Tuesday, March 31, 2009

CWPT's Park Day is Saturday, April 4

I thought I'd use today's post as a public service announcement, and as a opportunity for service.

A call is being made much like the recruiting posters of 150 years ago, but instead of "To Arms," now it will be more like "To Shovel," or "To Rake." And just like 150 years ago, many are needed. Saturday, April 4, 2009 will be the 13th Park Day sponsored by the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) and grant funded by History (formerly The History Channel).

History enthusiasts and Civil War buffs of all ages, individually and from service groups and organizations will converge on cemeteries, historic sites, and parks to do volunteer work such as cleaning, painting, litter pickup, raking, and trail maintenance.

On Saturday numerous historic sites in many states are expected to participate in Park Day. For their efforts participants will receive a T-shirt and get to hear historians describe the significance of the site where they are working. But probably more important is the self-satisfaction that participants will receive in helping maintain and protect our battlefields and historic sites.

If there is not a Park Day organized in your area, I would suggest you take Saturday and visit and support a local public history site in your region.

You can learn more about Park Day at www.civilwar.org/parkday

Monday, March 30, 2009

My Visit to Bennett Place


While in the Raleigh Durham area last Saturday, I had some time between visiting family and meeting some friends for dinner so I visited Bennett Place State Historic Site. The site is convenient to I-85, just northwest of Durham. At first I had a little difficulty finding the site due to my misinterpretation of a North Carolina Civil War Trails sign, but I located it easier coming from I-85.

Bennett Place is where General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his troops to General William T. Sherman, which basically ended the war in the Eastern Theater. I was aware of that when I arrived, and I also knew there had been some controversy over the surrender agreement, but I hadn't realized that the generals actually met on three different occasions before an agreeable surrender was hammered out. Here's a little of that story.

After Sherman captured Savannah, Georgia he turned north up into South Carolina, captured Columbia, and then continued north into North Carolina. Sherman's troops fought Johnston's men at Averasboro and Bentonville and then captured Raleigh. Johnston had learned of Lee's surrender at Appomattox and sought out Sherman to learn what terms Sherman could offer. The two generals met under a flag of truce at the Bennett (sometimes spelled Bennitt) farmhouse near Durham Station. At this April 17, 1865 meeting Sherman showed Johnston a telegram that described President Lincoln's assassination. Johnston was stunned and feared the problems Lincoln's death might cause for the South's future, but neither general was aware of the significance the assassination would have on their negotiations. Sherman and Johnston decided to meet again the following day to work out the details.

On April 18 the generals again met in the Bennett farmhouse and Johnston proposed an extremely liberal surrender that included the dispersal of the armies after surrendering their weapons, recognition of the state governments, restoration of political and civil rights, and a general amnesty. Sherman during the negotiations was heard to say something to the effect, "just who is surrendering to who", but in the end agreed to the terms. Sherman's acceptance of the terms of surrender drew a firestorm of criticism from Radical Republicans in Washington who were vengeful after Lincoln's death, and also because the surrender covered political issues that Sherman didn't have the authority to negotiate. The surrender was voided and Sherman was told to agree to terms similar to Grant's terms to Lee at Appomattox.

Sherman and Johnston met for the third and final time at the Bennett house on April 26. Johnston had been advised by Jefferson Davis (who was on the run) not to accept new terms, but Johnston knowing that continuing the war would cost more lives agreed to meet Sherman. The terms of this meeting resulted in a "military surrender" that ended the war for Confederate troops in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Upon arriving at Bennett Place, I was glad to be welcomed by such a nice staff, and I enjoyed the well appointed visitor's center. The visitor's center has a small but very interesting museum that interprets not only the military side of the war in North Carolina, but also how the war effected the civilians of the state, such as the Bennetts. In the museum I found a great quote from a North Carolina soldier John K. Walker on one of the exhibits: "if I was in your place I would advise Levi no to come to this Regiment...I don't think it is very healthy charging breastworks." Maybe my being in Petersburg (home of earthworks) makes this humorous to me.

Unfortunately a special event on the day I visited had to be cancelled due to the weather. They were going to have a field planting demonstration, but due to the rain the past few days the fields were in no condition to be worked or planted...as witnessed by my shoes after touring the grounds. The Bennett farmhouse burned in 1921, but was painstakingly reconstructed in the 1960s (the chimney is original). Other structures that interpret the Bennett's yeoman existence is a kitchen, a smokehouse, and a water well with sweep.

Bennett Place is a wonderful state historic site. Please stop by and visit their facilities and learn about the "other," and larger, surrender. Admission is free and so is the education you will receive. See their website at http://www.bennettplace.nchistoricsites.org/

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Just finished reading - House of Abraham: Lincoln & the Todds, A Family Divided by War by Stephen Berry

Elodie Todd, one of Mary Todd Lincoln's sisters (actually half-sister) once wrote, "Surely there is no other family in the land placed in the exact situation of ours, and I hope will never be so unfortunate as to be surrounded by trials so numerous." After reading House of Abraham I would totally agree. The Todd's experienced a Civil War that was unique in its destruction and ruin, some of which was circumstantial and some self inflicted.

Mary Todd's father, Robert Smith Todd had six children by Eliza Parker. When Eliza died Richard married Elizabeth "Betsy" Humphreys, and they had eight children. The old saying, "the more, the merrier" did not apply to the Todd family. The Todds were one of Lexington, Kentucky's elite families; they were friends of the Clay's (Henry Clay) another Lexington blue-blood family, but trouble and controversy always seemed to surround them. The Todds seemed to be an unusual group in their family circle relations. One contemporary observer remarked that the Todds were "a large family of boys and girls who jested much and seized on the slightest pretext to tease each other unmercifully." Robert Todd left much of the child rearing to his two wives and the family slave nanny, "Mammy Sally." This lack of fatherly discipline might explain much of their unresolved dysfunction, troubles, and issues later in life.

Two of the eldest Todd daughters moved to Springfield, Illinois after the oldest, Elizabeth married, and then Mary, and Ann, soon followed their sisters to Springfield. The other children, especially those from Robert's second wife, stayed mainly in the Lexington area and grew up with Southern principles.

With the separation of the family between Kentucky and Illinois it seems that they were potentially fated to be torn apart by war. Although Kentucky never seceded from the Union, it was a slave state and sent many men to fight for the Confederacy. A number of the male Todds and women Todd's husbands would fight for the South and eventually give the ultimate sacrifice. George Rogers Clark Todd was the last child from Robert and his first wife. George went to medical school, but a nasty temper and drinking habit cost him a marriage and earned him a bad reputation. He ended up serving the Confederacy as a surgeon. Samuel Brown Todd was the first child of Robert Todd's second marriage. Samuel moved to New Orleans before the war and joined in the fight as a private. He was killed at the Battle of Shiloh. David Humphreys Todd ran away at 14 to join the Mexican War. He went to California for the Gold Rush and fought in a Chilean revolution in 1851. Early in the Civil War he was in charge of a Richmond prison for Union soldiers, but was dismissed amid charges of abuse. Afterward he found his way to Vicksburg and fought in an artillery unit until the city was surrendered. Alexander Humphreys Todd was the youngest boy and had been coddled as a youth by his mother and sisters after being abused by a Todd house slave. He was killed by friendly fire at the Battle of Baton Rouge in 1862.

The Todd women were also torn by the war. The older sisters in Springfield married men that eventually served in army or government positions for the Union. The Lexington branch had husbands in the Confederate army. Emilie Todd married Benjamin Hardin Helm who was killed leading the Kentucky Orphan Brigade (so called because they couldn't go home during the war) at the Battle of Chickamauga. Elodie Todd married a Confederate officer and attended Jefferson Davis' inauguration in Montgomery, Alabama with sister Martha Todd. Martha was later accused in the press of being a spy and smuggler, which caused the Lincoln's no little embarrassment. The youngest Todd girl, Catherine (or Kitty to family) had one of the most interesting stories. She visited Springfield after Lincoln's election and became infatuated with Union Captain Elmer Ellsworth (who would later be killed by a private citizen for taking down a Confederate Flag in Alexandria, Virginia). Kitty quickly changed course though, and as the war went on she became even more pro-Confederate, and eventually married a Confederate officer that helped carry sister Emilie's husband Ben Hardin Helm off the battlefield at Chickamauga. I'm telling you, this would make one great Soap Opera!

