History Unplugged Podcast
Summary: For history lovers who listen to podcasts, History Unplugged is the most comprehensive show of its kind. It's the only show that dedicates episodes to both interviewing experts and answering questions from its audience. First, it features a call-in show where you can ask our resident historian (Scott Rank, PhD) absolutely anything (What was it like to be a Turkish sultan with four wives and twelve concubines? If you were sent back in time, how would you kill Hitler?). Second, it features long-form interviews with best-selling authors who have written about everything. Topics include gruff World War II generals who flew with airmen on bombing raids, a war horse who gained the rank of sergeant, and presidents who gave their best speeches while drunk.
“Traitor!” “Failure!” “Bungling fool!” Southern newspapers hurled these sentiments at Confederate General John C. Pemberton after he surrendered the fortress of Vicksburg—the key to controlling the Mississippi River during the Civil War. But were they justified in their accusations? Today I'm talking with Dr. Samuel Mitcham, author of Vicksburg: The Bloody Siege that Turned the Tide of the Civil War. He argues that these newspapers—and history itself—have wrongly marred Pemberton’s legacy. Some of the myths he argues against are that Pemberton’s indecisiveness delayed the aid Vicksburg needed, when in fact he had been urgently requesting reinforcements, stationed nearby, but his commanding general repeatedly ignored him due to a petty grudge. The Confederate Army fought an exhaustive battle to defend the fortress of Vicksburg from the spring of 1862 until its surrender on July 4, 1863. Trapped for six weeks, the residents of Vicksburg were forced to dig caves and eat rats to survive. But, due to Pemberton’s stalwart character and resourceful mind, they continued to trust his command despite dire circumstances.
Long before Thanos snapped his fingers in Avengers: Infinity War, another villain successfully killed half of humanity. Malaria is a simple parasite, transmitted by a mosquito bite. But this deadly disease, which has been around as long as homo sapiens, has killed more than all wars and natural disasters combined. It has wiped out cities, destroyed empires, ruined colonies, and may be responsible for 50 billion deaths, among them Alexander the Great and Marcus Aurelius (allegedly). Malaria's role in history is perhaps more under-appreciated than anything else. Here's two examples: Many historians believe America won the Revolutionary War due to malaria depleting the ranks of infected soldiers. Some think it caused Rome's downfall. When the malaria parasite was discovered in the 1800s it led to containment efforts. But the real game changer was the deployment of DDT in World War Two. Deadly swamp lands (like much of the United States) were now safe for human habitation. Even South Pacific islands were no longer death traps. However, the fight against malaria took a different turn in the 1960s with the publication of Silent Spring, a book that argued pesticides could permanently damage earth's ecological balance. Malaria is not the killer it once was but it still plays a massive role in public affairs debates today.
In August 1862, two Union soldiers were gravely wounded at the Battle of Second Manassas. They were brought to a field hospital, though both died as a result of their injuries. Their bodies were laid to rest in a shallow burial pit, intermixed with amputated limbs from other soldiers wounded in the battle. Then they were lost to history. But in 2014, the National Park Service (NPS) first encountered the remains during a utility project. With help from the Smithsonian Institution, the NPS was able to identify the remains as Union soldiers, and worked with the Army to give these soldiers an honorable final resting place. Beneath the surface, they found two nearly-complete human skeletons, and several artifacts including buttons from a Union sack coat, a .577 Enfield bullet, three pieces of .31 caliber lead buckshot, and an assemblage of eleven arms and legs. The discovery was something incredibly rare: a battlefield surgeon's burial pit. In fact, this was the first time such a burial pit had ever been excavated and studied at a Civil War battlefield. Today I'm talking with archeologist and Manassas National Battlefield Park Superintendent Brandon Bies about the discovery, what it can tell us about Civil War combat medicine (when doctors did their best despite having little else but a saw an chloroform) and the new light this sheds on the horrific nature of warfare in the 19th century.
You've heard it before: American politics have never been nastier or more divisive than they are today. Just witness the recent words of one recent front-runner candidate, who told told the media his opponent was a hermaphrodite, because he was too weak to be a man but too ugly to be a woman. The front-runner's hatchet men counter-attacked. They called his opponent a nasty low-life who was the vile offspring of a mulatto and an Indian. He was a bloodthirsty war-monger who wanted to trigger a war with America's enemies, leading to a national orgy of “rape, incest, and adultery.” The slurs kept piling up. The front-runner was called a criminal and fascist. The opponent was called an atheist cowardly weakling. Does this sound like words passed between the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns in 2016? They weren't— these were insults traded between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election. Jefferson's camp described Adams as having a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” As you can see, American elections have always been vicious. To dive into this topic, I have on the show David Severa, host of the podcast called Early and Often – the History of Elections in America. We talk about the history of voting in the United States, all the way from the earliest colonial days to the present.
