THE BATTLE OF THE WABASH.

A LETTER FROM THE INVISIBLE POLICE

The Californian, October 1880, cover

This unpleasant oddity has an unfortunate amount of historic significance. "The Battle of the Wabash. A Letter from the Invisible Police," as by "Lorelle," was included in the October 1880 issue of The Californian, an important magazine of opinion published in San Francisco. That was just a few months after Pierton Donner's Last Days of the Republic saw print. The first fictional works depicting the United States in a future war with a powerful foreign enemy, both were racist warnings against the Chinese, whom Americans, so they claimed, were allowing into the country as laborers but would eventually come to vastly outnumber whites, rise up, and annihilate them. A similar work would soon follow in 1882, A Short and Truthful History of the Taking of California and Oregon by the Chinese in the Year A.D. 1889 by Robert Woltor. That was the temporary end of this genre, because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 gave the anti-Chinese movement exactly what they wanted, an end to virtually all Chinese immigration.

At first glance, the piece gives no clue to the curve it will throw the reader. The title points toward another memoir of wartime, like others The Californian printed, although the educated reader in a time only four years after Custer and his troops had been famously "massacred" might recognize it as an allegorical reference. The Battle of the Wabash had historic roots in a 1791 conflict between about 600 American forces and a larger number from several Indian tribes. It took place in the Northwest Territories, in present-day Ohio, along the Wabash River. The Americans were routed and virtually wiped out; the soldiers suffered 97% casualties. About one-quarter of the entire U.S. Army was lost in the battle. It remains the worst defeat American forces have ever suffered, and surely had been frequently brought up after Custer's similar loss.

 

Thus primed, the otherwise bizarre introduction begins to make sense. As so often in fiction of the 19th century, the entire story is purported to be from a letter, but one found in a rock crevasse on top a mountain in "scarcely human" handwriting. Who would write such a missive? Perhaps only "the mountain gnomes, those invisible police that are said, by Spanish tradition, to frequent that peak on moonlit nights, and to whom the past and future are alike accessible." Other pieces of fiction in the same issue have dialogue and characters as we would expect; this narrative is a different form seldom seen today, in which the narrator, a mere mouthpiece for the author, declaims a long recitation of events. Many, many early tales of fantastic events were written in this style, which alone would be a giveaway to the contemporary reader.

 

The letter begins with the gnome visiting a Chinese historian in the year 2080. That world is broadly depicted in ways that would be familiar to any American of 2015.

 

Cities had grown till their broad and far-reaching streets stretched away for miles; villages had become cities; rivers had, in many places, assumed the straightness of canals, while the whole face of the country, from San Francisco to Boston, was threaded by a net-work of railroad lines. The people had become numerous as the leaves of the forest or the sands of the shores; the wastes of Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona were populous with cities, and blooming with fields that smiled like gardens. The deserts of the alkali and sage-brush had disappeared, and in their stead broad fields of yellow grain waved in the sunlight to the rippling notes of the lark and whistle of the quail. This way and that, toward every point of the compass, trains, laden with the treasures of commerce, thundered at the rate of one hundred miles per hour. The gas-light had disappeared from the streets, while the electric glow, soft as moonbeams, but brighter, flooded the nights; but upon the streets, as I gazed upon them, a million lights moved in a fire-fly dance, through the artificial gloaming, more numerous than the stars of the sky.

 

Florid by modern standards, perhaps, but that's fine writing. No wonder that a syndicated review of that issue of The Californian, appearing in widely-spread newspapers, said that the style betrayed "Lorelle" as "a well known writer." Too bad the critic couldn't go a bit further in betrayal; the identity of Lorelle has been completely lost.

 

Lorelle also shows his or her skills by the subtle way the two hundred years of history is approached. The early parts of the historian's seven-page account treat Chinese-Californian relationships from the Chinese perspective, a wholly accurate enumeration of the many slights, prejudices, and hostility heaped upon them by the white majority, making their peaceful, cultural retaliation as they grew in numbers and power sympathetic. Not until close to the end does Lorelle's true agenda overwhelm the narrative. It's their Mongolian blood that's the issue. The Chinese, even over generations, remain true to their blood, never assimilating, always breeding within their group, never adopting American ways, always distinguishable not by their skin color - yellow is never used - but by their racially pure bloodlines. Yes, the always-looming horror of miscegenation is there - white woman look to the now rich and powerful Chinese for marriage, but as always the threat is unidirectional. Similar to the one-drop-of-blood rule, any progeny of such a couple is considered Chinese. (Blacks, always referred to that way, are essentially written out as Others. For unexplained reasons their numbers dwindle over the centuries to near nothing.)

 

Because of America's unparalleled lure, millions of additional Chinese emigrate to the U.S. over the years (and nobody else does, for plot reasons), adding to their majority. By 2080, they outnumber whites two-to-one and plan to disenfranchise them. This leads to the climatic civil war, in which the native fifth column of Mongolians are assisted by 5,000,000 troops sent over by the Emperor of China in 2500 huge warboats.

 

And here's where food pills raise make their unlikely and totally irrelevant appearance. The Chinese troops live on them, giving them an unbeatable edge over the Americans.

