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One time several years ago in graduate school, I simply could not remember the word "syrup", so I called it "pancake gravy". That title was already taken(!), so I added "cane" because when I was a child in the Panhandle of Florida (aka Lower Alabama), my family grew sugar cane and made our own cane syrup.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

My Civil War Ancestors: Furney Alfred Prevatte

I don't think anyone will be surprised that I'm not thrilled with certain contemporary trends, among them tattoos for everyone and idiosyncratic names for kids.  Don't let stereotypes fool you:  the trend of oddball names is not confined to any one racial group!  But as someone who is interested in genealogy, I am also annoyed by excessively conservative names.  It's not just that a search for a specific "George Richards" in America during the 1700s can be expected to return dozens, maybe hundreds of different individuals who may not be closely related, there is also the problem that the reuse of the same name within a family name can lead to all manner of confusion -- certainly for me, at any rate.  (I have a good example of the confusion extending to family folklore, but that does not pertain much to the branch I am dealing with today.)

This brings me to Furney Alfred Prevatte (30 June 1808 -- 28 May 1895), the father-in-law of James Wallace Conoley and the grandfather of William Furney Conoley.  He was a minister at the Baptist church in Raft Swamp Township; the church had been built on land donated by his brother James J. Prevatte.  So would the Confederacy want a clergyman in his early fifties to serve as a private?  Based on the case of John George Richards, who was 9 years older than Prevatte and a Methodist preacher (among other things), but who nevertheless served as a private, it is not entirely implausible; and indeed, the records show that Furney A. Prevatte was a private in Company D of the 18th North Carolina Infantry.

In this case, though, there is a much simpler explanation.  The Baptist preacher had a son who was born in 1842, and thus who would have been at the prime of his life for soldiering when he enlisted on May 18, 1861 -- and the son's name was also Furney Alfred Prevatte.  For some reason, the "Jr." (and "Sr.") seem not to have been carefully recorded before the 20th century, but surely it was only "Junior" who served in the war; there do not appear to be two different Furney Alfred Prevattes serving simultaneously, and the various biographies all mention "Junior's" military service, but none for "Senior".  

I cannot hope for a better description of the life of "Junior" than this, which comes from his second wife's obituary as it appeared in his local newspaper, The Robesonian
Of him it was written -- more than one time in long-ago issues of The Robesonian -- "He stood with Jackson at Chancellorsville, with Lee at Gettysburg." In a fight at Hanover Courthouse in Virginia, he was seriously wounded in the shoulder, and at the Battle of the Wilderness he was captured and taken to the federal prison at Elmira, N.Y. He was a prisoner there until Lee surrendered and became a trusted nurse in care of ill and dying Confederate soldiers. When the war ended in 1865, the then-young man returned to his home in the Saddletree area. Not only did he take an active part in veterans' affairs, serving in time as commander of the Willis Pope Camp, Confederate Veterans of Robeson County, but also he began to preach. Rev. Prevatte remained an active Baptist pastor throughout his life, following in the footsteps of his father, for whom he was named. It was said that he baptized Over 1,500 converts, married 500 couples and helped organize 16 churches in Robeson and adjoining counties. At the tune of his death on October 17, 1940, he was the oldest Confederate veteran in the county.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Junior" was his marriage to this second wife, the former Dora Moody.  The marriage took place in 1917, when he was a widower and nearly 75, and she was approaching 24.  In fact, "Junior" had officiated the marriage between Dora's father (another Baptist preacher) and mother.  That ... actually makes it a lot creepier, in my opinion.  If they had met as adults, it still would have been a startling age difference, but it seems that he, as a man in his fifties, must have known her as a little girl.  It would be interesting to know what she saw in him; Baptist preachers were not wealthy in 1917 North Carolina.  At any rate, she was fully an adult at the time of the marriage, and since her father officiated, apparently it met with family approval.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Selective Release of the Truth to Shape an Impression

Here is a good example of a phenomenon I have been complaining about for a long time.