One of the best points that Berry makes in the work is that Lincoln and the Todds serve as an microcosm of the nation during the Civil War. Lincoln learned a very important lesson from the Todds, and one that ends the book: "People, like families and nations, must own their flaws if they are to move forward."

If you don't read any other Lincoln book in this, the year of Lincoln, read this one to understand the impact of the Civil War on America's families.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My Visit to Historic Stagville


Last Thursday I ventured south from Petersburg on I-85 to visit some family in the Raleigh-Durham area. Before leaving I had decided that I would take some time and visit Historic Stagville on the way down, and I am certainly glad I did. I was politely welcomed to the site and was led on an interesting and educational hour-long tour by site manager Frachele Scott.

Stagville is now a North Carolina state historic site, but in the late 18th century and up through the Civil War it was a prosperous plantation. In fact by 1860, the Bennehan and Cameron families owned around 900 slaves and almost 30,000 acres that stretched into three North Carolina counties. Unlike Deep South plantations that focused on cotton, Stagville grew tobacco and grain crops such as corn, oats, and wheat.

Stagville was first started by Virginian Richard Bennehan in the late 1700s. The Bennehan House is pictured above. The section on the right was built in 1787, and then was expanded in 1799. The Bennehan's daughter, Rebecca married local lawyer Duncan Cameron and they had a son, Paul. Paul Cameron ran the plantation until the Civil War.

Through the years the Bennehans and Camerons enlarged their slave labor force through both natural increase and the purchase of additional workers. Evidence of slave life is still visible at Historic Stagville. At Horton Grove, the field slave quarters, several of the unique buildings that housed slaves are still in existence. These quarters are unlike others I have seen and read about. They are two story structures that are divided into four family apartments; two on the bottom floor and two on the top. The buildings are frame board and baton siding but have brick interior instead of exterior walls. These brick interior walls kept the interiors warmer in winter by fireplace heat, and cooler in the summer, they also helped keep out small pests. The bricks in the walls and chimneys were made and fired there on the plantation. A number of bricks in one original surviving chimney has finger and hand marks where slaves pulled the still soft bricks out of the brick molds. Archeology digs have produced evidence as well. At one site an African cowrie shell was found. And two divining rods were found in the wall of one of the slave quarters.

Another amazing example of the plantation's architecture is the Great Barn, which is believed to be the largest agriculture related structure in North Carolina in 1860. The hand-hewed beams and the enormity of the structure is a wonder. The engineering is said to resemble that of traditional ship building, and is thought to possibly have been designed by the slaves themselves.

One story that I read in the visitor's center illustrated the number of slaves at Stagville. One former slave interviewed years later said that master Paul Cameron would see slaves walking from one section of Stagville to another and ask, "Who do you belong to?" The former bondsman would say, "We belong to Master Paul," and Cameron would nod in acknowledgement and occasionally throw them some change. Cameron had so many slaves he didn't recognize them individually. The changes wrought by the Civil War made Stagville a different place. Some slaves stayed on and worked as sharecroppers through Reconstruction and beyond, while others sought opportunities elsewhere.

The Ligget and Myers Tobacco Company bought much of the land in 1954 after the last Cameron heir sold their land. In 1971 the Liggett Group gave 70 acres to North Carolina to preserve. Historic Stageville opened in 1977 and has been preserving this historic gem since. If you find yourself in the Raleigh-Durham area I highly encourage you to stop and learn a little North Carolina history. Thanks again to Ms. Scott for the wonderful tour of the grounds.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hard Times Come Again No More

American songwriter Stephen Collins Foster penned these words in 1854:

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh Hard times come again no more.
Chorus:
'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.
(Chorus)
There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er:
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more.
(Chorus)
'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
'Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
'Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.
(Chorus)


Is a modern day Depression America's fate? That is what is on the minds of Americans as they watch closely an ever-rising unemployment rate, wince at a roller coaster stock market, hope against an unprecedented number of housing foreclosures, and frown at fat-cat financial scandals. While it is difficult not to worry when one or more of these situations hit you personally, I believe that we need to keep in mind that, as Americans we have been though this before...a number of times.

In the 19th century there were panics/recessions in 1837, 1857, and 1873 that lasted longer than just the year in which they occurred and are named for. The one in 1873 is a large reason why Northerners grew more tired of Reconstruction efforts in the South after the Civil War and didn't fight as hard to maintain an occupied South after the Compromise of 1877. But the Great Depression of the 1930s (although there is little "great" about it) is the one we can better relate to. I think a main reason for that is because we have better visual evidence of it than previous economic woes. The power of seeing the dust bowl families move from Oklahoma and Arkansas to California is still moving today...almost 80 years later. Seeing film of soup kitchen lines and men selling apples just to try to feed their families are very powerful images.

We are fortunate to have survivors of this era still among us. Their tales of hardship and sacrifice can serve to boost our optimism and to see that it is possible to make it through this mess. Yesterday, I was able to visit with my grandmother who is 95. I asked about these times of her young womanhood and received some amazing stories of hard work, perseverance, and friend and family cooperation. If you know someone who lived during the Depression, ask them about it. You won't be sorry for it.

RUN-DMC, a couple of later-day Stephen Fosters in another era (and in a whole different format-rap), also wrote of what they experienced as tough times in the early 1980s. Here's a little taste of their take on things:

Hard times can take you on a natural trip,
So keep your balance, and don't you slip.
Hard times is nothing new on me,
I'm gonna use my strong mentality.
Like the cream of the crop, like the crop of the cream,
B-b-beating hard times, that is my theme.
Hard times in life, hard times in death,
I'm gonna keep on fighting to my very last breath.

So there you have it; from 1854 to 1984 to 2009...hard times are going to come and are going to go. Do the best you can to get through them, learn from them by talking to others, and share your memories of them with future generations...its something we are all living through together whether we like it or not.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Historian John Hope Franklin Dies at Age 94


"I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live." -
John Hope Franklin

I just learned this morning that one of my intellectual heroes passed away yesterday. I am truly sad. And while I had planned a different post for today, I feel honor-bound to say a few words about this truly great American.

Unfortunately, I never got to meet Dr. Franklin in person. Just recently I had written a letter to him asking if I might find out where he would be speaking or appearing in public in the near future so that I might meet him and express my gratitude toward he and his historical scholarship. I wish I made the attempt earlier.

Dr. Franklin was born the grandson of a slave, in Rentiesville, Oklahoma in 1915. His father was a lawyer and moved the family to Tulsa in the 1920s. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee where he fell in love with history after being mentored by Professor Theodore Currier. After Fisk, Franklin attended Harvard where he received his master's and doctorate degrees.

Franklin's academic career took him to many locations: first back to teach at Fisk, then North Carolina Central University, Howard (where he helped Thurgood Marshall prepare for the Brown vs Board of Education case), Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago (while a professor at Chicago he participated in Dr. King's march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965). In 1982 he came to Duke University.

Dr. Franklin was a prodigious writer, with books including The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, George Washington Williams: A Biography, and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North. He also has edited many works, including a book about his father called My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, with his son, John Whittington Franklin. Franklin completed his autobiography, Mirror to America, in 2005, which is a wonderful look at a life of service. Dr. Franklin received more than 130 honorary degrees, and served as president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the American Studies Association, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.

In a statement to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002, Franklin summed up his own career: “More than 60 years ago, I began the task of trying to write a new kind of Southern History. It would be broad in its reach, tolerant in its judgments of Southerners, and comprehensive in its inclusion of everyone who lived in the region. ... the long, tragic history of the continuing black-white conflict compelled me to focus on the struggle that has affected the lives of the vast majority of people in the United States. ... Looking back, I can plead guilty of having provided only a sketch of the work I laid out for myself.”

