Ask the Editors

By Harold Frost

This is Part One 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. Was Napoleon short?

A. No, he wasn’t, at least when measured against his peers, the only reasonable basis for comparison.

His height was slightly above 5′-6″, about 169 centimeters. The average height for an adult male in France in 1800 was 164.1 centimeters, according to the book “Health and Welfare During Industrialization” edited by Richard H. Steckel and Roderick Floud (1997).

For many years after his death in 1821, the emperor was thought to have been 5′-2″, the size recorded at his autopsy. But the old French measurement for a foot was not the same as the English, and this fact was misunderstood by English translators, according to “Napoleon’s Glands: And Other Ventures in Biohistory” by Arno Karlen (1984). The autopsy’s 5′-2″ in French measure equals 5′-6″ in English terms, and as noted, 5′-6″ was above average.

The idea of his shortness is a historical myth that will not die, providing fodder for any number of professional and amateur psychologists, and for advertisers who need an instantly-recognizable metaphor for shortness or smallness or over-reaching.

Various aspects of Napoleon’s physical appearance are disputed. For example, there’s the question of his head. Historians Will and Ariel Durant describe it as “large for his stature,” while one of the best contemporary observers of the emperor, Wilhelm von Humboldt, said it was “small.” Humboldt adds that Napoleon’s hands were “small and delicate” and that he had large eyes, a strong brow, and a “driven” mouth and chin. See here for a variety of descriptions of his physical appearance.

Arno Karlen speculates in his book about possible causes for Napoleon’s death on St. Helena. See the film “Monsieur N.” (2003) for a vivid depiction of the emperor’s years on the island, set in the framework of an interesting (if overly-complicated) mystery.

Q. How much time did Nellie Bly require to travel around the world in 1889?

A. Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes, and fourteen seconds, faster than anyone had gone around the world before.

At the time of her journey, Bly was a 25-year-old reporter for the New York World. She embarked for Europe on an ocean liner from Hoboken, New Jersey, on November 14, 1889, wearing her lucky ring on her left thumb, and returned to home base by rail on January 25, 1890, to a rousing reception from fans and timekeepers.

America and Europe were entranced by her trip, which was an attempt to boost her paper’s circulation by beating the pace proposed by Frenchman Jules Verne in his 1873 fictional tale “The Tour of the World in Eighty Days.” The World carefully charted Bly’s itinerary (New York, London, Suez, Ceylon, Hong Kong, San Francisco, etc.), although she herself didn’t write much about the trek until it was almost over. The editors encouraged readers to guess how long she’d take; contest winner F.W. Stevens nailed it to within two-fifths of a second.

Nellie Bly (1864-1922), real name Elizabeth Jane Cochran, was one of the best reporters of 19th century American journalism: tough, brave, honest, compassionate, and intensely curious. She got her start at the World by feigning insanity and writing about horrific conditions at the local Women’s Lunatic Asylum. She was known as a “stunt reporter”; the genre was a precursor to today’s investigative journalism. A good TV movie about Bly’s early work was released in 1981 starring Linda Purl. A PBS “American Experience” episode about her is available. Verne’s story became a major film in 1956 and received sequel treatment in 2004.

Nellie Bly retired from newspapers in 1895 when she married a rich elderly industrialist. Some years later she returned briefly to the field when she needed money.

See here for more on U.S. journalism in the 1890s.

Q. After shooting Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865, John Wilkes Booth fled Washington D.C., crossed the Potomac River for Maryland, and solicited the help of a man named Swann. Who was this man Swann? Is there information about him in historical accounts?

A. Oswell Swann was a tobacco farmer in southern Maryland, a free black man – a “free person of color” in the parlance of the day – a native of the region where Booth and his co-conspirator David Herold got lost after escaping D.C. in the wake of the assassination. Herold paid Swann a few dollars to guide the conspirators through the swampy countryside to a pre-arranged safe house. Swann almost surely didn’t know the president had been shot, according to Lincoln scholar Roger Norton.

An organization called The Surratt Society conducts bus tours of Booth’s escape route and mentions Swann; its Website is See here for a list of Lincoln articles at

Q. Did someone named Maginot give his name to the Maginot Line?

A. Yes. Andre Maginot (1877-1932) was a French minister of war who helped persuade his government to build the Maginot Line, a massive system of forts, tunnels, and artillery placements constructed in the 1930s to protect France from invasion by Germany, its long-time enemy.