A snapshot of FoxNews.com's front page as it existed 7 Feb 2016 
at 15:47:39 EST.  This image is used under the fair use provision of 
copyright law for the purpose of commentary.

Notice the story that appears centered just beneath the headline story:  "POISON PEN?  Paper to publish names, addresses of police officers".  For reasons probably better understood by those in the industry, the title for the actual story when one clicks on the link is somewhat different:  "Texas newspaper plans to publish names, addresses of police officers".  As far as I know, nothing in this story is untrue, nor do I wish to comment on the style of writing of the story.  My point is merely that its placement makes it clear that the folks at Fox News want everyone to notice this story; they apparently wish us to accept it as one of the most important stories in the world at the time it was written.

Because, of course, there are an uncountably large number of equally true stories that could have occupied that position instead.  For example, many councils of the Knights of Columbus will be having a fish fry on Friday, February 12 -- the first Friday in Lent.  That is a true story, but few people would regard it as one of the most important things going on in the world today, so of course it does not appear in a prominent location, or indeed at all, on Fox News' web site.

So we are supposed to accept the story as not only true, but also important.  What makes it important?  Its importance comes from an overarching narrative into which we are supposed to buy.  In this case, the narrative is made clear from the trend of Fox News stories, particularly over the past year or so:  The police, or at least the local police, are "the best and brightest", noble knights in blue of whom an ungrateful public is scarcely worthy -- even though the police are unionized!  (The narrative is much less clear regarding federal police forces.)

OK, obviously I am a bit skeptical of this narrative.  The truth is, I consider it hopelessly simplistic and a dangerous assumption for any democracy; there is, after all, good reason to fear any "police state".  However, all news sources have their favorite narratives.  They constitute a major part of the bias of which people complain.  

My point is that although these editorial biases may not result in lies or even misleading reports -- though the latter happens with great regularity -- by carefully filtering the news they can create overall impressions which are entirely false.  No doubt that is sometimes the intention, but even when it is not, editorial positions determine the news coverage.  "We report, you decide" -- but what they report is meant to guide you down a primrose path to a decision they have determined in advance.

So far I have mentioned just one article, but this is just an example of the trend that jumped out at me for reasons that will be clear at the end of this post.  But in exactly the same position -- front and center just beneath the main headline on the main page -- at 7 am on Monday,  February 8, FoxNews.com has chosen the story "CARRYING CONFUSION:  Obscure law denies some ex-cops weapons permit"/"Arcane NJ law prevents retired cops from carrying concealed weapon".  What an outrage (we are supposed to think)!  Well, no, it's not an outrage.  The law does not target retired police in general to be treated differently than the general public, which is what the scaremongering headlines imply. Instead, the law seems to set aside retired state police for preferential treatment when getting a concealed carry permit, only the state of New Jersey does not really consider retired university police retired state police.  Whether or not university police should count as state police is debatable, but it is debatable, and losing that debate merely puts them on the same level as other New Jersey residents.  However, the reader is primed to read the situation as outrageous discrimination against police.

This editorial filtering of the news controls not only which stories are featured, but also which stories are suppressed.  RT.com has its own set of narratives, but they share little overlap with those of FoxNews.com.  As a result, the story "Miami police union president doxxes woman for accusing cop of speeding" can be found on RT.com, but not FoxNews.com.  It advances an RT.com narrative (about how things are falling apart in America) but not the FoxNews.com narrative (about how wonderful American police are) -- but note that the objectionable act is exactly the same, the only difference being who is doing it to whom.

Oh, and just to drive home the point a bit further, on this same Monday morning there is an article on RT.com that fits into their narrative:  "Cop seeks $10mn from family of black teen he killed, claims he’s ‘traumatized’".

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Stupid Math Joke

@1:50 -- Tenerence Love should have said, 
One divided by My Name is Tenerence Love
Equals My Name is Tenerence Love
Remainder Two.


Yeah, my guess is someone else has probably thought of this before already, but still....