The History of Slavery, Part 5: The Road to Abolition
Slavery predates European entry into the Atlantic world in the Age of Exploration, but the system that developed during the 16th and 17th centuries was an arguably more inhumane and racially tinged institution than anything that had previously existed before. The first English colonists in the Americas believed they could become wealthy through mutual trade with Native Americans. This system failed and was replaced by chattel enslavement of Africans to work on cash-crop plantations. American slavery grew and metastisized until it swallowed up over 10 million lives in the Atlantic Slave Trade. This episode explores the origins of New World slavery (originally based on the Iberian enslavement of Muslims), the miseries that Africans experienced on slave ships, auction blocks, and plantation life, and the establishment of laws in early America that made slavery a cornerstone of the young nation's economy.
As the trans-Atlantic slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa to the Americas flourished in the 1500s, there was another slave trade that operate on an even larger scale. It was the capture of Europeans by north-African Muslims. Barbary Pirates enslaved an estimated 1 million Europeans in the period from 1500 to 1800. Enslavement was a real possibility for anyone who traveled in the Mediterranean or who lived along the shores in places like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, and even as far north as England and Iceland. For example, in 1632, pirates captured the Irish city of Baltimore. They and others were snatched from their homes, taken in chains to the slave markets of Algiers and sold to the highest bidder. Some spent the rest of their lives rowing galleys. Others toiled in quarries or on farms. Attractive women were sent to harems and became a pasha's concubine. This episode looks at a little-known chapter in the history of slavery. Although few know the stories of these captives, the threat of piracy on the Mediterranean had a huge impact on the Western World. Thomas Jefferson developed the U.S. navy to eliminate the Barbary Threat. Miguel de Cervantes spent years in North Africa. Even John Smith of Pocahontas fame was a slave in Istanbul. Learn about this disturbing period in history and how it all came to an end in the early 1800s.
The image of the slave trade is a white slaver capturing African tribesmen, packing them like corkwood into a ship, selling them in the Antebellum South, and having a plantation owner work them to death. All of this took place on a scale of millions in the African slave trade to the New World. But such massive levels of slavery did not begin with European discovery of the New World. In the Middle Ages, Vikings went on numerous slave raids of England and Eastern Europe, selling those capture on Volga slave markets. Most of all, Arab slave traders purchased millions of Africans and sent them to the Middle East to work on cotton and sugar cane plantations in Iraq. Middle Eastern intellectuals argued that Africans were at a lower mental level than Arabs and thus of a suitable condition to be enslaved (to be fair, they thought the same of Scandinavians). Slaves were humiliated at markets in Cairo where they were stripped naked to be examined by potential buyers. And Africans were taken from their homeland where they would be shipped East to Cairo, Syria, Iraq, India, and even all the way out to Indonesia. Find out how slavery is much older than we think but sadly universally cruel.
When asked “what is slavery,” most Americans or Westerners would respond with a description of an African slave in the antebellum South, picking cotton and suffering under the whip of a cruel master. But if you asked an Irishman in 1650, he would have answered differently. He would recount the horrors of Barbary Muslim pirates invading the town of Baltimore, dragging his kinsmen off to the slave markets of Algeria. A medieval Arab would have still answered differently. He would talk about the African slave trade, albeit the one that went east to Arabia instead of the one that went west to the New World. A Roman would have described slavery as the Greek in his household that tutored his children. Slavery goes back to the beginning of the agricultural revolution. It is universal yet localized to the particular conditions in the society that enslaves others. Some researchers think slavery is common across history in that it leads to the social death of a slave. Others think that slaves were treated rather well in the ancient world, and it was only the weaponized racism of recent centuries that turned the chattel slavery of Africans brought to the New World into such a cruel institution. This episode is the beginning of a five-part series on slavery. We are looking at the origins of the practice, why it began, the work that slaves did, what was the “best” sort of work, and how they revolted. By looking into the past we will have a better understanding of this practice, and how much it resembles slaver in the modern world.
America has a strange relationship with alcohol. Certain drinks represented the darkest parts of the national psyche. Rum was once associated with slavery because sugar cane plantations that made rum were only profitable with chattel slavery. Whisky and hard cider were omnipresent in the 19th century, turning able-bodied men into drunkards who couldn't support their families and left them to starve. But it was Prohibition that is strangest of all. America successfully outlawed alcohol, the first and only modern nation to do so. The unintended consequences were enormous: from physicians falsifying alcohol's positive effects so they could write prescriptions for “medicine” and make a handsome profit, to record numbers of men converting to Judaism so they could administer alcohol in rabbinical ceremonies. Here to untangle the Gordion knot of alcohol in America's past is Cody Wheat from the Shots of History Podcast.