I have read many works by this master craftsman of history and I have never been disappointed by one. That is not easy to say about a man that wrote so much. He leaves this world having made it a better place and having inspired several generations of historians.

You have earned the rest Dr. Franklin...rest well.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Just finished readingSlavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre

America’s 11th president, James Knox Polk is not furnished with a biography from author William Dusinberre; rather, Polk receives a thorough examination of his dual roles as planter and politician. Dusinberre contends that Polk attempted to keep these responsibilities separate, but in the end they influenced each other to a large degree, and thus his decision making.

The first half of the book looks at Polk’s career as an absentee slave owner. Polk first started his planter career by purchasing property in West Tennessee in 1831 while he was a member of the U.S House of Representatives. Polk decided to move his plantation operations to new fertile lands in Mississippi in 1835, and as an absent owner he maintained his business there until his early death in 1849; just after leaving the White House.

Polk employed a number of overseers during these years to run his plantation since he was not there personally. A significant amount of correspondence survives between Polk and his overseers to provide a better view of what life was like on his cotton plantation. A number of Polk's slaves in Mississippi ran away, one as many as ten times, often back to Tennessee, and usually without ultimate success. Dusinberre relates many of these instances in great detail from the surviving primary sources. Slave infant mortality was a problem that most cotton plantations experienced, but it was especially high on Polk’s plantation. Polk preferred his agents to buy youthful slaves who he felt would provide more work for a longer period. Polk, through his purchasing agents, succeeded in adding numbers of slaves annually to his operations as it grew, eventually accumulating around 50 in total. Polk’s main interest in plantation owning was to provide he and his wife (they were childless) with a comfortable yearly return on his investment for their retirement years.

Polk’s political career included stints in the Tennessee House of Representatives, the U.S. House of Representatives (where he was Speaker of the House for a period,) and Governor of Tennessee from 1839-1841. He was elected president in 1844 as the nation’s first real “dark horse” candidate, and died of cholera soon after leaving office. Polk’s administration saw the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the purchase of California, and the establishment of a permanent boundary between the U.S. and Great Britain in the Pacific Northwest. Dusinberre argues throughout the second half of the book that Polk’s role as a Jacksonian planter Democrat influenced his political decisions and plans for national expansion. Dusinberre points out that Polk went to great lengths to portray himself as a moderate on the slavery issue to advance his political career, especially his run for the presidency, all the while increasing his personal slave work force.

Slavemaster President provides a good examination of how planter politics influenced this one important man’s decisions and helped lead the nation ultimately closer to sectional conflict.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Welcome Comments

One reason I developed this blog was to share perspectives, ideas, and thoughts with others. I am interested to hear what readers have to say, so with all honesty, I truly welcome any and all comments to any posts. I have attempted to make commenting easier through the blog without having to register, so if you have a different point of view, would like another perspective expressed, or just want to say something, please comment. Of course, I only ask that you keep your comments family friendly. Thanks! Tim

Is Technology Hurting or Helping History's Future?

Is technology hurting or helping history's future? This is a question that presents itself in my mind from time to time, and I thought maybe jotting down some of my ideas will help me sort out this question.

There is little doubt that in many ways technology has helped further both historical scholarship and public access to it. A good example is museum exhibits. Through technology, museums now have previously unprecedented forums in which to engage their visitors and impact learning. Believe me, exhibit technology is not limited to video displays or computer interactive presentations these days.

Another major technological advance has been the personal computer and the Internet. In the not so distant past if someone wanted access to information they had to get into their car and drive to their nearest library. Now much of that information is available through the world wide web and accessible from home or work. For historians, in many cases, this has made their life easier. Journal articles can be received online. Inter-library loan requests can be made online if not received online. And in some cases, primary source documents scanned and uploaded by archival outlets can be quickly accessed without paying travel expenses and wasting valuable time. Research that previously required a strong writing hand and a surplus of good #2 pencils now can be completed with the help of laptop computers; thus making research physically easier and faster.

But, to me, one fly in the ointment is the incredible amount of information that we are losing because of email and text messaging via cell phones. Almost any researcher will tell you that a large part of their joy comes from learning the details of past lives from reading the personal correspondence left by the personalities of history. Today, letter writing as a form of communication to be preserved is quickly fleeting. It is so much easier and less expensive to send an email or instant message than to take the time and effort to write a letter by hand, find an envelope, address it, stamp it, and deposit it in the mail. The unfortunate part is that most of the interpersonal communication that is conducted via email or text messaging today will not be available to future historians to examine and interpret. That to me in some small way is sad.

Today's communication in many ways is meant to be temporary and is written as such. But, when one hand writes a letter or card much more thought of composition and concern for clarity of communication goes into the effort. We are losing that in our hi-tech world. I don't think email will lose its popularity or demand anytime soon. In fact, I think technology will develop ever newer forms of email type communication, such as the not-so-long-ago development of text messaging.

So...it looks like my answer is both yes and no. Today technology helps people research, write, present, exhibit, preserve, protect, and learn about our history better than ever, but at the same time, due to technological advances, we are losing pieces of information that future historians will need to tell our story more accurately.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Postcards...the Forgotten Storyteller


I became interested in historic postcards while in graduate school at Appalachian State University. While working on a mock National Register of Historic Places nomination form, a public history professor that I had mentioned what wonderful information can sometimes be gleaned from old postcards. I had not really considered postcards as another possible primary source until then.

Although postcards are still sold today, due to the march of time and development of new technologies, they have lost the popularity that they once held. Largely gone is the time when people used postcards when they wanted others to see what they were seeing and read a description of that they were experiencing. Today it just seems easier and more impressive to photograph, email the photograph, and call that someone all at the same time with a cell phone. Technology is amazing! (But that's another upcoming post).

A diverse set of subjects are covered on historic postcards, and sometimes they are the only surviving images that are available to the historian of a structure, or a monument, or a landscape, or even a person. Other images may survive, but are either privately held or are in some other way inaccessible.

The images on postcards can tell a story on their own. For instance, the postcard above is of the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia. With a little research one can get a quick exact location (8 East Washington Street). Also, if a date wasn't available, (it is for this one) the historian can sometimes set a date range from what is visible in the picture. Again, from this specific picture...there are no automobiles, but there is a horse and carriage on the left edge, and what looks to be a carriage behind the fence near the right edge. There also looks to be telephone or electric poles and wires near the left edge. By taking in all of that information, one can infer that this image was probably taken at or near the turn of the 20th century. Details and clues come alive in postcards if one looks close enough. In this postcard there is a man leaning out the top left window of the Jackson House. In addition, it is quite apparent from this photograph that the rear and foundation of the house is stone, while the front is brick.

Postcards not only inform the historian by what is pictured on the front, but interesting information can sometimes also be found on the back. If the postcard was sent through the mail, there is most often a legible date mark to help narrow down the age of the postcard and possibly the image on the front. For example, the postcard pictured above is post marked "Feb. 14, 1908, 3 AM, Shipman, VA." Now, that is pretty precise information. Other interesting information such as who sent the postcard and who it was addressed to is often available as well. Even better is when some tidbit of news or a description of some sort is included. Unfortunately this one doesn't have much...and in this case it is on the front, not the back. It appears to say, "What's become of W.S. Snorred under hope not," "Friday 4 PM 14th 1908." What all this means?...I haven't a clue. But, it is interesting nonetheless. It is addressed to, "Ms. Will H. Shoults, Box 297, Antrim, N.H." (no zip code...maybe they weren't used yet...something else to learn about).

The next time you find yourself in an antique shop ask if they have old postcards, and if they do, take a minute to look through them. They might just hold the key to some historic puzzle.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Just finished reading - Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, edited by David W. Blight

I think I owe part of my passion for the study of history to having had Indiana history in the 4th grade. My teacher, Ms. Owings, made learning history fun. She offered so many positive connections between the past and the present that it was impossible not to like learning what had happened so long ago. I remember I did a report and project for her class on the Pearl Button Factory that had been there in Madison, Indiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I even found a number of old mussel shell blanks that had holes punched out of them to make the buttons.

