Strange Tidbits from American History

American history almost took some strange turns. Frequently, scenarios straight out of bizarre alternative history stories almost true.

Some of the most bizarre scenarios in American history that almost came true include:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) almost became America’s spy agency

After World War II, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover lobbied hard to have his G-men put in charge of US espionage.

In 1945, President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri); who disliked espionage, disbanded America’s wartime spy agency the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Hoover moved to fill the gap by sending FBI agents to U.S. embassies around the world to gather intelligence.

Oddly, the FBI had been in charge of intelligence gathering in Latin America during World War II. In addition, the FBI engaged in some spying before World War II.

Hoover’s efforts failed, partially because the military wanted to keep Hoover out of intelligence. Instead in 1947, Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to handle American espionage. Notably, a military man; Rear Admiral Sidney Souers became the first Director of Central Intelligence. In 1952, Congress created the National Security Agency (NSA) to gather electronic intelligence. Like the CIA, the NSA was independent of the FBI.

Consequently, the FBI went back to its traditional job of law enforcement and criminal investigation. Since World War II the FBI has stayed out of espionage but handles the job of counterespionage (catching spies) in America.

Harry Truman wanted to abolish the CIA

After World War II, President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) was reluctant to establish a permanent intelligence agency. Later on Truman called for the reform or abolition of the agency his administration created: the CIA.

 On 22 December 1963, The Washington Post published an op-ed in which Truman attacked the CIA. Specifically, Truman wanted to limit the CIA’s role to intelligence gathering and end covert operations such as the attempts to overthrow and assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Congress ignored Truman’s advice, but CIA critics bring his op-ed up every time there is a fresh scandal involving the Company.

Robert E. Lee almost became a Union General

The ultimate Confederate hero Robert E. Lee almost became a Union general.

Early in the Civil War in April 1861, Winfield Scott the Commanding General of the US Army told President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) he wanted to place Lee in a top command. Lee then, a Regular US Army colonel, was one of America’s most respected and experienced soldiers. Scott wanted Lee to command the armies defending Washington, DC.

Lee turned Scott down and resigned his army officers’ commission because he would have had to lead troops against his own people, Virginians. In particular, Lee did not want to command an invasion of the South which could have led to atrocities against Southern civilians.

Had Lee accepted Scott’s offer, he could have become one of the Union’s top generals and war heroes. Lee could have commanded the armies defending Washington and possibly changed the outcome of the war. Moreover, in 1868 Americans elected the most successful Union general Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois) president. Hence, Lee sacrificed glory and potential political power for his state.

Robert E. Lee turned down command of the Confederate Army

Strangely, Lee also turned down command of the Confederate Army. Around the same time as Scott’s offer, President Jefferson Davis (D-Mississippi) offered Lee command of the Confederate Army.

Lee turned Davis because he opposed succession, which he privately viewed as treason. Instead, Lee accepted a position as commander of Virginia’s armies. Ironically, Lee accepted the job of commanding all Confederate Armies a few years later.

Did John F. Roberts turn down the command of the Army of the Potomac?

Lee was not the only soldier to turn down a top military command during the Civil War. There is speculation that at least one general turned down command of the Army of the Potomac.

Author Edward J. Nichols speculates that President Abraham Lincoln offered John F. Reynolds, a respected field commander, the Army of the Potomac early in June 1863. Reynolds reportedly told his sister that he rejected Lincoln’s offer because of politics.*

The Army of the Potomac; which was charged with protecting Washington DC and capturing the Confederate Capitol of Richmond, was the Union Army’s top command. However, Reynolds reportedly did not want the job.

Reynolds said no because he thought interference from Lincoln and other politicians made it impossible for any general to command the Army of the Potomac. In particular, Reynolds was afraid politicians could make him a scapegoat for their failures.

We will never know if this account is true because there is no written record of Lincoln’s offer. Moreover, Reynolds was killed in the battle of Gettysburg on 1 July 1863. So his side of the story is unavailable.

Had Reynolds accepted Lincoln’s offer, he could have commanded the Army of Potomac during its greatest victory: Gettysburg. Instead, Reynolds was in the field where he a Confederate bullet killed him.

However, the man Lincoln appointed to command the Army of the Potomac; and the victor of Gettysburg, George Meade did not become a national hero. Instead, Meade found himself serving under a far more popular general Ulysses S. Grant.

One reason why Grant was so popular and successful was that he commanded armies in the West where it was harder for politicians to interfere. Hence, Grant’s appointment and Meade’s fade into obscurity shows Reynolds’ suspicions about politicians making the Army of Potomac command a dead-end job were correct.

History offers many strange tidbits for those who know where to look.

* See Toward Gettysburg: A Biography Of General John F. Reynolds by Edward J. Nichols pages 220-223 for a full account.