Ask the Editors

By Harold Frost

This is Part Four of a Five-Part Article

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

“Ask the Editors” appeared in each issue of The History Channel Magazine from 2003 to 2007 with answers to reader’s questions about history. A predecessor of “Ask the Editors” called “Fact or Fiction” ran in Biography magazine during its life as a mass-circulation monthly, 1997 to 2003.


Q. I have a question about the inspiring effort to protect Indians conducted by Catholic friar Bartolome de Las Casas in the 1500s. This led to enlightened laws in Spanish America forbidding their enslavement. Slavery was of course widespread in America. Indians in other parts of the country lacked brave advocates such as Las Casas. Just from a cold-blooded economic point of view, why weren’t these Indians enslaved? Wouldn’t this have made sense to the whites, rather than their importing slaves from overseas?

A. Many historians have sought new insights into slavery in recent years – it’s a hot topic in college history departments. Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland, author of “Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America” (1998), supplied the following answer in an interview.

Many Native Americans were enslaved in the 1500s and 1600s during the early years of European settlement of this continent (as were black Africans). New Englanders were very active as Indian slavers. Out west, French Canadians snatched Indians from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and exported them to Martinique. And so on. “A nasty business,” notes Berlin.

In the 1700s, America experienced explosive growth in a specific venue of slave labor: plantations. The “plantation revolution,” as Berlin calls it, was one of the key economic stories in the American Colonies in these years. These large tracts of land grew tobacco and rice. (Big cotton plantations developed a bit later, after Eli Whitney’s invention of the modern cotton gin in 1793.)

Plantation owners possessed a “nearly insatiable” appetite for slave labor and not enough Indians were available. Berlin cites the situation in the Chesapeake Bay region as an example: “Planters enslaved Indians where they could….(but) the Native-American population was dwindling fast at the end of the seventeenth century, so Africans became the object of the planters’ desire.” The African trade exploded and became a dominant fact of American life.

See here for background on the British effort to end the slave trade, and here for an article about the Lincoln-Douglas debates about slavery.

Q. What is the origin of the military expression “five-by-five” to indicate clear radio communications? For example, “I am reading you five-by-five, over.”

A. The phrase apparently dates from the early days of radio when operators wanted to indicate the quality of transmission on a scale of one to five. “Five-by-five” denotes “loud and clear” – the first “five” refers to the strength of the transmission (“loud”) while the second refers to intelligibility (“clear”). “One-by-one” would indicate that the transmission is essentially inaudible.

“Ask the Editors” has received a couple of other questions recently about the origins of words and phrases. One questioner asks about the phrase “the whole nine yards” and says he read on the Internet that the phrase comes from the length of machine gun ammunition belts during World War II. This explanation is probably not true, says David Wilton in “Word Myths” (2004) because quantities of ammo are not counted by belt length but by number of rounds or by weight. The phrase “the whole nine yards” may have arisen in the 1960s and is definitely American, Wilton says, but its exact origin is a mystery. According to one theory, the phrase refers to the amount of liquid concrete that can be carried by a typical concrete truck. Another idea is that it connects to the amount of dirt in a burial plot. Still another theory says it’s connected to football – perhaps some football coach wanted ten yards for a first down, got nine, and made a joke about it.

Another questioner asks about the origin of the word “doughboy,” a popular term for American troops in Europe during World War I. The word’s derivation is murky but it seems to date to the 19th century. One possible source is the buttons on uniforms worn during the American Civil War and earlier; these resembled dumplings that were known as doughboys.

Q. Why is the Battle of Breed’s Hill called the Battle of Bunker Hill? At which locale is the monument to the battle located?

A. Ferocious fighting erupted in Boston on June 17, 1775, during the American Revolution, with most of the shooting taking place on Breed’s Hill, located about one-half mile from Bunker Hill. But the battle took the name of the latter location. So what’s the deal?

The original intent of American officers, as they prepared for combat that day, was to fortify Bunker Hill and make a stand there. However, the plan changed in the heat of events, and the focal point of activity suddenly shifted to Breed’s Hill. The Bunker Hill name stuck as a designation for the day’s conflict, maybe because “Bunker Hill” was written on planning documents and marching orders. A 221-foot obelisk commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill is located on Breed’s Hill.

Americans lost the Battle of Bunker Hill but proved themselves worthy fighters, surprising the British in this regard. Among the American dead was Joseph Warren, a doctor and activist who held the rank of general but fought this battle as a volunteer private. Among his last words were, “Tell me where the assault will be most furious.” Informed of the spot, he went there, and died for American independence.

The most famous quote to emerge from the battle is, of course, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”, which was supposedly said by either William Prescott or Israel Putnam. In fact, it may not have been said by either man. If it was said, it derives not so much from an eagerness to engage in close combat as from the fact that muskets of the day were quite inaccurate.

Q. I know Peyton Randolph was our first true president. I also know that other men held the job prior to George Washington. Can you provide a list of names and dates?

A. “First true president” is a debatable phrase. Peyton Randolph served as President of the Continental Congress of the United Colonies during two separate periods in 1774 and 1775. A number of other men, including John Hancock, held the post in the years leading up to the writing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

Historian Stanley L. Klos provides a full list of names and dates in his book “President Who? Forgotten Founders.” Klos says that Samuel Huntington is the “first true U.S. President.” Huntington was President of the United States in Congress Assembled, under the Articles of Confederation, from March 1, 1781, to July 6, 1781. His powers were limited.

The first President of the United States of America, as the term “United States of America” is best understood, was none other than George Washington.

Q. I recall as a kid seeing photographs of President Lyndon Johnson, after he left the White House, with long hair (at least, long for him). Am I remembering accurately?

