all his books, bears this out. As prolific as John is, I have no doubt that other volumes will follow, all exquisitely written, exhaustively researched, and deeply analytical.

Americans are endlessly fascinated by those who fought and won the Revolution, and that first greatest generation has no finer historian than the indefatigable Dr. John Ferling.

Dispatches from Off the Deaton Path: Memorial Day

In honor of Memorial Day, Dr. Deaton visits Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina to pay homage to all members of the armed forces of the United States buried there–and in graves known and unknown around the world.

It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

When news outlets first reported the Colonial Pipeline software cyberattack last weekend, they warned that if the pipeline didn’t come back online in the near future, gas prices would in all likelihood be rising.

From that news, it took virtually no time for people to assume that must mean that there was no gasoline now, nor would there ever be again. Gasoline as we had known it was gone, never to return. Therefore, we should all go out and fill up our cars at the same time—RIGHT NOW!!!!—whether you had any gas in your car or not. Maybe you filled your car up just yesterday, or maybe you wouldn’t need gas for another week. No matter! Go now and top it off! Wait hours if you must, but go get gas now, now, now!!!

We thus ensured that we turned a mild inconvenience—higher gas prices—into a full-blown disaster.

You may recall that at this same time last year, during the pandemic, people rushed out to buy toilet paper in mass quantities—not because there wasn’t any, but because social media rumors spread that toilet paper might become scarce. So the obvious thing to do was to run out and panic buy as much as you could, RIGHT NOW!!

People got into fistfights over toilet paper. Viral videos of check-out-line shaming lit up the internet, as people bought 198 rolls at once.  People who couldn’t find toilet paper were afraid to eat Varsity chili dogs. Other unfortunates began ordering bidets. Panic ensued.

What is it about the human condition that makes us act this way? And if you think this is a recent phenomenon or needs social media to happen, watch the classic “Twilight Zone” episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” first broadcast in 1960.

I’m working in metro Atlanta this week, and people are lined up to buy gasoline. Those of us who are old enough to remember the gas crisis lines of the 1970s found it eerily familiar.

As a historian, I started thinking about a time in this country when gasoline was actually rationed and wondered, what would we do if that happened again?

With America’s entry into World War II in December 1941, the Federal government recognized immediately that certain consumer products that Americans took for granted would either become very scarce or completely inaccessible if it didn’t step in and restrain the American consumer. Rubber, sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, and gasoline topped the list.

Why rubber? Most of America’s rubber came from the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), and the Japanese invasion of those islands severed America’s supply. Without rubber, tires couldn’t be produced that would become essential in the war effort. As American car manufacturers shifted to production of planes, tanks, and Jeeps, rubber rationing began, followed closely by gasoline. The thinking was, if Americans didn’t have gasoline, they wouldn’t drive, thus decreasing the need for new tires and rubber.

To further decrease the rubber demand, no new cars were manufactured after January 1, 1942, while all automobile racing ceased. There was no Indianapolis 500 from 1942 through 1945.

We should take comfort that Americans 80 years ago didn’t like the idea of going without gasoline any more than we do now. The government first tried making gasoline rationing voluntary in the early months of 1942, and that worked out about as well as you’d imagine.

So on May 15, 1942–ironically, 79 years ago this week—gasoline rationing began in 17 Eastern states and was in effect in all 48 states by the end of the year.

How did it work? Local rationing boards—over 5,000 of them across the country—oversaw the process and reported to the Office of Price Administration (known as the OPA) in Washington. Depending on your job, you received a colored sticker or card with a letter printed on it that you then placed on your windshield.

Most Americans got “A” cards, signifying the lowest priority and only 3 to 4 gallons of gas a week. Those in the military and industry got “B” stickers and up to 8 gallons a week. Doctors and others deemed essential to the war effort received “C” stickers, truckers got “T,” while those deemed most essential—clergy, police, firemen, mail carriers, and civil defense workers, got the coveted “X” stickers and unlimited gasoline. It didn’t take long for most Americans to start referring to the OPA derisively as “Only a Puny A-card.” 

Lest we think the Greatest Generation was somehow more virtuous, it’s worth noting that there was a brisk underground market for upgrading one’s sticker for the right price. Rationing stamp books were also bought and sold illegally for those who found it hard to get things like sugar, meat, flour, and tobacco. And it won’t surprise you that 200 Congressmen tried to give themselves “X” stickers, but the ensuing outrage cancelled that idea, even without Twitter. Some things never change.

Thinking about all of this as I watched people lining up at Racetrac to panic buy before the last drop of fuel disappeared from the planet—or until the Colonial Pipeline flows once again—I couldn’t help but wonder how contemporary Americans would react to being asked for the kind of sacrifice that prevailed in World War II.

In our highly polarized country where distrust of the government is legion, it’s a given that gas-rationing would become highly politicized. One can imagine local rationing boards in some states simply refusing to meet, refusing to limit the amount of gas to people in their communities, and inviting their residents to drive down to the local QT and demand a full tank, regardless of their sticker. Gas equals freedom!! Let’s pause for a moment to imagine the viral videos of confrontations between gas sellers and consumers that would roil the Internet. Can you envision NASCAR shutting down or Americans going without new cars for three years?

I also pondered future shortages created by cyberterrorist attacks. What if the supply lines for whatever smart phones are made of are suddenly strangled? What about the life-giving transmission of coffee beans to Starbucks and elsewhere? If the world’s hops supply is interrupted (gasp!), would the beer pipeline shut down? Can you imagine the lines and fistfights at the Golden Gallon if that happens?

I know, I know—c’mon Stan, don’t joke about this. Cyberterrorism is real, it’s nothing to laugh at. To quote Abraham Lincoln, criticized for making jokes in cabinet meetings during the Civil War, I laugh because I must not cry.

Not to mention, when the great beer-rationing crisis comes, I’m sure I’ll get Only a Puny A-card. That’s when I’ll break out my government-rationed crying towel.

I’m making merry only because these and similar catastrophes are bound to happen—and when they do, we, all by ourselves, with no help from any outside source, will make it much worse than it should be. We always do.

Nancy Wilson Ross put it best: “When man conquers space, his ancient, universal, and perpetual  problem will remain the same as it has been from the very beginning—to conquer himself.”

Dispatches From Off the Deaton Path: Alexander Stephens

Dr. Deaton looks at the life of Alexander Stephens,  one of two Georgians memorialized in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol in Washington DC, the Vice President of the Confederacy and the author of the infamous “Cornerstone” speech. 

Pearl Harbor, and Other Days of Infamy

In this Dispatch, Dr. Deaton looks at the December 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, “the date that will live in infamy,” and other infamous dates in American history, including the assassination of two presidents, the Battle of Antietam, and 9/11.