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Science and Conspiracies

My students can testify that I have often told them that anyone with a Ph.D. in physics can think up a b.s. explanation for anything.  Sometimes this is just harmless fun, but sometimes it can cause real problems, even when it is done with no ill intentions.  I'm afraid a recent study that has received publicity is likely to be entirely counterproductive.  I am referring to the study by Oxford Professor David Robert Grimes that was summarized at sciencedaily.com under the title "Large-scale conspiracies would quickly reveal themselves, equations show" and by the BBC under the title "Maths study shows conspiracies 'prone to unravelling'"; because there are serious flaws in his approach, he is likely to increase the very skepticism he is trying to answer.

Let me start by saying that I understand exactly and sympathize with what he was trying to do, even without knowing the precise details of how he was trying to to do it.  

For one thing, although I enjoy the thrill (and sometimes creepiness) of the "What if?" that was so embodied by the 1970's show "In Search Of...", starring Leonard Nimoy, the truth is that pseudoscience rapidly becomes unsatisfying because it is so limited. That nudges my relationship with potential X-Files material in a slightly antagonistic direction, but what really gives it a shove is the unhealthy pattern of thought that typifies the enthusiasts of Bigfoot, UFOs, and ghost hunting.  For far too many of these enthusiasts, their chosen topic is only an excuse for their real interest, which is to play the role of a kind of high priest in a mystery religion that the general public is too stupid or fearful to understand and that is actively persecuted by a conspiracy of the government, the military, and the scientific community.

The other thing is, I understand first-hand how tempting it is for a physicist to build a simple model to see if it can provide at least a semi-quantitative explanation of a complicated phenomenon.  What he was trying to do in modeling conspiracies is not very different from what I was trying to do when I modeled the NCAA basketball tournament.

All models are simplifications, but his model simplifies too much.  All conspiracies have something to do with secrecy, but he appears to interpret this in an absolute sense, so that if any hint of the conspiracy were to become known, the conspiracy would immediately collapse.  Of course, some conspiracies are in fact like that.  For instance, if you are in North Korea, you had better hope that no one ever dreams that you are part of part of a conspiracy to assassinate Kim Jong Un, because even the merest suspicion of that is a Very Bad Thing for you.

Many, probably most, conspiracies are not like that, though.  In some cases, the "signal" can be lost in the "noise".  For instance, the Soviet Union got several key pieces of accurate intelligence that told exactly when Nazi Germany would attack them, but these were ignored because (a) Stalin didn't really want to believe them and (b) there were also a large number of contradictory, inaccurate reports.

Then there are "conspiracies" that merely have, to use a term from the Reagan years, "plausible deniability" -- and that "deniability" can be strongly influenced by biases and vested interests.  I think most people today would say there was a conspiracy for decades to deny the health risks of smoking tobacco.  There was evidence from fairly early on that smoking was unhealthy, but it is not what people wanted to hear, and the tobacco companies had a strong financial motivation to shout down that evidence and the resources with which to finance studies that would seem to cast doubt on the dangers of tobacco.  The tobacco conspiracy did not unravel because of some single revelation, but because a critical mass of the public and the powers that be decided to stop pretending that smoking is no problem.  [We have probably gone too far in the other direction now, but the point is that no one is now pretending tobacco is totally harmless.]

Another example that I think could be called a poorly hidden "conspiracy" is racial slavery.  In order to "justify" slavery, it was necessary to provide arguments and evidence that blacks (and American Indians) are somehow inherently inferior to whites, either or in terms of their intellect, or their character, or both.  Of course, the circumstances of slavery could easily be manipulated to provide "support" for the inferiority of slaves -- a lack of education could be called stupidity, for example.  None of this was honest, and to quote Chesterton
Against all this dance of doubt and degree stood something that can best be symbolised by a simple example. An ape cannot be a priest, but a negro can be a priest. The dogmatic type of Christianity, especially the Catholic type of Christianity, had riveted itself irrevocably to the manhood of all men. Where its faith was fixed by creeds and councils it could not save itself even by surrender. It could not gradually dilute democracy, as could a merely sceptical or secular democrat. There stood, in fact or in possibility, the solid and smiling figure of a black bishop.
What put an end to the conspiracy of slavery was not the amazing discovery of "the manhood of all men," but the decision to stop pretending to be in doubt of what was known all along.