A. Your memory is correct. Johnson, who left the White House in 1969, died in 1973; in the last years of his life, he let his white hair grow. (See photos below from 1972.) The late ’60s and early ’70s were the height of the hippie period, when a fair number of young men had extremely long hair. Perhaps LBJ was trying to show a certain empathy for long-hairs, even though they voiced some of the harshest criticism of his Vietnam policies. He may have been saying, “I, too, am a rebel at heart, and an idealist – I know where you’re coming from.”

Q. Do you know of any historic sites that welcome “vacationing volunteers,” where we can live in that moment of history, even if just for a short while?

A. We can suggest a few resources and ideas for your search. One of the best books on this topic is “The Back Door Guide to Short-Term Job Adventures: Internships, Summer Jobs, Seasonal Work, Volunteer Vacations, and Transitions Abroad” by Michael Landes. In an interview, Landes suggests calling a historic site that you’re interested in and seeing if they would be willing to take you on for a few days, if only to rake leaves and trim the hedges. He comments, “Direct communication and idea brainstorming with a specific site may prove to be the best option!”

Two additional good books are “The International Directory of Voluntary Work” by Louise Whetter and Victoria Pybus and “Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others” by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, and Anne Geissinger.

The National Park Service, which oversees many battlefields and other historic sites, has an outstanding Volunteers-in-Parks program; see The American Hiking Society has one-week volunteer vacations; information is available at The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has one- to six-week volunteer programs; consult

As an alternative, you might be interested in a field seminar or educational program such as the ones conducted by the Yellowstone Association (and other groups). Consult the Website

See here for an example of a museum that has welcomed short-term volunteers in the past and may still do so.

Q. I recently traveled by cruise ship to Bermuda, the British crown colony located off North Carolina. We heard the following story. Gen. George Washington sent a letter in 1775 to Bermuda requesting gunpowder for the American army. Bermudians sent the powder, and Washington promised that if America could ever return the favor, Bermudians only needed to ask. In the 1980s, Bermuda asked President Ronald Reagan to grant special privileges to certain financial companies based there, in the hopes of smoothing their business dealings in the U.S. This request was instantly granted because of Washington’s promise. True?

A. Here are the facts, supplied by Andrew P. Bermingham, president of the Bermuda Historical Society:

Washington sent a letter to Bermuda in 1775 seeking gunpowder, addressed to supporters of the American Revolution.

In August of 1775, while Washington’s letter was en route, a group of Bermudians raided a powder magazine, stole kegs of the precious material, and delivered the goods to American ships. They may have been motivated, in part, by an interest in swapping powder for food – their homeland was blockaded by the Americans.

By the time Washington’s letter arrived in Bermuda, powder was already on its way to the colonies.

No business dispensation was granted Bermuda in the 1980s by the American government based on a 200-year-old promise by George Washington. That said, Bermuda has, in recent decades, developed a high-end financial industry with ties to the U.S.

Q. My great-grandfather served as an “artificer” during the Civil War. Can you describe this rank?

A. “Artificer” means “skilled worker”; during the Civil War, this designation was generally given to blacksmiths who repaired cannons and other items for artillery units. Artificers also did small-scale manufacturing of equipment. These men are “overlooked by the annals of history” according to one author. (Until now!)

The Civil War artificer typically held the rank of private and earned $15 per month, compared to a wage of $50 a month for a first lieutenant and $95 for a colonel. The artificer’s base of operations was his “battery forge,” a mobile workshop located well behind the lines – a special wagon holding an anvil, bellows, forge, and other gear. Artificers frequently had skill with wood, leather, and other materials.

Q. I have read many stories about feats of courage and patriotism during World War II but I’ve never seen anything about the actions of supply units in the various services. Can you suggest any books about “beyond the call of duty” actions by these people? I was a storekeeper during the war in the South Pacific and have a special interest in this topic.

A. According to an old military adage, amateurs discuss battle tactics while professionals focus on logistics and supply, i.e., “the practical art of moving armies” (and navies) in the phrase of French warrior and historian Jomini – the demanding art of transporting combat troops and providing them with food, clothing, shelter, munitions, and health care.

A reviewer at, Mike Baum, summarizes: “Waging war is never merely about raising an army and fighting an enemy; it’s also about getting to the enemy without dying of dehydration and malnourishment along the way.”

Unfortunately, notes military author Jay Karamales, there’s a “sad dearth” of good history books on logistics – it’s not a topic that thrills publishers of books for the general reading public.

One solid volume is “The Road to Victory: The Untold Story of World War II’s Red Ball Express” by David P. Colley (2001), which describes the U.S. Army’s three-month trucking campaign to equip men racing across Europe in 1944-45, including Patton’s Third Army, which traveled so fast that it outdistanced its supply lines. (See the 1970 film “Patton” for a powerful re-creation of the general’s grand push.) The 1952 movie “Red Ball Express” is based on this effort and is pretty good.

A number of academic books have been published on the topic. A key work, using history as a foundation, is “Supplying War: Logistics From Wallenstein to Patton” by the excellent scholar Martin van Creveld (1977, second edition 2004). An important critique of “Supplying War” was published in 1994 by John Lynn: “Feeding Mars: Logistics in Western Warfare From the Middle Ages to the Present.”

For a good-humored look at Navy supply efforts during the Second World War check out the 1955 film “Mister Roberts” which has the extraordinary cast of Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon.

Another chapter of the logistics story, from World War II’s Eastern front, is told by Harrison Salisbury in his book “The 900 Days.” See also the outstanding “Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army” by Donald W. Engels (1980). ●