I also remember that the 4th grade was the first time I heard about the Underground Railroad. We learned about Levi Coffin, a Hooiser "conductor" that helped many runaway slaves make their way to freedom. As it does with many people, these stories of daring fascinated me. But, as with so many other topics in history, myths surround the true story. Passages to Freedom attempts to debunk many of the myths that have developed around the Underground Railroad (UGRR) story and tries to document the true tales of the "conductors," "stations," and "passengers."

An esteemed group of historians contributed to this work which was published in association with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Noted scholars such as Ira Berlin, James Oliver Horton, John Michael Vlach, Catherine Clinton, Bruce Leving, and David Blight, among a number of others, contribute 15 chapters covering a diverse set of topics related to the UGRR. Some chapters are dedicated to those personalities most often associated with the UGRR, such as Harriet Tubman and William Still, while other chapters cover items that concern the UGRR's effectiveness, such as the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Abolitionism, and the Civil War.

One chapter that was especially interesting was, "The Places and Communities of the Underground Railroad: The National Park Service Network to Freedom." The National Park Service established the Network to Freedom (NTF) branch in 1998 with a 3 part mission. #1, to educate the public about the historical significance of the Underground Railroad; #2, to provide technical assistance to organizations that are identifying, documenting, preserving and interpreting sites, approximate travel routes and landscapes related to the Underground Railroad, or that are developing or operating interpretive or educational programs or facilities; and, #3 to develop a network of sites, programs, and facilities with verifiable associations to the Underground Railroad, referred to as the “Network to Freedom” or the “Network”. This is organization is definitely a positive because so many structures have claimed association with the UGRR without any valid documentation.

There are large numbers of high quality photographs and illustrations that are scattered throughout the work. Almost every page has some image to assist the reader to better understand the UGRR, the personalities, and the structures that are associated with it.

Hopefully your local library has, or can get, a copy of this book because I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to separate the myths from the realities of the UGRR.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What's in a Name?

In 19th century America, parents often named their children after famous people. This fact becomes quite apparent if you study many Civil War soldier rosters. There are numbers of George Washington so-and-so, Thomas Jefferson whoever, and Benjamin Franklin anybody.

Sometimes these names are sectional. For example, one doesn't find many Francis Marion whoevers, in the northeast, but for obvious reasons they proliferate in the South, especially in South Carolina. Many times though people just named their children for famous Americans they admired. There are John Adams Smiths, James Madison Joneses, Patrick Henry so-and-sos, Alexander Hamilton ______ (fill in the blank). People in the 19th century were greatly influenced by the Revolutionary generation and sought to honor those heroes by bequeathing their posterity such renowned names. Even those figures of the early 19th century made famous for their statesmanship or military prowess made their way into families; men such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, and for whatever reason I have found some Albert Gallatin so-and sos (that's probably unfair, Gallatin after all did scrounge up the funds for the Louisiana Purchase). But interestingly enough the naming was not solely limited to American figures. I have also run across a number of Napoleaon Bonaparts, Layfettes, and Pulaskis as well.

In the late 19th century and during the 20th century one runs into even more famous naming. In African American communities first names such as Sherman, Grant, and Lincoln became quite popular, and even later, Roosevelt was a common first name. So why don't parents name their children after famous Americans as often today? Do we have a lack of statesmen, politicians, and generals whom we wish our children to view as role models? Do parents want more original names now-a-days? I am not sure, but its interesting to think about. You don't hear of too many Richard Nixon so-and-sos, or Jimmy Carter so-and-sos. Malcolm has been a popular African American name for a number of years, but its strange that there aren't more Martin Luther King whoevers. However, I do believe we will experience an explosion of Baraks in the next few years.

Maybe today's media has changed the way we view our present-day national figureheads. Every move they make and every gaffe they speak is reported nightly on the news, which may in turn have a negative impression on citizens in many instances. I am not sure, but as I mentioned earlier, its fun to think about.

Friday, March 20, 2009

History, Memory, and.........Andy Griffith?

The hot topic for the last 10 to 15 years in historical scholarship is the relationship between history and memory. Numerous books, articles, dissertations, and thesis have covered this aspect in almost every era of American history. If you take a minute to think about it...it is fascinating isn't it?

I am wondering if some previously considered prescient historian didn't bumble into this groundbreaking field by watching some television reruns (of course I'm being facetious). But let me explain.

Last night while channel surfing during breaks in March Madness I ran into an episode of The Andy Griffith Show that covered the topic of history and memory quite well. Now, I had seen the episode several times before, but I had not made the connection until last night.

In this episode Ms. Crump, Opie's teacher, assigns an essay to her students. The reward for the winning essay is to have it printed in the town newspaper. Opie decides that he is going to write on the Battle of Mayberry; an 18th century contest between the new town settlers and the Cherokee Indians. Like an investigator, Opie polls the community for any information, and assiduously takes notes. Everyone he visits tells him the glorious story of how the outnumbered settlers beat back the bloody savages. Each person includes that their ancestor was the bravest that day, and somehow each person's ancestor was the colonel in command. Ms. Edwards even brings over the sword that her ancestor wielded in the battle. To provide an unbiased account of the events, Opie even visits Tom Strongbow a Cherokee descendant who informs Opie that it was the Cherokee not the settlers who were out gunned and out numbered. Mr. Stongbow even shows Opie the musket ball taken out of his ancestor (nothing like relics for historical evidence).

Well, Opie can't make heads or tales of all the numerous stories, so like any good historian he has Andy take him to Raleigh to dig up the primary sources, and hopefully get at the truth. He does indeed find a newspaper article about the battle, but to his surprise there is little glory to be found. Opie writes his essay and turns it in. His is of course voted best and is printed in the newspaper. The excited townspeople read the article of how a cow was mistakenly shot by a Cherokee and a possible fight was to ensue...but just in time Lieutenant Edwards (not colonel) brought out a jug of spirits and they all got "gassed," then went off into the woods and shot some deer. Later the supposed combatants told the women folk of both sides what a battle they had in the woods. Thus, the Battle of Mayberry was preserved to posterity as a dramatic and heroic event when in fact nothing of the kind took place. The Mayberry community is of course disappointed to find out the truth and they scorn Andy and Opie for the next week or so. The townspeople then hear the governor on the radio praise Mayberry for its historic spirit of cooperation instead of violence, and Opie for his honesty and ability. In the end all is well and another myth is put to rest.

After thinking about it, this is not the only Andy Griffith Show episode to take on the subject of history and memory. There was one where the town was going to honor a Taylor ancestor by erecting a statue, only to find out at the last minute that he was a "shyster." Again, all ends well as the issue is spun to still honor the ancestor for keeping Mayberry the small town it became rather than a larger city like Mt. Pilot.

So there you have it....in the early 1960's Andy Griffith was doing groundbreaking historical work...he just probably didn't know it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

CWPT Announces its 2009 Most Endangered Battlefields



Yesterday the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) announced it annual report on the status of the nation's most endangered battlefields. Joining the fight this year was actor Richard Dreyfus, who has provided voice overs for a number of Civil War productions, as well as moral support for history education and battlefield preservation. Dreyfus said yesterday, "These hallowed battlegrounds should be national shrines, monuments to American valor, determination, and courage. Once these irreplaceable treasures are gone, they're gone forever."

The CWPT's annual report called History Under Siege: A Guide to America's Most Endangered Civil War Battlefields, presents the 10 most endangered battlefields in the nation, providing a brief description of the history and preservation status of each site. The report also describes 15 additional at risk sites.

This year the top 10 sites are:
Monacacy, Maryland; the Wilderness, Virginia (where Walmart is trying build a new superstore even though there are several Walmarts alrady in the area); Port Gibson, Mississippi, Cedar Creek, Virginia (where quarry mining is destroying part of the battlefield); Fort Gaines, Alabama (here the enemy is nature-the Gulf coast); Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (housing development); New Market Heights, Virginia (where 14 African American Union soldiers earned the Medal of Honor); Sabine Pass, Texas; South Mountain, Maryland; and Spring Hill, Tennessee (where General Motors is seeking to sell off 500 acres around its Saturn plant to developers).