For one last example, consider the Tuskegee Experiment.  It involved secrecy towards one group of people -- in particular, the black men who were the human guinea pigs -- but there was no secrecy about it at all among the medical research community.

They guys discuss the claim that Stanley Kubrick confessed on his deathbed to faking the moon landings.

What about the specific conspiracies addressed by Prof. Grimes?  The mere fact that we have heard of them means that no one is claiming them to be perfect secrets, and in fact there are supposed insiders who have spilled the alleged beans.  Prof. Grimes' model does not correctly describe its subject.

"Bob Lazar" claims to be a physicist who worked on alien technology at Area 51.

So the people who find these alleged conspiracies plausible would say we have a situation parallel to the tobacco conspiracy.  They would tell us that the information is largely available, but that vested interests work hard to suppress and discredit that information, and most of the public simply does not want to know the truth.

In conclusion, there is no shortcut for evaluating whether or not an alleged conspiracy is true or even plausible.  The only way to find that out is by examining the substance of the claims.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Note to British Parliament: Mind Your Own [Obscenity Omitted] Business

I actually agree that Trump is "an 'idiot,' a 'buffoon,' a 'fool,' and a 'demagogue.'"  In other words, the spitting image of a British politician.  But Edward Leigh is right:  it is a very bad idea for the UK to try to throw its weight into determining who governs America.  For one thing, there is the real chance that Trump will win the election, in which case they should expect a distinct cooling of relations between the two countries.  That is possible, though I think unlikely.  Even if it doesn't happen, though, they run the risk of more Americans remembering exactly what the role of the UK with the US has been historically -- remembering, for example, from whom the thirteen newly independent States declared their independence, remembering who it was who burned the White House, and remembering that the way the Union tried to justify the meat-grinder that was the American Civil War was by using the threat of conquest by the British Empire, remembering that although France has aided the USA in the hour of our need, the UK has only partnered with the USA when they found themselves in wars they could not win on their own.  Americans might stop believing that "Mary Poppins" is a documentary accurately describing modern British society.  It would behoove the Limeys not to rock this particular boat.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My Revolutionary War Ancestors: Lodowick Alford (and My Other Alford Kin)

One of my great-great grandmothers was born Frances Elizabeth Alford (b. March 1870).  One of her great-great grandfathers was Lodowick Alford.  Much of the information I have about Lodowick and his descendants comes from the Alford American Family Association; in particular, the document Known Descendants of Cullen Alford and Pherebe Wooten traces the connection between Cullen (or Collin, the spelling seems to vary) Alford and my maternal grandmother, and Lodwick Alford (ca1710-1800) Genealogy -- Three Generations documents the connection between Lodowick (or Lodwick) and Cullen Alford.

Right away we notice that the spellings of names are not entirely consistent, which can be a source of confusion.  Another is that the same names are used repeatedly by different generations.  In fact, a Captain Lodwick Houston Alford, retired from the US Navy, died in 2007, and yes, he was a descendant of the Lodowick mentioned above. There is also a small community in Texas called Lodwick after a Lodwick Alford -- probably Lodwick Pierce Alford (12 Jan 1812 -- 7 Jun 1896), as he lived and was buried nearby.  Another example:  Lodowick had a brother named Julius (b. Sept. 1717), a son (b. ca. 1750) named Julius, and a grandson named Julius (son of Lodowick's son Lodwick!).