 

An American scientist had some years before analyzed food, and discovered the essential vital and life-sustaining element, and had succeeded in reducing the size and weight of a six months' ration to ten pounds, easily strung to the belt like the old cartridge box. This the Chinese had adopted at once, as it was but a missing link for centuries in their system of economy, and the manufacture of food in this condensed form had become quite an industry. The Americans, as a rule, and a few of the wealthy Mongolians, for the mere gratification of the taste, now rapidly becoming disreputable, still loaded their tables with the dishes of old times. This was only, however, as a luxury, not a necessity. The discovery of condensing food seemed to have been the proper result of natural demands, and when the masses adopted it, lulled to acquiescence by the anti-epicurian philosophers, in obeisance to one of those great laws invariably controlling and adjusting supply and demand, a great dinner such as any gentleman might every day give two hundred years ago, became a capital luxury that but few, even of the wealthy class, could continually indulge. The condensed food never administered to the taste, as a quantity as large as three compound cathartic pills of 1880 supplied the physical nourishment for an ordinary man for a day - even a soldier and laborer. This, then, explains the ease with which the maintenance and mobilization of such vast forces became comparatively easy. Every soldier of the Chinese Army of Invasion was provided with a kind of box, in size and shape, as well as mode of transportation, not entirely unlike the cartridge-box of 1880, in which were three thousand rations, for one man, of condensed food, which was enough to provision the army for a thousand days, or a little short of three years. Cooking utensils were entirely unnecessary, thus lightening baggage, which, with the absence of the provision commissariat, greatly lessened the impediments, and made movement easy and rapid.

U.S. Amrny cartridge box, c1855

Cartridge box, c1855. They came in a huge variety of styles, and the interiors varied even more. Still, it's easy to see how several containers of food pills could be stored in one and a series of them wrapped around the body.

Carthartic pills, c1920

Cathartic pills. This picture is c1920 but those in 1880 would have been very similar.

Why Lorelle interpolates this bit of futurology is mysterious. In every other way his lower-case "c" civil war is fought capital "C" Civil War-style, including cavalry. (They were "armed up to the  highest achievements of firearms, for the most part repeating rifles...") At a guess, the purpose is to emphasize the imagery of an independent swarm of soldiers, as numerous as devastating insects and capable of far more physical self-abnegation than whites. The ability of Chinese laborers to subsist on less food, poorer living conditions, and harsher treatment than white workers had long been a sore point for Californians, who could not credit that these were responses to cruel necessity and therefore insisted must instead be from some racial advantage.

 

Once the actual Battle of the Wabash of the title is reached, it is framed exactly as the 1791 conflict had been, albeit swollen to grotesque numbers, with 8,000,000 Chinese eliminating the American army to the last man, except for a few taken as slaves.

 

Even that is a mercy, as Lorelle ends by having his victorious army allowed, by "vice-regal order," to rape and murder the remaining population entirely unrestrained for 100 days. "When will the world learn that milksop philanthropy is not statesmanship?" asks his narrator.

 

"The Battle of the Wabash. A Letter from the Invisible Police" is forgotten today, catalogued only by scholars of future war fiction. That's good in almost every way, except that the blood bigotry it exudes has not been forgotten by some in the world. The targets of the bile may change, and the details that terrify alter, but the general demonization of the Other, the immutable and absolute Other, remains ugly and potent. Lorelle's screed was not reprinted anywhere and is not easily findable even in Google Books. Ugly history is still history; it should not be forgotten as if it had no power then and no meaning today. I try throughout this website to emphasize how similar we are to people of the past and how much we tend to look at the world and the future in similar ways. Below are scans of the complete story from The Californian. Read them and think.

 

Footnote on The Yellow Peril

 

The later rise of Yellow Peril flame-fanning was a separate variation, and first rose in Europe after Japan defeated China in an 1895 war. Americans tended to worry about a Japanese invasion, Europeans stuck with the Chinese, but there were many exceptions. The popular culture image of the nefarious Oriental is usually attributed to a series of stories by British writer M. P. Shiel about the villainous Chinese, Dr. Yen How. Introduced in a weekly serial, his tales were put into novel form as The Yellow Danger in 1898 and reserialized as The Yellow Peril. Those were huge sellers, which predated the now far more famous Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories, which were probably patterned on Shiel and started appearing in 1913. Jack London published an essay, "The Yellow Peril," in the San Francisco Examiner newspaper on September 25, 1904, later incorporated into a story called "The Unparalleled Invasion." A Chinese attack is finally countered by bombarding the country with scores of infectious diseases that kill the entire population. Marsden Madsen had Japan and China combine to invade the U.S. in his 1907 novel, The Yellow Peril in Action. J. Martin Miller had already condemned China in a nonfiction book in 1900, China, the Yellow Peril at War with the World: A History of the Chinese Empire from the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Time. Another American nonfiction diatribe against Asians, The Yellow Peril, or the Orient vs. the Occident as viewed by modern statesmen and ancient prophets, a 1911 book by the American G. G. Rupert, was a reflection of this new wave of fear. British writer J. O. P. Bland, who had come to hate the Chinese after years of living in Shanghai, made a career of the term with essays like "The Yellow Peril," in the June 22, 1912 issue of the American magazine The Living Age and "The Real Yellow Peril" in The June 1913 Atlantic Monthly. A giant Chinese airship named The Yellow Peril blows up New York in The War of the Worlds: A Tale of the Year 2000 A. D. by Frederick Robinson, published in 1914. This is just a smattering of uses of the phrase and ignores variations like Yellow Terror and Yellow Dragon. Though we think today of the term Yellow Peril in conjunction with pulp magazines, its use peaked before the end of WWI.)

EK

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