The CWPT is an active organization of which I am a proud member. They seek out opportunities to buy land and then interpret it for the benefit of all Americans. The CWPT currently has over 60,000 members and has made significant progress since it stated as the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites over 20 years ago. The organization became the CWPT in 1999, and since 1987 the CWPT has protected more than 25,000 acres at more than 100 Civil War sites in 19 states.

The CWPT's mission is simple: to preserve our nation's endangered battlefields and to promote appreciation of these hallowed grounds. See if you can't in some way promote that mission too. For more information on the CWPT see their impressive website at http://www.civilwar.org/

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Warts of American History

American history has its fair share of warts. It is no secret that there are certain unpleasant events in our past that make our history not so pretty. Slavery was a wart, Reconstruction was a wart, Indian removal was a wart, Japanese internment was a wart, and more recently...Abu Ghraib was a wart. Should these warts be overlooked or covered up just because they are not especially pleasing to think about? I don't think so. I think the warts of history make its story that much more interesting and real. Not repeating mistakes of the past is one primary reasons we study history isn't it?

Folklore has attempted to cover up many warts of history. Think of the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. He could not tell a lie. Sure, there is a good moral to this tale, but did this really happen? Aren't there examples of people from American history who actually did something honestly, and where we don't have to make up a falsehood? Sure there are. What about the supposed first Thanksgiving? Again, there is a good lesson to learn in cooperating with one's neighbors, but the way it is usually portrayed is not the way it actually happened.

Hollywood has put its fair share of makeup on history as well. Artistic and director license has changed the way we view American history. Reconstruction is a good example. Think of how Reconstruction was portrayed in movies of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Gone With The Wind for instance. Personally, I like the film, but I have studied enough to see the inaccuracies; whereas some people who view the film take it as actual history.

Much of this boils down to memory. We want to have pleasant memories of the past, but at what expense? Not learning the truth of what happened in events shortchanges our educational experience. Some historic sites that 150 years ago involved the institution of slavery simply do not touch upon it in their tours or materials for no other reason than that it is not pleasant to talk about. There are ways to cover these touchy topics diplomatically, and still learn what actually happened.

School children need to know America's past, warts and all. They might actually be more interested in history if there was more intrigue or controversy presented. They might exercise their critical thinking skills when challenged with difficult and unfamiliar but true narratives. What is the old line, "truth is stranger than fiction?" Well, in history that is often the case.

Now, there are plenty of feel-good stories in history as well, and they should of course be told too. For example, the massive cooperative efforts between blacks and whites in the Civil Rights Movement is too often ignored or downplayed. There are numerous examples of how individual hard work, sacrifice, and determination achieved just and honest rewards. There are true stories of extreme acts of heroism by our armed men and women that need to be told. These are important too.

When you see warts in history pop up, don't just remove them or try to cover them up...examine them for what you can learn from them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Just finished viewing - Aftershock: Beyond the Civil War

I usually catch anything associated with the Civil War on the History Channel when it originally airs, but for whatever reason I missed this one. I saw this 90 minute DVD at my local library the other day and decided to give it look.

This well produced DVD tells individual stories of Reconstruction, but wraps them into fairly good overview of the whole era. This unpleasant era in American history (sometimes referred to as the Second Civil War) is largely misunderstood due in large part to early 20th century scholars such as William Dunning and Claude Bowers who presented a biased view of events. Research and scholarship since the 1960s has presented a more thorough and balanced level of interpretation.

The individual stories that Aftershock tells are: the 1866 New Orleans race riot, Governor William G. Brownlow of Tennessee's rule, the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, Arkansas carpetbagger D.P. Upham, North Carolina Lumbee Indian Henry Berry Lowery, and the Lee/Peacock War in northeast Texas. These stories are told with vivid illustrations, historical reenactments, and by scholars that have studied these events. I found the map illustrations to be especially exceptional. For example, in telling what happened during the 1866 New Orleans riot, a street map is animated to shows the rout the rioters took to attack the Mechanics Hall where delegates were debating black suffrage. The producers also make use of a relatively new technique to make period illustrations and photographs appear three dimensional. This technique breaths life into otherwise unexciting images.

Although I was already familiar with it, one of the most interesting stories to me was that of Governor William G. Brownlow of Tennessee (bias probably due to my Volunteer state roots). Brownlow, was formerly a Methodist minister and editor. He started newspapers in Elizabethton and Jonesborough before moving on to establish the Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator (any question which side he was on?). Brownlow was an East Tennessee Unionst of the highest degree, who in the last year of the Civil War was elected governor. He was a driving force to have Tennessee be the first secession state readmitted to the Union. Brownlow was a no-nonsense type of man who had vocally supported slavery before the war, but thought that slavery was safest inside the Union, not outside. During the war he came to accept emancipation as means of defeating the Confederates. All along he hated former Confederates and had no patience, kind words, or sympathy for those that had previously adopted secession. During his governorship he established a state militia to handle terrorist groups like the KKK and helped Tennessee be the first state to pass the 14th Amendment.

There are some minor historical inaccuracies that appear in the reenactment of events, but this DVD vividly portrays the extreme level of violence that both sides used during this contentious period. Reconstruction is not a pretty time in American history, but it is one, like the Civil War, that needs to be understood in order to have a better understanding of present issues such as race relations and state versus national sovereignty.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why Museums are Important

If you do a general Google search for museums you will quickly find any variety of museums, from the historic and renowned such as the Smithsonian family of institutions and Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the not so well known or renowned museums such as the National Knife Museum (Chattanooga, TN), the The Burlingame Museum of Pez Memoriabilia (yes there is a museum dedicated to the culture of the candy dispenser), or the National Museum of Funeral History (I can only imagine the exhibits and education programs that this organization has to come up with). Why has there been such a proliferation of museums over the past 50 years that cover so many diverse topics?

I think generally it boils down to the fact that most people are naturally curious and want to learn new things. Obviously there must be some level of demand and interest in order to open a new museum. OK, maybe not always...I am sure there are people out there who are collectors of velvet Elvises or pet rocks who just thrive off of the satisfaction they receive from being able to show off their personal treasures. But, I think for the most part, museums are built and maintained for people to actually see items and artifacts of a past era in order to make connections and sense of the present, and even possibly speculate on the future.

Museums are important because they tell us stories that we can't get as well from books or recordings, or even photographs. For me at least, there is a great difference in seeing a picture of Abraham Lincoln's top hat and personally viewing the actual thing at the National Museum of American History. Museums are fundamental to the conservation, protection, and display of items of the past. Without museums we would lose those physical links to the past. But museums have become so much more than buildings with glass cases (called curiosity cabinets in days-gone-by), they are centers for informal learning...educating us about the lives and cultures of the past.

Museums have gone hi-tech with great effect. Recently I went to the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., which has just recently received a major renovation. In an exhibit called The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, they have a Huey helicopter from Vietnam displayed, and with it a video program that lets one select veterans to tell their stories. One story was given by an African American medic that was so powerful I found myself tearing up. Now, I visited lots of museums and have seen some emotionally moving exhibits, but something in this one really made me think and feel that unique devotion soldiers have to one another and their country.

If you haven't been to a museum lately take a weekend day and just go. Almost every community has a county historical society or local museum that is just waiting for visitors to come learn about their collections...and who need your financial support. Explore away!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Just finished reading: Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 by Armstead L. Robinson. Univ. of Virginia Press, 2005.

The late Professor Robinson's central thesis of this work is that the Confederacy was in point of fact fighting a three front war; three fronts that were significantly interconnected. Front number one was the armed Union invasion of the South (East and West), front number two was coping with a slave freedom struggle, and front number three was an internal yeoman revolt. These three issues were more than the manpower short Confederates could effectively handle, and thus defeat came relatively quickly (as compared to a longer Revolutionary War). Robinson sums up this thesis in the work well when he states, "The interests of the slave holding minority were in direct opposition to the interests of the slaves and to the interests of the majority of free citizens of the South, the white nonslaveholding yeomanry."