Lodowick Alford was born in the early 1700's (there is some dispute regarding the exact year) in Craven County, NC.  In 1754, he was serving in Captain Benjamin Simm's company of Colonel William Eaton's Granville County regiment of the North Carolina Militia.  He seems to have been a planter of some wealth, as indeed several of his twenty-one children were (more on that in a moment), though perhaps some of that wealth was diminished by being divided among a large family.  During the period of the Revolutionary War, Lodowick Alford was a delegate to the North Carolina House of Commons from Wake County -- unless, that is, the delegate was actually his son Lodwick / Lodowick, Jr.  The same ambiguity lies over which Lodowick was appointed Justice of the Peace for Wake County.

Regardless, the Alford family was deeply involved in the Revolution.  The Lodwick Alford who served as a 2nd-major in the Wake County militia was certainly Lodowick Jr.  James Alford, Lodowick's son from whom I am descended, was granted 287 acres in Georgia as compensation for his service during the Revolutionary War, and he is referred to as a captain on his tombstone.  Indeed, all five of Lodowick's oldest sons served in the Revolutionary War, and Sion Alford, son of Lodowick's son Jacob, was a delegate to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1789.

Before continuing on with my own branch, mention must be made of Col. Julius C. Alford, son of Julius Alford and grandson of Lodowick.  His biography is sketched in the second volume of Men of Mark in Georgia; please go there for the details -- I cannot do justice to the story here!  The first half of Col. Alford's life was dominated by Indian troubles:  they killed his wife's father, led to the death of her mother, and nearly killed her and her sisters; he fought them at the Battle of Chickisawhatchie Swamp; and as a congressman, he punctuated his argument for relocating the Creek Indians to the west by simulating an "Indian war whoop".  After the death of his wife, he moved to Alabama.  He did not favor secession, but considered it his duty as a representative at Alabama's secession convention to make the vote unanimous.  Having cast his vote, he also cast his energy and resources into supporting the young Confederacy; it cost him one son, and he only lived halfway through the war.

Although Lodowick and his son James (along with most or all of the rest of his descendants) were slave-owners, James' son Cullen was not, at least as of the 1830 census.  In fact, although Lodowick seems to have owned a number of slaves (Lodwick Jr. owned 13 in the 1800 census), James had only one in the 1800 census.  This is less likely to be due to moral objections to slavery than to the fact that this branch of the family was simply not as wealthy as Julius C. Alford's branch.  These facts have to be borne in mind when evaluating the statements of Faye Mitchell Lawes, a granddaughter of Wiley Walton Alford, who was a son of Cullen.
My grandfather, Wiley Alford, came to Florida in the early 1800’s. He left a wealthy home and family in Wilmington, N.C. because he wanted to work and make his own living without slaves. He had been well educated in North Carolina. He travelled [sic] by stage coach and river boats. He visited relatives in Savannah, Columbus, and Quincy. He worked a few years in Columbus. In Quincy his first cousin was a Love of the Judge Love family . Then he went to Old Aspalaga Ferry, crossed into West Florida and settled there in Jackson County. He cleared land, built a home and farmed there. There were several non-slave-holding families living near them.
This appears to be making a virtue out of necessity, but it could also be a matter of miscommunication.  "I wanted to make my own living without slaves" could mean "I wanted to stop owning slaves but still make a living," or it could mean "I didn't own slaves, but I still needed to make a living."  

In any event, the latter interpretation seems to agree better with the facts.  Remember, Florida was as wild as "the wild West" in the early 1800's; the Indian attack that killed Thomas Cupples Richards near Wewahitchka took place in 1838.  Florida was on the frontier, with all the danger and opportunity that implies, and the frontier has always attracted men who want to get ahead.

That's about it.  Wiley Walton Alford was 50 when the War started, so he appears to have remained at home, probably as part of the Home Guard.  According to Lawes, though, his son Allen died fighting for the Confederacy.  His daughter Frances Elizabeth Alford, with whom I started this posting, married my great-great grandfather, Robert V. Teat (b. October 1862) on Valentine's Day, 1888.  (The "V" is probably for "Vastine", the middle name of their son Henry.)

