Thursday, April 30, 2009

2009 Virginia Sesquicentennial Signature Conference

Yesterday I attended Virginia's 2009 Sesquicentennial Signature Conference to commemorate the 150 Anniversary of the Civil War. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Virginia is way ahead of the game in its objective to educate its citizens about the importance of this era. In fact, this was the first major event of the sesquicentennial in the United States. We were informed in the opening welcome that over 2,100 people had registered for this free conference, and that those people represented 36 states.

The conference was unique in that the panelists discussed their given topics as if they were in 1859, and with no knowledge of future events. Some panelists struggled with this concept more than others, but those that did make "presentist" mistakes, did so with a good sense of humor.

The topic for first group of panelists was "Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859." This group brought out many fine points to give us in the audience a better idea of what both Northerners and Southerners were experiencing politically, economically, socially, and culturally in 1859. As America was expanding in the 1850s new states were added; California in 1850, Minnesota in 1858, and Oregon in 1859. Staying "in the period" mindset, it was suggested that the next state may be Colorado as a gold strike had "just been made." Another panelist suggested that Cuba may be the next state added as filibuster adventurers had made similar attempts in Mexico, and Nicaragua.

The second group took on "The Future of Virginia and the South." These panelists used a number of excellent projected images to help emphasize their points. One image that stood out to me was a set of figures for Hector Davis, a slave trader in Richmond. Davis's revenue totalled $1.7 million in 1858, and $2.6 million in 1859. Now, that is a still a lot of money today, but in the 1850s that was an enormous amount of money. Davis was only one of at least a half dozen major slave auction houses in Richmond. It is important to know how slavery affected the United States' economy in 1859.

"Making Sense of John Brown's Raid" was the subject for the third group of panelists. What I found most interesting about this topic was a discussion on the Northern response to Brown's raid. The panelists agreed that Brown's raid brought an attitude of shock and disgust at first in the North, but that many Northerners came quickly came to accept Brown's action by the time of his hanging largely though the help of Emerson and Thoreau's writings.

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend a few minutes of the final topic, "Predictions for the Election of 1860." But, what I did get to observe was quite thought provoking. The decline the Whig Party and emergence of the Republican Party in the 1850s brought significant political changes for America. The Whigs had been a national party, as had the Democrats, but the Republicans were virtually a Northern only political party, with the expressed platform of not allowing slavery to move into the western territories. The Republican Party gained significant Congressional seats in the 1858 elections, and this concerned Southern politicians about the future of slavery.

The conference brought in great historians to present interesting viewpoints, and in my opinion certainly fulfilled their committee's goal of "laying a foundation for understanding the Civil War." If we don't understand all of the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that precipitated the war, we can't understand the war itself.

There will be a signature conference held each year through 2015. The next one, in 2010, will be held at Hampton University and its theme will be African Americans and the Civil War. 2011 will be at Virginia Tech, and will be on American Military Strategy and the Civil War. 2012 will be at Virginia Military Institute, 2013 at William and Mary, 2014 at George Mason University, and 2015 at the University of Virginia. If these are anything like 2009's I hope that somehow I am able to attend one or more of these future conferences.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Joseph Jenkins Roberts

The African colonization movement had many proponents in 19th century American; among those included were Presidents James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and later, Abraham Lincoln. Senators Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John Randolph of Virginia also voiced support for the idea. These men and many like them believed that the best solution to the "Negro Question" was their removal to their "native" Africa. I wonder if they stopped to consider that almost all of these people of color they wished to deport were born in America, not Africa. Probably not. Later supporters such as Lincoln would suggest colonization to Africa, Central America, or even the Caribbean islands...anywhere but America.

There were a small number of African Americans who also felt their best chance for a good life existed outside of America. One such man was Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Roberts was born in 1809 in Norfolk, Virginia. His biological father was a white Welshman, and his mother was a free woman of color. Roberts actually had only one African American grandparent. Roberts' stepfather James Roberts, was a boatman on the James River, and by the time of his death had accrued considerable wealth for an African American of the day. After the death of James Roberts the family moved to Petersburg, Virginia, where Jenkins continued in the family boating business and apprenticed as a barber. Jospeh Jenkins Roberts' patron, William Colston, was prosperous black resident of Petersburg who loaned his private library to Roberts and helped educate the young man.

After hearing about the plans of the American Colonization Society, the Roberts family decided to emigrate to Liberia. With the help of Colston they established a business there that exported goods to American and they sold items to other African immigrants in a store they owned. One of Joseph Jenkins Roberts' brothers became a bishop in the Methodist church while another studied medicine in Massachusetts before returning to practice in Liberia. In 1833 Roberts became the sheriff of the colony, and in 1839 was named vice governor of Liberia. In 1841 he was appointed as the first non-white governor, and then in 1846 the Liberian legislature declared independence and Roberts was elected as the first president of Liberia in 1847.

