The talented Hohenzollern kids, anti-Napoleon intelligence, and the return of the Devil’s Dictionary: newsletter, December 3, 2021

December 3, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, history, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, December 3, 2021.

About 15 years ago, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, (yes, the same burb of the swing song that begins, “Pardon me, boys, is this the . . .”), went on a tree-cutting binge. Years before, the city had planted trees in the median of Market Street, a busy downtown thoroughfare. They were Bradford pear trees, and they were beautiful. They grew quickly, and in the spring they were covered with beautiful white blossoms that enhanced the beauty of that old but visually distinctive area.

But problems developed. While the blossoms were beautiful and the tree was nicely shaped, residents began to notice that along with the blossoms came a fetid, fishy smell that was anything but pleasant. Worse, as the trees developed, residents discovered that they were structurally unsound. Whole sections of the trees could break off in a storm with high winds causing dangerous obstructions to people and traffic.

So, aptly chagrined, the city cut down most of its Bradford pear trees. In doing so, Chattanooga was a bit ahead of its time. Botanists and landowners have discovered many problems with Bradford pears, more than just smelly blossoms and bad structure. The state of South Carolina is now outlawing the sale of Bradford pears. (See this story in the New York Times.)

Planting a tree, which is often done at this time of the year, is generally a good thing. Be careful what you plant.

Have a wonderful weekend.


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Wilhelmine, Frederick, and Anna Amalia: Despite a cruel father, some beautiful music from the kids

The year 1740 was a red-letter year for the Hohenzollern kids. It was the year their father, King Frederick William I of Prussia, died. His death, far from provoking mourning, was an occasion of unremitting rejoicing among his many children, especially Wilhelmine, Frederick, and Anna Amalia.

The king was vicious and cruel, almost beyond belief, especially to his children.

The oldest surviving child, Wilhelmine (born in 1709), was turned over to a governess who enjoyed beating the hell out of her. “Not a day passed that she [the governess] did not prove upon me the fearful power of her fists,” she later wrote of her childhood. Her mother turned a blind eye to these cruelties until it was pointed out to her that if they continued, the girl might not survive. The governess was replaced, but her father was still in place and had no problem with visiting physical abuse on his children himself.

Anna Amalia was the youngest surviving child (14 years younger than Wilhelmine), but she too often felt the wrath of her father. Incensed by something she did or said—or by just being in the same room with him—he would drag her across the room by her hair.

Neither of these girls suffered as much as Frederick, born in 1712. The cruelties that his father inflicted on him were both physical and mental, and they were unrelenting. Frederick was a sensitive child who loved art and music—two things his father hated—and preferred books to horses. He was also clearly homosexual, and at the age of 16, he tried to run away with his best friend Hans von Katte. They were betrayed by Katte’s brother, and both Frederick and Hans were arrested and imprisoned.

Both were accused of treason, and the king threatened to execute them. Executing his son would have caused political difficulties for the king, so he backed off of that. Von Katte was not so fortunate. His execution took place in 1730, and the king forced his son to be present.

What Frederick, Wilhelmine, and Anna Amalia shared besides a cruel father and a royal lineage was a love of music.

Each secretly pursued that love, gaining a musical education and developing their talents for playing various instruments out of sight of their father. When the king died in 1740, each was free to openly express their love and enjoyment of music.

Frederick succeeded his father to the throne and went on to become the much-honored Frederick the Great of Prussia, known for his enlightened rule, his military genius, and his political deftness in uniting numerous territories into a great Prussian empire.

Wilhelmine was married to Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth in 1731, and initially the marriage was a happy one. They grew apart when Frederick had an affair with a woman whom he eventually brought to court as his mistress. Wilhelmine could do little but resolve herself to the situation. She and Frederick joined in a partnership and resolved to make Bayreuth a German version of Versailles. They built a number of beautiful buildings and encouraged intellectual pursuits of all sorts.

Wilhelmine’s chief interest was in music. Her chief instrument was the lute, but like her brother and sister she composed, and her compositions show a discernible Bach influence. She also wrote an entertaining though not completely trustworthy memoir.

Anna Amalia got her first music lessons from her brother Frederick out of view of their father but with the courage and protection of their mother. She learned to play the harpsichord, flute, and violin and demonstrated a wide-ranging musical talent. Like her siblings, she became interested in composing, and she wrote mostly chamber works. She studied musical theory, and her music was played beyond her native land.

Being the female child in a royal family meant that Anna Amalia was a prime candidate for marriage into another royal family of Europe. There were talks with the royal family of Sweden, but these never came to fruition. In 1755, she became the Abbess of Quedlinburg, which made her wealthy and allowed her to pursue her first love: music.

In addition to her own music, Anna Amalia collected and preserved the work of many of her contemporaries such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Georg Philipp Telemann, among many others. That collection grew to more than 2,000 volumes and has made a valuable contribution to modern knowledge of music of that period.

As king, Frederick was not only an accomplished musician but also a great patron of the arts in his kingdom. He played the flute well enough to give concerts, and he wrote multiple works for the instrument, some in conjunction with his instructor Johann Joachim Quantz, who had been his tutor in his youth. In all he composed 121 sonatas for flute and continuo, four concertos for flute and strings, three military marches, and seven arias. He also wrote parts of operas that were regularly performed at the Berlin Opera House.

