United States … or United Nations? Author Colin Woodard reminds us that “who we are now” is “where we were when.”

"American Nations," a book by Colin Woodard.
In his book “American Nations,” Colin Woodard divides the continent into 11 distinct territories.

It’s tempting to think about the United States as a pretty monolithic country and culture. Certainly, if you listen to the views of Continental Europeans or people from the Middle East, it seems that’s how many around the world view us.

But the reality is far more complex. Speaking as someone who has lived in all four major regions of the U.S. — the Northeast, Midwest, South and West — I’ve experienced first-hand a variety of different regional “quirks.”

And now we have an interesting book that really delves into the phenomenon of America’s distinct regions. In his book American Nations, published in 2011 and now available in paperback, journalist and author Colin Woodard takes us on an interesting regional tour of the continent.

Woodard counts no fewer than eleven “nations within a nation.” And as he defines them, they’re actually spread throughout the United States, Canada and Northern Mexico.

What exactly are these “nations within a nation” and how did they come to be?  They’re the result of early settlers, later migration patterns, and deep-seated cultural affinities that, while somewhat mitigated in recent years, are still surprisingly resilient even after 150 or 200 years.

The one “nation” on Woodard’s map that may characterize what many people think of as “America” is one he calls “Yankeedom.”

“Yankeedom nation” stretches from New England and Upstate New York to the Midwest, encompassing Northern Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

According to Woodard, this region’s character and social culture stem from the utopian communities founded by Puritans and the later immigrants from Scandinavia. In “Yankeedom nation,” intellectual achievement is valued along with an abiding belief in public institutions’ ability to improve and even perfect society.

Understanding these attributes makes it easier to see how the Grange Movement, Robert LaFollette’s Progressive Party and even RomneyCare came into being here rather than in some other part of the United States.

The polar opposite of Yankeedom may well be “Greater Appalachia nation,” a region on Woodard’s map that stretches from Southwestern Pennsylvania west and south to encompass nearly the entire states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee along with vast swatches of contiguous states.

Also referred to as “The Borderlands,” this “nation” also includes areas we don’t usually associate with Appalachia such as the Ozarks, Oklahoma, Central Texas and even a bit of Eastern New Mexico.

What ties this sprawling “nation” together? The eastern portions of the region were settled not by English planters, merchants or Puritans, but by Scots-Irish immigrants who brought with them a fighting spirit along with a sense of fierce independence and suspicion of central governments.

They and their descendents later migrated to the western regions, bringing their cultural predilections with them. Think of John McCain’s fighting spirit – whose ancestors settled in Mississippi from further east – and you have a flavor of the abiding characteristics of this region.

The great observer of American politics, Michael Barone, has written about Greater Appalachia nation’s antipathy to the social and governmental policies of the current administration in Washington, DC. He notes that even as President Obama has won the White House twice with relative ease, he’s actually fared worse with voters in the Borderlands region when compared to the unsuccessful efforts of John Kerry and Al Gore, losing every county in the states of West Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma and carrying precious few anywhere else.

American Nations, by Colin Woodard.Woodard’s book delves into a great deal of rich regional history in order to reveal to us how these and the other “nations” came to be. It’s a fascinating volume that will surely spark some of your own thoughts and perceptions of “America” – in whole and in part.

If you have some personal observations or experiences that illustrate the regional differences in the country, please share them in the comment section below.  As for myself, I’m a person who was born in the “Tidewater nation” and who has relatives in the “Deep South nation.” When attending high school in the Twin Cities (smack in the heart of “Yankeedom nation”), I found it interesting how clueless my otherwise intelligent, knowledgeable and well-traveled schoolmates were about anything to do with the Deep South.

In particular, Mississippi and Alabama were always being mixed up in their minds.

And of the ~50 people who graduated from my high school class, consider these stats: While easily three-fourths of our grads chose to attend college or university out of state … nearly 90% of the class stayed in Woodard’s “Yankeedom nation.”

A coincidence? I think not.

[By the way, I was one of the ~10% who elected to attend college in another “nation,” a decision I never regretted.]

Remembering Ace Fighter Pilot John Alison (1912-2011)

This past week, the world lost one of the greatest combat pilots of all time when Major General John R. ‘Johnny’ Alison died at the age of 98.

While John Alison may not be well-known to today’s public, he was quite a famous and impressive personality during the years of World War II and beyond. Although best-known for his activities in the Pacific Theaters including China-Burma-India, he also advised General Dwight Eisenhower on the use of gliders to ferry troops during the D-Day invasion of Continental Europe.

The first 35 years of General Alison’s life reads like a thriller novel. He became interested in flying during his high school years in Florida. A prodigy at flying, his first military stint was at Langley Field in Virginia in the late 1930s where he excelled at flying every form of aircraft.

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Alison was sent as a military attaché to England to support the Royal Air Force’s efforts to assemble and fly the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk aircraft that were being supplied by President Roosevelt under the Lend-Lease Act.

It was a mission he would repeat in the Soviet Union in 1941 after that country had been invaded by the Axis forces. He would later recount the frightening-yet-thrilling sensation of standing on the rooftop of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow, watching the German armies as they approached the city.

Alison was to escape the chaos of the Eastern Front by venturing through Iran to reach the port city of Basra in Iraq. From there, he ventured on to China and the Pacific campaigns in the Allies’ war with Japan.

In 1942, General Alison was tapped to be deputy commander of the 75th Flying Squadron, famous as the “Flying Tigers” whose pilots defended Chinese cities from Japanese air assaults. Commenting on his prowess in the sky, David Lee ‘Tex’ Hill, Alison’s commanding officer, would later write:

“John Alison had the greatest pure flying skill of any pilot in the theater – a touch on the controls that knew no equal. His talents were matched only by his eagerness for combat.”