Robinson backs up his contention with an impressive amount of primary source research. His work in the National Archives must have involved many long hours. But he quotes not only from Confederate political documents and proclamations...he gets at the heart of the matter by listening to the words of the common Confederate soldiers in the field and their families on the home front. In these letters, diaries, and journals Robinson hears over and over again that this is a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Confederate conscription policy, starting in April of 1862, forced many Southerners into service that had no real interest in fighting to preserve what they saw as a "cotton oligarchy." Robinson believes that these unwilling recruits were the main reason stunning military defeats occurred for the Confederates at Vicksburg and at Missionary Ridge.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is Robinson's assertion that the slaves were active catalysts in their eventual emancipation. Many times left on plantations with only a mistress to oversee work, slaves ran away to Union lines, slowed their work pace, and broke tools and farm implements to help thwart the Confederate's ability to produce food crops and resist Union invasion. Slaves also provided Union armies with valuable military information and served as guides on numerous uncharted southern roads. And most importantly, when given the opportunity to fight as soldiers, they proved to be not only an effective boost to Union military manpower, but also a drain on the Confederacy's ability to continue to wage war.

This book is a must read for those interested in why the Confederacy lost the war. Understanding the contradictions of a slave holding nation seeking its brand of freedom is key to understanding our nation's most defining moment.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lincoln and the South Conference



It has been said that more books have been written on Lincoln than any other one man in history other than Jesus...now I don't know if that is true or not, but the next time you go to your local bookstore, just go to the biography or history section and you will see that Lincoln takes up a significant amount of space. One reason for that is this is the bicentenial of this birth (2/12/1809). Trivia time...what other notable of history was born on that month, day, and year? Charles Darwin! But back to Lincoln. Of course another reason for his recent rise in coverage was and is President Obama's interest in Lincoln and the struggles he faced during his war time administrations.

It has been a real pleasure the last two and a half days to be able to attend the Lincoln and the South Conference hosted by the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, and held at the University of Richmond. I think I speak for most all of the attendees when I say, congratulations for putting on a top rate conference.

The level of scholarship that presented different aspects of Lincoln's relationship to the South was outstanding. A veritable who's who of Civil War and Lincoln academia was in attendence. Many of my favorite historians participated, including Charles Dew, Edward Ayers (a fellow East Tennessean), David Blight, Emory Thomas, Leslie Rowland, Nina Sibler, and William Cooper. I also enjoyed the perspectives of historians Michael Burlingame, Manisha Sinha, Brian Dirck, Fitzhugh Brundage, and Christopher Phillips. From the opening address on Thursday evening by the well known and respected James McPherson to the closing remarks by John McCardell, the presentations and discussions enlightened us all. Being able to meet many of these historians in person was a real treat.

Lincoln is a fascinating man. Whether you personally like him or not is not important. What is important, is to understand him and his place in American history. I now feel that I have a better grasp on Lincoln the man, the Lincoln the myth, and Lincoln the American by having attended this conference.

Friday, March 13, 2009

An Island of Preservation in a Sea of Development

Yesterday on my way back from the Washington D.C. area I decided to stop at Manassas National Battlefield. I had not been to Manassas in about 10 years, so I thought I'd drop in and see if anything had changed. To my surprise and delight the Visitor's Center had been remodeled and a new exhibit gallery displayed an impressive assortment of artifacts. Also new was a movie, "The End of Innocence," which was narrated by Richard Dreyfus and was quite well done. While browsing the local attractions brochure rack I saw one for the Bristoe Station Battlefield. The battlefield was only about 10 miles or so from Manassas, and with some time on my hands, I decided I would stop by and see what was going on.

Bristoe Station has a special significance for me because it is where one of my ancestors, Joel Harmon Tedder of the 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, was taken as a prisoner of war. Joel Tedder was from Wilkes County, North Carolina. He had enlisted in Co. C of the 26th in August of 1861. His service records indicates that he was 5'11'' had a dark complexion, grey eyes, and brown hair. After being captured on October 14, 1863, he was sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C. While at Old Capitol Prison he was treated at both Kalorama and Lincoln General Hospitals for variola (the virus that causes smallpox). He was finally sent to Fort Delaware Prison in June of 1864 and stayed there until he was released on June 15, 1865; two months after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

Sadly, like much of northern Virginia, the Bristoe Station area has changed dramatically since the Civil War. Houses, apartment complexes, strip malls, and parking lots have swallowed up much of what was once very rural. Now I am no opponent of progress, but I am against development that invades these hallowed grounds where so many men fought, bled, and died for their respective countries. At present the Bristoe Station Battlefield is literally an island of preservation in a sea of development. In fact, you have to drive through a newly built subdivision on Iron Brigade Unit Avenue, then turn onto 10th Alabama Lane to get to the parking lot. At the parking lot a kiosk is provided with trail maps...unfortunately for me, they had not been restocked, and none were available.

As you walk the outlined trail toward the railroad where the heavy action occurred, the sounds of hammers and saws are a constant interruption to the battlefield experience. Don't get me wrong...I am thrilled that Prince William County and the Civil War Preservation Trust is making efforts to preserve, protect, and interpret this 133 acres of battlefield ground, I only wish that development would have been more respectful and not have encroached so closely. So, to Prince William County and the CWPT I give a big huzzah, but to the contractors and builders I say... please be more respectful of our history in the future.

If you want to know what YOU can do for battlefield preservation please see the CWPT's website at http://www.civilwar.org/. Thanks in advance for you support.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Now That's a House!

One of my many favorite aspects of history is architecture. The buildings of the past fascinate me almost as much as the people who used them. I think this interest developed at a young age when my family visited the Lanier Mansion in Madison, Indiana. If you have never been to the Ohio River town of Madison and you do enjoy historic architecture, I highly encourage you to make a visit.

I happen to be biased toward one style of architecture from my favorite era; the Federal style. This style was largely popular from roughly 1790 to 1830. Its symmetry and balance makes its buildings feel solid, but is aesthetically pleasing at the same time. Although the Federal style included diverse building materials such as wood frame clapboards and stucco, my favorite is classic red brick with a limestone foundation and white trim.

I suppose another reason I enjoy historic architecture so much is because most of these old buildings also have incredible stories to tell. The house pictured above is Carnton Mansion in Franklin, Tennessee. It was the home of the McGavock family and was used as a hospital after the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864. The following is from their website:

Beginning at 4 p.m. on November 30, 1864, Carnton was witness to one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Civil War. Everything the McGavock family ever knew was forever changed. The Confederate Army of Tennessee furiously assaulted the Federal army entrenched along the southern edge of Franklin. The resulting battle, believed to be the bloodiest five hours of the Civil War, involved a massive frontal assault larger than Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. The majority of the combat occurred in the dark and at close quarters. The Battle of Franklin lasted barely five hours and led to some 9,500 soldiers being killed, wounded, captured, or counted as missing. Nearly 7,000 of that number were Confederate troops. Carnton served as the largest field hospital in the area for hundreds of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers. A staff officer later wrote that "the wounded, in hundreds, were brought to [the house] during the battle, and all the night after. And when the noble old house could hold no more, the yard was appropriated until the wounded and dead filled that...."
On the morning of December 1, 1864 the bodies of four Confederate generals killed during the fighting, Patrick R. Cleburne, Hiram B. Granbury, John Adams, and Otho F. Strahl, lay on Carnton’s back porch. The floors of the restored home are still stained with the blood of the men who were treated here.


The McGavock family owned Carnton until 1911. In 1977 the Carnton Avocation was founded to help restore and preserve this important piece of American history.