Frederick’s accomplishments extended far beyond his music, his military and political genius, and his general love of the arts. Indeed, he became one of the towering figures of the 18th century. His name and image became iconic to 19th century Germans.

Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary

FEAST, n. A festival. A religious celebration usually signalized by gluttony and drunkenness, frequently in honor of some holy person distinguished for abstemiousness. In the Roman Catholic Church feasts are “movable” and “immovable,” but the celebrants are uniformly immovable until they are full. In their earliest development, these entertainments took the form of feasts for the dead; such were held by the Greeks, under the name Nemeseia, by the Aztecs and Peruvians, as in modern times they are popular with the Chinese; though it is believed that the ancient dead, like the modern, were light eaters. Among the many feasts of the Romans was the Novemdiale, which was held, according to Livy, whenever stones fell from heaven.


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”


Gathering “intelligence” during the Napoleonic Wars

Colquhoun Grant is not a name that you are likely to recognize, but he played an important role on the staff of the Duke of Wellington as he commanded the British and allied forces that were arrayed against Napoleon Bonaparte during the Napoleonic Wars of the first two decades of the 19th century. Grant was one of Wellington’s best “intelligence” gatherers. 

But no one’s story quite matches that of Colquhoun Grant.

Grant was one of Wellington’s Exploring Officers. These were especially skilled men who rode around the countryside gathering information on the movements of Napoleon’s army. They knew how to hide themselves, how to talk with local people who would not recognize them, and how to ride their super-fast horses to elude capture. Grant was one of the best at all of this, and Wellington came to rely on him.

Essentially, Grant was a spy, although he always stayed in uniform even when he entered France. Had he not done so, he could have been summarily executed. Instead, if he was caught, he had to be treated as an officer and a prisoner of war.

That’s exactly what happened to him in 1812 when the British were facing off against Napoleon in Spain. The French nabbed Grant and knew who he was and how valuable he was to Wellington.

Normally, a captured officer would be exchanged for an officer that the other side had captured, but in Grant’s instance, the French refused to do so. He was sent under guard back to France, but he managed to escape.

Grant was nothing if not audacious. He was near the town of Bayonne and heard that General Joseph Souham was there and planning to travel to Paris. Grant found him, introduced himself as a visiting American officer, and asked if he could hitch a ride with him to Paris. He was still in his British red coat, but the general knew nothing of American uniforms, so he bought Grant’s story, and they had a pleasant ride to the French capital.

When in Paris, Grant managed to make contact with someone in the Ministry of War, get information, and send reports back to the Duke of Wellington in Spain. Eventually, Grant made his way back to England unscathed.

That source remained in place in 1814 when Napoleon returned from exile and led an army north to meet Wellington’s forces at Waterloo.

Grant stayed in the army after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and was posted to Burma. Eventually, he became too ill to carry out his duties and was invalided out. He died in 1829 at the age of 49.

The third volume of Vietnam Voices is now available

Vietnam Voices, the project of the Blount County Public Library with which I am associated, now has its third volume of interviews in both print and ebook form.

Vietnam Voices: Stories of Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975 (volume 3) is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook formats and on Barnes & Noble in hardback and ebook formats.  These books are a part of the Vietnam Voices project that has sought to interview local residents who served in the armed forces in the Vietnam region. The project has conducted more than 50 interviews, and these unedited interviews can be heard on the library’s website at this link.

Volume 3 contains edited transcripts of 15 of these interviews. The Amazon page has this description:

This third volume of Vietnam Voices continues the quest of the Blount County Public Library to record and archive the memories of those who served in the military in Vietnam during that conflict a half-century ago.

Much has been written about the war in Vietnam. At home, it was politically and socially divisive, creating fissures in American society, some of which have never been healed. Many volumes about the history, strategy, tactics, and effects of the war have been published in the years since the conflict ended.

Relatively little, however, has been written about the war from the point of view of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines who served there. The reasons for that are many and varied. Chief among them is the fact that when servicemen returned to the United States, they rarely wanted to talk about their experience there. Most simply wanted to get on with their lives, which they felt had been interrupted by the conflict.

A related factor in this silence is the fact that the servicemen were not invited to talk about what had happened. The society to which they returned was too divided to discuss the war rationally. A strong current feeling that blamed the soldiers for the war ‑ rather than the politicians ‑ had gripped the thinking of many Americans.

Consequently, a silence enveloped any discussion of the war with veterans. That silence has prevailed for much of the last 50 years.

The Vietnam Voices project, then, is an effort to break that wall of silence and to give the veterans who served in Vietnam a chance to tell their stories.

A fourth and final volume of Vietnam Voices is now being edited.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Vince V.: I admit that I have never finished reading a Bronte book. The Victorian over-writing always makes me want to reach for a red editing pen. I don’t take pride in the fact. I consider it a weakness. Perhaps I need more of those lessons in humility.

And I can never remember where those worrisome umlauts over the “e” are on my keyboard.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Hockey player

Best quote of the week:

We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like? Jean Cocteau, author and painter (1889-1963)

Pray-as-you-go podcast

If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Anne Bronte, humility, Benjamin Spock, and reader reaction: newsletter, November 26, 2021



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