As the war ground on, in 1944 Alison became a co-commander of the first Air Commando Force, which he organized as an ingenious operation to establish fortified bases behind Japanese enemy lines in Burma (Myanmar). This endeavor was to make the frontal army assault on Burma from British India far more effective.

And General Alison was by no means just an armchair strategist in carrying out this initiative; he led a force of 15 men, personally piloting a glider to an improvised landing strip on a teakwood plantation in establishing one of the Burma bases.

At the conclusion of World War II and with so many spectacular adventures behind him, Alison was all of 33 years old. What to do for an encore after such an eventful life already?

Not one to fly off into the sunset, Alison served as an assistant secretary of commerce during the administration of Harry Truman, and later participated in the Korean War. He retired from military service in 1955, beginning a second 3–year career working in the private sector for Northrop Corporation, from which he would retire as a senior vice president in 1984.

It’s been noted that many prominent aviators have lived extraordinarily long lives. During the near-century span of General Alison’s noteworthy life and career, he was honored on numerous occasions times for his record of military service, including receiving the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star.

In 1994, he was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame, and in 2005 was given the same distinction by the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

These honors rightly memorialize the extraordinary life of John Alison. But there is a small anecdote about the man that neatly sums it all up. In 1940, Alison was participating in a demonstration of P-40 planes for Nationalist Chinese General Chiang Kai-Shek … who, duly imprsssed, promptly declared that he needed 100 of the aircraft for his war effort against the Japanese.

Pointing to Alison, the leader of the U.S. delegation responded to Chiang saying, “No, sir! You need 100 of those!”

The Most Fascinating Civil War General You’ve Never Heard Of

General Jo Shelby
General Jo Shelby
I’m not a Civil War buff. But when two different people mentioned to me how much they enjoyed reading a new book on the life of Confederate General Joseph Orville ‘Jo’ Shelby, I decided to get myself a copy.

General Jo Shelby’s March, a just-published book written by Anthony Arthur [ISBN-13: 978-1400068302 — also available in a Kindle edition], is quite a read. It tells the story of how General Shelby, rather than surrender to the Union, led a regiment of soldiers from Arkansas through Texas and into Mexico. In a wild and dangerous journey, they marched all the way to Mexico City, where the soldiers offered themselves up in the service of Emperor Maximilian’s army.

While the Emperor turned down this offer, he did invite the Confederate soldiers to stay on in Mexico and become farmers. The expatriate colonies that sprung up there were not as successful nor as long-lasting as Rio Americana in Brazil, but more than a few of the soldiers ended up settling in Mexico for good.

General Shelby turns out to be one of the Civil War’s most fascinating characters. Born into wealth and position in Kentucky, he struck out as a young man for Missouri, where he found early success in farming and business (hemp and lumber), and before long had built his own white-columned mansion on the banks of the Missouri River in Waverly.

But the cross-border skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and Missouri during the 1850s led to the destruction of Shelby’s sawmill operations. Shelby himself gained fame for leading retaliatory raids into Kansas. When the Civil War finally came in 1861, Shelby chose to fight for the Southern cause, even as most of his Kentucky relatives remained Unionists.

[People tend to forget that Midwestern Missouri was for years a state with distinct southern sympathies. Even as late as 1956, when the Republican Eisenhower was handily winning re-election, Missouri joined with only six Deep-South states – Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina – in voting against the party of Lincoln.]

Throughout the war, Shelby was to command forces in the so-called Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy, even as his wife and children were forced to flee Missouri for Kentucky after their mansion was torched and their lands plundered. For Shelby and many of his men, the decision to run for the Mexican border was easier to make because there was so little to return to at home.

Anthony Arthur’s recounting of the confusion that characterized the western theater of the Civil War, and later the harrowing march through Texas and Mexico, is an exciting and gripping read. Particularly moving is his description of Shelby’s soldiers as they reached Eagle Pass on the Texas-Mexico border. In a ceremony on the banks of the Rio Grande, a tattered Confederate flag – one that had been with the regiment through many battles and skirmishes in Missouri, Arkansas and Texas – was folded for the last time and placed into the river, the waters enveloping the flag as it disappeared from view.

Once in Mexico, Shelby had his wife and eight children join him, where they lived for several years. But as Emperor Maximilian’s position became ever more untenable and the French army decided to ditch the country, it became increasingly clear that staying in Mexico was not an option. While some of the ex-Confederates decided to migrate to Cuba, Brazil or other foreign lands, Shelby made the decision to return to the United States.

Renouncing his support of slavery and pledging allegiance to America, Shelby now commenced the second part of his life. He took up residence again in Missouri, and was eventually named marshal for Western Missouri by President Grover Cleveland. This was not a trivial responsibility, as this was the region where the notorious Jesse James Gang and other outlaws roamed.

When the general passed away in 1894, more than 2,000 people attended his funeral and 4,000 joined in the procession to the cemetery. As reported by the Kansas City Star, Bill Hunter, an African American who as a slave boy had been purchased to be Shelby’s manservant, led the general’s riderless horse with its empty saddle, boots and spurs to the burial site at Forest Hill Cemetery. It was a poignant farewell for two men who had remained friends for life.

In the conclusion of his book, Anthony Arthur sums up the General’s life this way:

“Shelby was the model of the gifted, principled man who had fought bravely for a doomed cause, and who ultimately reconciled himself not only to defeat but to the fact that his cause had been fatally flawed by the greatest evil in American life, chattel slavery … in classic American fashion, he reinvented himself and showed the way for others to do the same.”

In the end, not a bad legacy at all.