There are wonderful examples of historic architecture around us everyday. Those of us who live in historic towns are especially fortunate to see these treasures on a daily basis. If you have a historic house or building museum in your area, take a few hours to go and visit them. Give them your admission fee support and help their efforts toward saving these architectural relics from days gone by.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


It has been my experience that people best appreciate history when they can somehow make a strong connection to the past. People do this in many different ways. Some people prefer to make a genealogical connection. Family ties that go back over many generations can prove to be some of the strongest connections to history. For an example, just see what impact the mini-series Roots had on Americans (both black and white) to rediscover long lost kin of the past. For others, material culture items provides a link. One reason museums are so popular is that people want to see the "stuff" of long ago and make comparisons to the "things" of today. These artifacts, whatever they may be, form an irregular timeline where one can plot the advance of technology, changes in fashion, or just passing fads. For instance, my dad collected antique hand planes for many years before he passed away. I think he did so not only because he liked "old stuff," but also to show an appreciation for the tools of those long ago, and to honor the artisans who loved woodworking as much as he did. Planes provided that connection for him.

Personally, one of my favorite ways to connect with the past is through photographs. Sure, paintings and sketches are fine, but there is nothing quite like looking at a photograph to capture that specific instant in history when it was taken. I feel fortunate that photography was invented during my favorite era of history, the 19th century. It is one thing to read a contemporary description of a person, landscape, or event, but to see it for yourself and to make judgements on your own provides a different level of interaction with the past. It is my opinion that we would not know near as much about our past as we do were it not for photographs. Photographs have proven in many cases to be more lasting than actual artifacts. People tend to throw out old things such as clothes and other items that wear out or break, but photographs have a way of staying around and being passed from one generation to the next, kept in shoe boxes, photograph albums, or trunks in the attic. In many cases we students of the past would have less to go on, and telling the story of something past would be quite incomplete without photographic resources.

Photographs also serve as a way to remember. I think this is the reason why most photographs are taken in the first place is to capture that "Kodak moment." I know that my memory of past events of in my life would not be near as sharp were it not for the pictures to help remind me.

If you have family photographs, please take care of them, or at least find someone who wants them. Take time to identify who is in your photographs so future generations have a greater appreciation for who or what they are viewing. You never know, the one photograph you have of someone might be the only one in existence. Preserve on!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Past is Not Dead...It Surrounds You!

"The past is not dead it surrounds you everyday." I came across this quote in a book I read recently. This author, a history professor, said it was his goal each semester for his students to realize this fact in their lives. It is a simple statement, but one we could all take to heart.

Those of you that know me know that I enjoy walking for exercise. I really don't "hike" anymore since I left the mountains, and since there really aren't any good trails where I live I just walk. I am a suburban walker. When I moved to Petersburg three years ago one of the first things I looked for was a pleasant place to walk. I found a great place that offered a good path and was only a modest four mile walk up and back. Little did I originally know, this path had an interesting history of its own. I noticed right away that it was a canal, but it took some digging (no pun intended) to find out the story. The Upper Appomattox Canal was built over several years in the late 1700s and early 1800s in order to avoid the fall line of the Appomattox River, just west of Petersburg. The canal was used by boatmen who piloted flat, short-draft vessels called batteaux to bring crops, principally tobacco, to market in Petersburg from the farms and plantations to the west. Part of the path that I walk on toady is the original towpath. The canal was cut by enslaved workers, and it must have been extremely difficult work to cut through the rock that now lines parts of the water route. As I walk along the path, I often wonder how many people who also walk here now know how old the canal really is, or how much work went into making it, or how important it was to the economy 200 years ago.

Another example if you will. I live just about 300 yards from where General Grant's Army of the Potomac broke through General Lee's thinly held lines on the morning of April 2, 1865. This breakthough was the event that caused Lee to evacuate Petersburg (and the capital at Richmond) after a nine and a half months of stalemate. One week later Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox 90 miles to the west, and for all intents and purposes ended the Civil War. Much like my thoughts about the canal, I often wonder how many people that live in my large apartment complex know the story of what happened so long ago but so close to where they reside. Do they understand the impact that event had on the course of our nation's history? Sadly, I believe most do not...nor do I believe most people care. In our busy workaday lives and society few people have the time or energy to learn about the past when so many other responsibilities demand attention and take priority. But, there are some people out there who do care. There are people out there who for whatever reason become fascinated by history at an early age...or even later in life, and who realize history's importance to our present and our future.

Indeed, the past is not dead, and it does surround us everyday...please look for opportunities to learn about the past and preserve it for future generations who do care. If you are one of those that care, please take time to share your interest in history.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Judging Those of the Past...Right, or Wrong?

In an undergraduate Historical Methods course, I was introduced to an idea that I had rarely thought about before taking the class, but which has pursed me with dogged determination to this day. That idea is this...is it fair to judge those of the past against our values today? Or, how about a deeper thought, but along the same lines...why have some people in history been forward-thinking enough to break from convention and act on what they believed was right, and then later, their actions be proven correct by future generations? Were they on to something, or was it just dumb luck?

Where this idea appears most for me is in my almost obsessive study of American slavery and how slavery has influenced American history. I must admit that this topic fascinates me. Not so long ago I used to use the old "states' rights" defense for Southerners as their motivation for secession and desire for independence. That argument always rang a little hollow for me...states rights for what? A closer look at the primary sources and contemporary accounts, rather than later historical interpretation, shows that the primary motivation for secession (beyond doubt for me) was the fear that slavery would not be allowed to expand to the western territories by a Republican president and a growing Republican congress, and thus, if not allowed to expand, slavery would eventually die out. Southerners, led by the planter-politicians, believed that if slavery died out so would the South's social, economic, political, and cultural way of life, and that was not an option.

But, back to the original question. Is it fair to judge Southerners as wrong for holding slaves? Slavery after all was legal, and although not mentioned in name, it was sanctioned by the Constitution. Slaveholders saw slavery as their means of social and economic advancement, and of course the best possible method of social control of a large black population that they saw as potentially threatening if free. Racist? Yes, of course slavery was racist, but you didn't have to be a slaveholder or even a Southerner to be a racist in the 19th century. See for example the people that participated in the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. These rioters saw blacks as they cause of the war and took out their frustrations on black men, women, and children. But is it fair to say that slaveholders were wrong in doing what their society and culture demanded?

I often tell myself that it was a different time and that people had different standards, that people had not been exposed to each other's cultures and therefore didn't have the opportunities to get to know one another...that blacks had not been allowed opportunities to prove their worthiness as citizens and equals. But then, as their usually is when one goes to thinking...there are exceptions. There was a small group of people, largely considered mad in that day, who saw slavery as morally and socially wrong, and economically backward. The abolitionists. And although some abolitionists were racist themselves, how was this small group forward-thinking enough to see slavery 160 + years ago as most all Americans would come to view slavery in the present day? I don't have the answer as to how or why. Maybe they felt a spiritual motivation, or maybe there was an economic motivation. I know many anti-slavery proponents feared the expansion of slavery because it potentially limited opportunities for whites in the western territories. So, as you see its not a cut-and-dried as one might think.

No doubt these questions will linger in my mind, and that is probably not a bad thing. I have always liked things that spur my curiosity and make me think in different directions. But still, another part of me likes the satisfaction of obtaining a firm grasp on a conundrum. I suppose those exact reasons have made me a life-long learner. Let the learning continue!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My Vote for Miss Civil War



If you have studied much 19th century American history, (which also probably means you have looked at thousands of photographs) you have probably noticed that people in photographs during this era did not usually smile, and that most women were not particularly attractive according to our modern standards.

I have heard various explanations as to why people didn't smile for photographs, and I have never been comfortable giving any one sole reason when asked about this phenomenon. Some say that people didn't smile because getting your picture made (or in contemporary language "your image struck") was a serious and expensive occasion...certainly no laughing matter. Others say that most people didn't have good dental health and didn't want to expose their bad teeth. Still others say that with slow lens speeds, it was difficult to hold a smile for the duration your photograph was being completed. I suppose any of those reasons, or a combination could be correct. I often wonder what must have been going through their heads the first time they had their picture taken..."Is this gonna hurt?," "What is he doing under that black curtain?," "Why is this taking so long?," or "Why do I have to sit so still?"