Welcome to an anthology episode where I ask six short questions about the Middle Ages from you, the listener. Here they are in order of appearance: What Did People Eat in the Middle Ages?How Did You Conquer a Castle?Could You Tell Me About Harold Hardrada?Why is Thomas Becket Still So ImportantDid Rome Fall Because Christianity Made it Soft?Did Any African Explorers Come to Europe or Asia in the Middle Ages?
Cable news pundits tell you everything is “breaking news.” TV pundits discuss politics in a vacuum. But in nearly every case, the politics of today have long roots in history. This includes media celebrities winning elections by manipulating the press and lobbing gross insults (Huey Long in the 1920s), breakdowns in the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico (the 1840s Mexican-American War) and fears of presidential executive overreach (the 1780s with George Washington). In this episode I talk with Bruce Carlson, host of the My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast about how nearly every issue in U.S. politics has an analogue in the past. He uses history to elevate the discussion of today's politics.
The © symbol (or "Copyright") is a completely forgettable character ignored by all but lawyers. It is buried at the bottom of legal notices that your brain reflexively skips over. But this little symbol represents a war that has raged for centuries between authorities that want to restrict dangerous information, publishers that want to profit by it, artists that want to stop plagiarists, and open-information activists that want to make everything public domain. In this episode I look at the history of copyright, the battle over how much information should cost. What is the line between protecting the rights of publishers and artists so they can make a living, and depriving society of crucial information and sentencing them to ignorance and illiteracy? The battle includesVenetian Printer Aldus Manutius, who invented Italic font in 1500s Venice. He complained of French plagiarists, who copied his techniques in order to trick book buyers, even though “[t]he lettering, upon closer inspection, betrays a certain Frenchiness” and were “produced on foul paper, ‘with [a] strange odor.”Miguel Cervantes, who battled unauthorized sequels to Don Quixote by inserting those characters into his actual sequel and mocking them.England's Statue of Anne, the first copyright law that inadvertently led to a cartel of London book publishers who artificially limited production and drove book prices through the roof.America's lax prosecution of illegal printers of British literature, leading to a boom in education.Aaron Swart'z 2010 hack of MIT's network in order to illegally download five million academic articles and “liberate” them to the Internet
A century-long blood feud between two Cherokee chiefs shaped the history of the Cherokee tribe far more than anyone, even the reviled President Andrew Jackson. They were John Ross and the Ridge. Today I'm talking with John Sedgwick about the fall of the Cherokee Nation due to the clash of these two figures. The Ridge (1771–1839)—or He Who Walks on Mountains—was a Cherokee chief and warrior who spoke no English but whose exploits on the battlefield were legendary. John Ross (1790–1866) was the Cherokees’ primary chief for nearly forty years yet spoke not a word of Cherokee and proudly displayed the Scottish side of his mixed-blood heritage. To protect their sacred landholdings from American encroachment, these two men negotiated with almost every American president from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln. At first friends and allies, they worked together to establish the modern Cherokee Nation in 1827. However, the two founders eventually broke on the subject of removal; the Ridge believed resisting President Jackson and his army would be hopeless, while Ross wanted to stay and fight for the lands the Cherokee had occupied since long before the white settlers’ arrival. The failure of these two respected leaders to compromise bred a hatred that led to a bloody civil war within the Cherokee Nation, the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, and finally, the two factions battling each other on opposite sides of the Civil War. Sedgwick writes, “It is the work of politics to resolve such conflicts peacefully, but Cherokee politics were not up to the job. For a society that had always operated by consensus, there was little tradition of compromise.” Although the Cherokee were one of the most culturally and socially advanced Native American tribes in history, with their own government, language, newspapers, and religion, Sedgwick notes, “The warrior culture offered few gradations between war and peace, all or nothing.”
Norman Borlaug and Robert Noyce aren't household names. But these two Iowans influenced the 20th century more than anyone else on Planet Earth. Borlaug created drought and disease-resistant varieties of wheat that thrived in poor soils throughout the planet. Because of him, billions in the developing world avoided starvation (they probably only missed it by about a decade). Noyce invented the integrated circuit and founded Intel. He is the father of Silicon Valley, the digital revolution, and the Internet economy that connects the world. Both men owe their success to their farm roots in Iowa.