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The Key Way West Point Prepared Ulysses S. Grant for the Civil War

May 5, 2020 in History

By Elizabeth D. Samet

An uninspired student at the prestigious military academy, Grant met more than 50 future Civil War generals—both comrades and foes—while there.

Ulysses S. Grant, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1843, didn’t go there because he dreamed of being a soldier. The future Civil War general and two-term U.S. president went because, as he later recalled, his father “said he thought I would, and I thought so too, if he did.”

The Ohio-born tanner’s son was initially so unenthusiastic about military life that he followed the Congressional debates over West Point’s future that took place during his first semester, in hopes that the Military Academy would close and he could return home without embarrassment. Despite his deep ambivalence, Grant’s experiences at West Point and as a young officer provided both formal and incidental preparation for his later career and gave him insights into future Civil War comrades and foes.

GRANT, a three-night miniseries event, premieres Memorial Day at 9/8c on HISTORY. Watch a preview:

He found military training ‘wearisome’—but loved novels

While critics would later exaggerate Cadet Grant’s poor performance, he actually graduated in the middle of his class (21st of 39), had an aptitude for math and displayed an unequalled proficiency in horsemanship. Owing to conduct demerits and a dismal “standing in all the tactics,” he served his senior year as a lowly private. His only leadership position was the presidency of the cadet literary society.

Surviving drawings and paintings from Grant’s West Point years show early signs of what the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called a “special gift” common to successful painters and generals alike: namely, a remarkable visual memory. After Grant studied a map, his staff officer Horace Porter recalled, “it seemed to become photographed indelibly upon his brain.”

In his memoirs, Grant makes no secret of his lack of engagement with military training and academics. He describes the former as “wearisome and uninteresting” while noting of the latter, “I rarely ever read over a lesson the second time during my entire cadetship.” Instead, he spent much of his time “devoted to novels, but not those of a trashy sort.” Plunging himself into the imagined worlds of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and other popular 19th- century authors, Grant learned, as his biographer Jean Edward Smith suggests, an “appreciation for linguistic precision.” Yet he did not absorb the romantic …read more


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How the 1982 Murder of Vincent Chin Ignited a Push for Asian American Rights

May 5, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

Two autoworkers who reportedly mistook Chin to be Japanese received no jail time for the killing.

On June 19, 1982, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin went with friends to a strip club in Detroit to celebrate his upcoming wedding. That night, two white men who apparently thought Chin was Japanese beat him to death. At the killers’ trial, the men each received a $3,000 fine and zero prison time. The light sentencing sparked national outrage and fueled a movement for pan-Asian American rights.

Chin was born in China’s Guangdong province and grew up in Detroit with his adoptive Chinese American parents. By the summer of 1982, he was 27 years old and working in computer graphics, and his hometown—once known as an automotive manufacturing capital—was in decline. Many U.S. autoworkers blamed this decline on Japanese car manufacturers.

On the night Chin went out with his friends, 43-year-old Chrysler foreman Ronald Ebens and his 22-year-old stepson Michael Nitz, who’d lost his job at Chrysler were also at the club. According to testimony, a dispute started between the groups of men over a stripper. A dancer at the club later recalled Ebens shouting at Chin, “It’s because of you motherf***ers that we’re out of work.”

After the scuffle moved outside, Ebens grabbed a baseball bat from his car and began chasing Chin, who ran away. Ebens and Nitz then drove around for about 20 minutes looking for Chin. When they found him, Nitz held Chin while Ebens beat him to death with the baseball bat. Chin died in the hospital four days later from his injuries.

Light Sentencing Triggers Outrage

Though the murder didn’t make the national news that summer, it deeply affected Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans in Detroit. Curtis Chin, producer of the 2009 documentary, Vincent Who?: The Murder of a Chinese-American Man, was 12 years old at the time. He describes Vincent Chin as a family friend, and says some of his relatives were in Vincent Chin’s wedding party.

“It only became a big story after the judgement,” he says, referring to Ebens and Nitz’s trial several months later. “It was a local story before then. And obviously within the Chinese American community and the Asian American community, it was already a big story… People were very concerned about it, very scared.” If it could happen to Chin, it could happen to anyone …read more