Being a male, I will keep my opinions of 19th century beauty to the female gender. I have never quite nailed down why most 19th century women are not very attractive; but I have several theories. I am sure that the hard work women had to perform had a toll on their appearance, and I can't imagine wood smoke and lye soap being very good for the complexion. I am sure that more than one women had singed brows from cooking over a fire. Women's hair fashions of the day didn't do much to enhance their looks either, unless possibly they had huge ears that could be hidden under their ubiquitous middle-part-pull-back-dos. Also, makeup was not nearly as accessible to women 150 years ago as it is today, (and lets face it, after seeing some pictures of modern celebrities without makeup...it can hide some serious flaws). But, I think we need to keep in mind that people in different times have different thoughts on attractiveness. They of course hadn't seen, for example a modern super model, so they have no modern basis of comparison. What is attractive today may not be attractive years from now...same as back then.

One timeless beauty from the past (at least in my humble opinion) is pictured above. She is Eliza Clindinst of New Market, Virginia. I think her symmetrical face and high cheek bones would still turn heads today. And while she is truly a natural beauty physically, her inner beauty became just as apparent after the Battle of New Market in May 1864, when she compassionately attended to the wounded and dying. To alter the famous Forrest Gump quote, "beauty is as beauty does."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The "how" versus the "who" of history.

At a conference that I recently attended a presenter mentioned that he had always been more interested in the how of history rather than the who of history. By this statement I think he meant that he wants to know how people of the past lived, rather than who they were or might have become; a sort of new social history versus biography way of thinking in my mind. I found this to be an interesting thought and one that I pondered on my 60 mile drive back home in the rain. But, after thinking more about it, I am not so sure that the how and the who can be separated, or at the least, they are not as mutually exclusive in my thinking as he made them out to be.

He had explained that he had gotten into Civil War reenacting to learn the how of Civil War soldiers; for example, how they cooked their food, how they felt marching with their equipment, how they must have interacted with their comrades. I too have reenacted, and I agree there is no better way to understand their lives than to literally put yourself in their shoes as closely as possible. I have experienced the things he mentioned plus...the frustration of trying to make a campfire in a downpour, being soaked with sweat from a quick march in 90 degree heat, and feeling the concussion from numbers of artillery right beside you...so I understand what he means by the thrilling notion of learning the how of history.

But to me, the who of history is important as well, and is interwoven into the how of history. In my thinking, one has to have a who to generate a how. It doesn't have to be a famous who, but the whos are significant...quite possibly indispensable. It is the whos' past actions that create history. In many cases the whos become famous, because lets face it, people rarely remember whos who don't do something important, but if the new social history movement since World War II has proven anything, (and it has) it has shown that little whos of the past tell us a lot about who we are today. Happy thinking!!!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Just finished reading: John Henry-Steel Drivin' Man: The Untold Story of an American Legend. I remember hearing about John Henry in grade school, and I remember hearing the song played to us by my American Studies teacher in high school, but I never realized the true story behind the legend.

Author Scott Reynolds Nelson, a professor at William and Mary has done an exhaustive amount of research to tell (as Paul Harvey often said)...the rest of the story. It is a sad story of Reconstruction, industrialization, and a rapidly changing America. Nelson contends that John Henry was a laborer at City Point (now Hopewell) Virginia at the end of the Civil War. The records list him as coming from Elizabeth City, NJ. The huge Union supply base there must have offered well paid work. The historical record also lists him being a short man, at 5'1", much different than you might imagine the legend.

In 1866 John Henry was charged for breaking and entry to a store in City Point and was sentenced under the then enforced Black Codes that were established in Southern states after the Civil War. His sentence, which was reviewed and approved by the Freedmen's Bureau, was 10 years in the Virginia State Penitentiary. He was leased out as a convict to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad to serve as a laborer building a railroad from Richmond to Huntington, West Virginia on the Ohio River. If you have driven on I-64 through West Virginia you know what a task this must have been before the days of bulldozers and cranes.

John Henry apparently worked on the railroad tunnel operations for several years. Reynolds suggests that he died of lung failure due to the debris dust that built up in his lungs. Records indicate that large numbers of tunneling lease convict laborers died of lung ailments, then broadly lumped with all lung issues as "consumption." It has been rumored for years that John Henry died building the Big Bend Tunnel, buy Reynolds found no evidence of steam drilling at Big Bend. He did find evidence of steam drilling at Lewis Tunnel and he explains that is where Henry died racing a steam drill in a competition in the early 1870s.

Reynolds research is well done and the book is well written and easy to follow. My favorite part was the opening chapter where he takes the reader with him and his dog on a road trip to find Big Bend Tunnel, only to conclude that John Henry had not died there. Equally interesting is his tracing of the folk song. The tune has been appropriated by everyone from communists to blues singers. He even links the image of John Henry to comic book heroes Superman and Captain America.

The book is an excellent source for anyone interested in Reconstruction, folk music, or just plain good history. Pick it up at your local library, you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Simple Plow

I don't exactly know what it is about the simple plow that fascinates me. I have long felt this way. I remember seeing an old plow not much different than the one pictured below in my two great aunts' barn in south-central Kentucky when I was a little boy. I always wondered how difficult it must have been to use one of these things. All the bother it must have taken with harnessing up the horses or mules, trying to keep your furrows straight, and smelling the sweating beasts walking in front of you...but what pride one must have been felt with putting in a good day of work.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to spend some time formally researching a few agriculture material culture items while completing a fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia. One of the items that was listed on Thomas Jonathan Jackson's estate inventory was a shovel plow. Now, at the time I didn't know the technical difference between a plow (sometimes spelled plough in old times) and a harrow, so I certainly didn't know what a shovel plow looked like. Being curious, (and which historian isn't) I found out that the shovel plow was quite different from the plow pictured below. The main difference is the moldboard (the iron or steel piece that cuts the earth). The shovel plow as the name implies has a moldboard that looks simply enough like a pointed shovel. The shovel plow was extremely popular in the South before the Civil War, but it didn't cut deep furrows or turn the soil well. The shovel plow actually multiplied the damage to the soil that nitrogen sapping crops such as tobacco and cotton started and caused the migration of Southerners from such states as Virginia and South Carolina in the East to search for better soil in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi in the West.

Plows such as these have largely gone the way of the dinosaur. For large farming operations numerous plows are pulled by tractors, and for smaller jobs the rotor-tiller has made life easier for the gardener. But, a part of me romanticises and misses the simplicity of this ancient tool; I suppose much like part of me misses vinyl records. It seems all things must go away as time passes, but hopefully we have the sense to keep items like plows (and records) preserved in museums so that future generations will know what life was like "way back when."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Just finished reading: The Civil War Notebook of Daniel Chisholm. I have had this book for several years, but for whatever reason never got around to reading it. But now, as circumstances prevent me from book purchases I have sought out my books that have been pushed aside or neglected. In addition, I have discovered that the library is a good alternative. I know that sounds like common sense, but I am a bibilophile of the first order and if had the alternative, I would rather own than borrow books; a senitment I find that most historians harbor.

Anyway, back to the book. Daniel Chisholm enlisted in the spring of 1864 in Co. K, 116th PA Inf. The first half of the book recounts the exploits of this regiment from the Battle of the Wilderness to their being mustered out in the summer of 1865. These accounts were copied by Chisholm from the journal of Sgt. Samuel Clear. The second half of the book consists of letters that Chisholm and his brother Alex sent back home. These letters are wonderful insights into the life of Union infantry soldiers during the last year of the war. The letters cover life in camp, punishments, pay, picket duty, and battle experiences. Daniel was wounded in the leg on June 16, 1864 in an attack on the Petersburg defenses, and except for a short return to the 116th, served out the war in various hospitals. Alex served his whole enlistment with the 116th.

Living in Petersburg provides a neat connection to many of places described in this book. Weldon Railroad, Reams Station, Hatcher's Run, White Oak Road all seem so far removed today from what happened at these locations 145 years ago. This book is a quick read and I recommend it to anyone interested in the common Union soldier's life.