Were elected vice president and...

"IF ADMIRAL STOCKDALE

November 02, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"IF ADMIRAL STOCKDALE were elected vice president and President Perot quit, Stockdale would become the second president who had been a prisoner of war. Can you guess the first?"

So I wrote on Oct. 15. A number of you immediately answered, "Andrew Jackson!" "Correct!" I said, "the check's in the mail!"

I based my answer on a thumbnail sketch of Jackson in "The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents" by William A. DeGregorio. "Jackson . . . was the only president to have been a prisoner of war," DeGregorio wrote.

According to Marquis James' biography of Jackson, here is what happened:

In 1780, at age 13, Jackson joined the colonial revolutionaries in his native South Carolina as a mounted orderly or messenger. He witnessed combat right away, and a few months later was captured by British troops. An officer ordered him to clean his boots. Andy refused (teen-agers!) and demanded to be treated as a prisoner of war. The officer hit him with his sword, leaving "a white scar [on his head] that Andrew Jackson carried through a long life that profited little to England or any Englishman."

But the British did agree to treat him as a POW. Imprisoned, he came down with smallpox. His mother (?) got him released.

Hold the phone! The second wave of responses said George Washington was a prisoner of war. One historian of American foibles directed me to his book so stating, and a military historian seconded that, telling me where and when he thought it would have happened.

No historian I, I looked it up. I may be wrong, but all I found (in Douglas Southall Freeman's GW biography) was that during the French and Indian War, Washington was almost a prisoner of war. He may have told the French that they make him a POW or else.

In 1754, 22-year-old Lt. Col. Washington led his Virginia militia unit into western Pennsylvania. The French regarded this as their turf and came after him.

He constructed a defense he named "Fort Necessity." Fierce fighting ensued. The Virginians were doing so-so, then it started to rain. It poured. Washington's troops couldn't keep their powder dry. They were about to run out of bacon and bread. The only thing the storm didn't ruin was the rum.

Pretty soon half his men were drunk. So George accepted a French offer to discuss "a proposal." The proposal was that the Virginians could turn in their arms and go home or become POWs.

Without their arms, GW decided, they'd be Indian target practice returning home; better to be French POWs. He insisted on remaining armed. The French said "okay"* and so GW and his men were never technically POWs, and the correct answer, to me, is still Andy Jackson.

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* Actually, "oui." GW had a bad translator, who almost ruined him for life, but that's another story.

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