The idea of such a line was actually a good one, some said – the concept was “wise and prudent,” said Winston Churchill after the Second World War. But the execution was faulty. French planners paid inadequate attention to the Ardennes Forest, believing it to be impenetrable by invading troops and tanks. Wrong. Nazi Germany used the Ardennes as a key route into France in 1940. Also, the French neglected to keep a big, mobile reserve of troops behind the Maginot Line to counterattack quickly and vigorously if the enemy broke through. France fell to Germany in June, 1940, and the world reeled in shock.

In the 1970s, the French government auctioned off some of the concrete-and-steel Maginot forts to the public; a few of them are used today for growing mushrooms and storage of wine.

American soldiers inspect a
Maginot Line fort during
World War II.

Q. What does the “D” in “D-Day” stand for?

A. The “D” is an abbreviation for “day,” followed by the spelled-out word to make sure everybody gets the message.

The phrase “D-Day” apparently originated in the First World War. It means “the day” – specifically, the day when a combat operation is to begin.

The most famous D-Day, of course, is June 6, 1944, when the U.S., Great Britain, and allies invaded Hitler’s Europe. Many people associate the term “D-Day” with that one event, but other military ventures have also had “D-Days.”

Q. Did any U.S. Presidents, as they were being sworn in, not use a Bible?

A. John Quincy Adams almost certainly didn’t, and historians consider it possible that several others also did not.

The Rare Book Library at Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., examined this topic in 1968 when it launched an exhibition of presidential inaugural Bibles. According to scholars there, Adams, in 1825, “quite probably” used a volume containing the U.S. Constitution rather than a Bible. Other 19th century Presidents may also have used this procedure. Scholars note that official inaugural Bibles have not been found for Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.

The Constitution does not require that the Scriptures be used for presidential swearing-in ceremonies. George Washington started the Bible tradition.

Q. When I was growing up in Germany, I heard that early Americans considered making German the official language of the new United States, wishing to separate themselves completely from Great Britain and the English tongue. True?

A. Not true. German travel writers began spreading this tale in the 1840s, and it still circulates, but it’s pure myth, according to the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. In fact, says the embassy, German immigrants to the U.S. believed that “the faster they became Americans, the better, and that meant speaking English” – a common impulse, of course, for many immigrant groups over the course of American history.

Linguist Thomas Ricento writes, “The preeminence and vitality of English as the public language has never been challenged at any time in U.S. history.” Interestingly, English has never been declared the official language. Over the years, especially since the 1980s, various groups have argued the pros and cons of making English the official national tongue.

Q. What was the first rock ‘n’ roll record?

A. Rock ‘n’ roll exploded on the American scene in the mid-1950s with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, and with “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets, a number one hit in the summer of 1955, 50 years ago – the first number one pop record that can accurately be called rock ‘n’ roll.

“Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston With His Delta Cats, number one on the R&B chart in 1951, is a “birth cry of rock ‘n’ roll,” writes Nick Tosches, because it’s possible to hear “mania….overtaking musicality.” (The song is about the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, perhaps the first muscle car.) “Rocket 88” was declared the first rock ‘n’ roll record by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

Fifty recordings are discussed in the book “What Was the First Rock ‘N’ Roll Record?” by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, which offers no single answer to the question, but which provides background on such classics as “Sixty Minute Man” by the Dominoes (1951), “How High the Moon” by Les Paul and Mary Ford (1951), and “Kaw-Liga” by Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys (1953).

Q. I served on a U.S. Navy submarine from 1951 to ’54. Submarines at that time carried “five-inch 25” deck guns. Destroyers carried “five-inch 38” guns. Can you please clarify what these numbers refer to?

A. The phrase “five-inch” describes the diameter of the bore of the gun (i.e., the width of the gun’s barrel). The second numbers in the examples you cite (“25” and “38”), if multiplied by the first, give the length of the gun’s bore (i.e., length of the barrel). A “five-inch 38” gun has a bore that’s five inches in diameter and 190 inches long (5 x 38 = a little over 15 feet).