UPDATE:  I had wondered if the small community of Alford, FL, near Marianna, might be named after Wiley Walton Alford or one of his sons, since he was in that neighborhood at an early date.   It appears, however, to have been founded by "S. A. and Chauncey Alford, naval store operators". This Chauncey, in turn, appears to be William Chauncey Alford, b. 24 Aug 1867 and d.  26 Feb 1938 in Bonifay, FL, and he is not listed among the Known Descendants of Cullen Alford and Pherebe Wooten.  There may well be a connection, but it must be a distant one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: Benjamin Franklin McDaniel

In most cases, that of Peter Pelt being a sad exception, very little in the way of detailed stories is remembered regarding my relatives during the War Between the States.  The documentation for Benjamin Franklin McDaniel (September 1843 -- 3 March 1926) is a welcome exception, with most of the story coming from his application to the state of Florida for a pension as a Civil War veteran.

One interesting fact that shows up immediately is that the US War Department did not have any problem with helping Confederate veterans get their benefits.  The extreme bitterness of the War had passed, and many Confederate veterans were still alive, so they were not as easy to caricature as they are today.  In fact, Joseph Wheeler, who had been a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army and then, in the Spanish-American War, a major general in the US Army, died just a year before McDaniel's pension application.
The records show that Benjamin McDaniel, private, Company E, 4th Battalion Florida Infantry, also designated Company L, 11th Florida Infantry Confederate States Army, was enlisted October 12, 1863. On the muster roll of the company for November and December, 1864, last on file, he is reported absent sick in hospital at Richmond, Virginia, since September 17, 1864. 

The Union records of prisoners of war show that one Benjamin F. McDaniel, private (company not stated), 11th Florida Infantry, Confederate States Army, was surrendered with the regiment May 11, 1865, at Quincy, Florida, and paroled May 24, 1865, at that place. 

F. C. Ainsworth 
The Adjutant General
Why he was in Quincy at the end of the war is explained a bit further down.
... to the very best of my recollection I left Richmond during the latter part of the month of Dec 1864 under a sixty day furlow which later, owning to my continued bad health was extended thirty days about the expiration of the furlow. I started back to Richmond and got as far as Fort Gaines, Ga. at which place I was reliably informed that the Rail Roads were torn up and it would be impossible for me to get to my Company. I then returned home and in a very short while the Confederate Army surrendered. My health was at this time was not at all good.
Since he had sixty days of furlough beginning in late December 1864, followed by an additional thirty days, and since he does not mention it, he probably missed the Battle of Natural Bridge (March 6, 1865).  Presumably he was at his home in Wewahitchka at the time of the battle, and the distance from Wewahitchka to the battlefield is about 90 miles -- too far for him to have made it in the time available, even if word had gotten to him and he had been physically able to fight.  

One part of the documentation supplied for his application is a list supplied by Fred L. Robertson, who is in some places referred to as a colonel and in some places called a general.  Robertson played an important role in collecting and preserving information about soldiers from Florida, particularly in his book Soldiers of Florida in the Seminole Indian, Civil and Spanish-American Wars.  It's surprising how much bitterness he shows toward the men who served in the Home Guard so long after the war.  No doubt there were abuses, but I get the strong impression that just about every able-bodied man was sent to the front, and those left as Home Guard might well have been more hindrance than help.  Besides, there are more appropriate targets for his wrath:  the deserters who went over to the Union side, and even more the deserters from both sides who took advantage of the absence of able-bodied men to indulge themselves in crime.
Dear Sir: 
Yours of the 30th Ult. to hand and I give you the names of several members of the Company, and others of the regiment with the Post Office address of each. Out of these I sincerely hope you will be able to establish the needed proof. It is often extremely difficult to prove the record of the man who went to the front but Home Guards and Reserves can make all the proof they want and without trouble because neither the applicant or the witnesses ever got in reach of danger and, not being exposed they kept healthy. 

Very truly yours, 
Fred L. Robertson

The last few documents make for sad reading.  McDaniel suffered from the usual ailments of old age, and the medicine available a century ago was able to do little to help him.