Q. I recall that when President Kennedy was asked to name his favorite books he mentioned the James Bond novel “From Russia With Love” by Ian Fleming. What other books did he list?

A. Kennedy was asked several times during his presidency about his favorite books or books that had most influenced him. Among the works he cited: “The Emergence of Lincoln” by Allan Nevins, “John Quincy Adams” by Samuel Flagg Bemis, “Talleyrand” by Duff Cooper, “Melbourne” by Lord David Cecil, “Montrose: A History” by John Buchan, “The Price of Union” by Herbert Agar, “The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston” by Marquis James, and “The Guns of August” by Barbara W. Tuchman. The appearance of “From Russia With Love” on one of his lists, in Life magazine in 1961, was a key moment in the rise of Agent 007 to multimedia superstardom. Regarding “The Guns of August” – Kennedy ordered that the work be widely distributed in the U.S. military as an illustration of how easy it is to bungle into starting a war. (See here for a sampling of the writing of Barbara W. Tuchman.)

Q. Was the Cold War necessary? Are there now declassified documents from the Soviet Union that show evidence of an agenda for world-wide Communism?

A. Conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. was probably inevitable after World War II, scholars say, given the dramatically opposed stances of the two nations. But whether the Cold War needed to be so long and terrible – whether it needed to kill many thousands, and put civilization at serious risk of nuclear destruction – is widely debated.

Much of the debate centers on the personality and motives of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. One point of view on Stalin and his core values is expressed by historian Paul Johnson, who writes that the Cold War was “inherent in….Leninism” – referring to the Leninist doctrine of aggressively fomenting world revolution. Stalin believed in Leninism, say some scholars; it was Stalin, writes Johnson, who “polarized the earth” and set the Cold War on the path toward becoming a massive contest. The U.S. had no choice but to react robustly to his bellicosity, according to this view. However, other observers, such as David Holloway, in his 1994 book “Stalin and the Bomb,” assert that Stalin was not especially interested in world-wide revolution.

Some scholars say that the American attitude toward Stalin in the late ’40s deepened the conflict. The views of these observers are summarized by historian James T. Patterson in his balanced book “Grand Expectations.” One belief of these critics of American policy, notes Patterson, is that U.S. actions “magnified Stalin’s already heightened sense of insecurity.” For example, the U.S. declined to share atomic secrets with the Soviets, a decision that likely fed the Soviet leader’s fear and rage. Patterson writes that America during the Cold War had a “messianic feeling” that it should spread the blessings of democracy world-wide; this mindset, he says, lent to U.S. decision-making an “apocalyptic tone,” a lack of caution and perspective.

Patterson concludes that the Cold War was “unavoidable” and that “both sides followed nervous, sometimes wrong-headed courses.” The conflict, he concludes, “could have been managed a little less dangerously.”

Historians continue to sift newly-surfaced evidence in Moscow and other capitals. One key archive that they would love to examine is that of North Korea – the Korean War was a pivotal expansion of the Cold War – but it’s inaccessible and probably will remain so for years. (Go here for a list of this Website’s articles on the Cold War.)

Q. Robert E. Lee ranked second among graduates in the class of 1829 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Who ranked first? Also, is there any way to obtain lists of West Point graduates for various years, and their class rankings?

A. There’s no way at this time for the public to gain access to historical West Point student rosters.

The top graduate in Lee’s class of 1829, among 46 cadets, was Charles Mason, a New Yorker, whose achievement was based on a combination of academics, military training, and physical fitness. Mason went on to teach engineering at the academy and later practiced law, edited a newspaper, and put down roots in Iowa.

Like Charles Mason, Robert E. Lee became an army engineer. Lee covered himself with glory in the Mexican War of 1846-48, and later, of course, became a legend. (Army engineering – building forts, etc. – was “the usual choice” in those days among top students, according to Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman.)

Here are a few additional rankings of interest, provided by Francis J. DeMaro Jr., public affairs specialist at the academy: Ulysses S. Grant, class of 1843, ranked 21st among 39 graduates. Thomas Jackson (later nicknamed “Stonewall”), 1846, 17th among 59. Douglas MacArthur, 1903, first among 93. George S. Patton Jr., 1909, 46th among 103. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1915, 61st among 164. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, 1956, 42nd among 480.