During his first term of presidency (1847-1856) Roberts worked diligently for European and United States recognition. Liberia was formally recognized by both France and England, as well as Norway, Sweden, and Austria, but the U.S. did not recognize Liberia until 1862. Roberts' second term as president lasted from 1872-1876. Roberts faced many issues that proved difficult to overcome. Disputes between immigrants and indigenous peoples was always a significant hurdle that even exists to this day, and modernization and industrialization was also a problem not so easily solved.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts is a story that few Americans (white or black) know about today, but it is just another example of how an individual of an oppressed people rose to greatness and helped pave the way for later generations.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Already Missing Petersburg, Virginia

I don't officially move until this Friday, but with so much going on in the next day or two I thought I'd take the earliest opportunity and express my fondness for the town I have called home for the last three years.

Petersburg is no stranger to hard times. It was bombarded in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and has suffered through deterioration and neglect, but like a battered old car that only needs some work to become a classic, Old Towne Petersburg is slowly making the return to former days of glory.

Although many of the original buildings have been modernized and or raised, a large number of historic buildings still remain and help tell the story of Petersburg as a colonial and antebellum town. The number of different architecture styles is amazing. There are Georgian, Federal, Gothic Revival, Italianate, and numerous vernacular styles. One of my favorite buildings is the Trapezium House; so named because there are no right angles in the house. Legend has it that the builder's West Indian servant thought right angles harbored bad spirits. Other notable houses include Centre Hill Mansion (President Lincoln visited there just several days before his assassination), the Exchange Building (now the Siege Museum), Violet Bank (General Lee's headquarters for a time), Blandford Church and Cemetery, the Petersburg Courthouse (pictured above), and host of other historic church buildings.

Like many historic towns, antique shops are in abundance in Petersburg, but a number of new restaurants, businesses, and entertainment venues have moved in to the Old Towne over the past few years as well, such as The Brickhouse Run, and Sycamore Rouge.

Of course, I enjoy visiting the battlefields that are seemingly everywhere around the area. Petersburg National Battlefield, Pamplin Historical Park, Ream's Station, Hatcher's Run, Five Forks and others are well preserved and offer interpretive programs and or signs to learn more about Petersburg's important role in the Civil War.

If you get a chance to visit Petersburg, please do. There is so much to see and do and you will help contribute to the continued efforts to help preserve this old American town. You can find out more information at:

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Visit to Historic Kenmore: Fredericksburg, VA

Fredericksburg is a special place. If you enjoy history then there is not a much better place on earth. History surrounds you in Fredericksburg. You are never far from a historic building, or a site where something important happened. There is Hugh Mercer's Apothecary Shop (beware the leeches are alive), The Rising Sun Tavern, George Washington's Ferry Farm, The Mary Washington House (George's mom), The Fredericksburg National Battlefield...and the historically tasty Carl's Ice Cream!

One site that I had not visited until yesterday is Historic Kenmore Plantation. I had heard about it, but I had never seen it in person or even knew who lived or what happened there. It was a real pleasure to actually find out.

Kenmore (named so by a later owner from Scotland) was the home of George Washington's sister, Betty and her husband Colonel Fielding Lewis. The home, built in 1775, is truly a historical treasure. Fielding Lewis was a "second son" whose father set him up as a shipping merchant in colonial Fredericksburg. Lewis did very well and prospered in the growing community. We were informed that only the richest two percent of the population would have had a home such as Kenmore. The estate was purchase in 1752 by Lewis and had around 1,300 acres that grew corn, wheat, and some tobacco. Our guide informed us that Lewis used both indentured servants from Ireland and over 120 African slaves as laborers on the plantation.

Lewis supported the Revolutionary cause as a militia leader and by building an arms factory. These activities and the war ruined Lewis financially, and he died shortly after Cornwallis's surrender to Washington in 1781. Betty died in 1797 and their son John, who did not posses his father's head for business, sold the home and land to the Gordon family who named it Kenmore. The house survived the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, but did receive some damage. There is a cannon ball in each of the walls of both the front and rear sides of the house, put there by later owners to help raise money from curious tourists. The house has been restored inside by painstaking paint and wallpaper analysis. The most fascinating decorations of the house to me was the plaster work on the walls and ceiling. The skill, time, and cost it must have taken to accomplish this art is simply amazing.

The house is the only original structure on the grounds. A kitchen has been reproduced to give visitors a better idea of what cooking was like in the 18th century. The visitor's center/museum has a wealth of information on the Lewis/Washington family connections as well as numerous examples of furnishings from colonial Fredericksburg. The gardens on the grounds are beautiful as well.

As I mentioned, Fredericksburg is a special place; Kenmore and its history makes it even more so. There is so much to see and do in this old colonial town. After visiting numerous times in the past there are still things that remain to be see. I hope my future travels take me back there soon and often.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Just finished reading - Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South by Adam Rothman

I got my first real taste of Deep South culture almost 2 years ago when I accompanied a tour group to Vicksburg, Mississippi. I had been to Charleston and southern Georgia, as well as to a number of places in Florida long before this trip, but the "western" Deep South to me had a somewhat different feel to it.

Historian Adam Rothman in his book Slave Country gives some possible explanations as to why I maybe caught a different "vibe" in this part of America. This book mainly covers the emergence of three states: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The story of these states is unique in some aspects, and not so unique in others. For example, instead of being incorporated into the Union from east to west, these three states were admitted west to east. Louisiana was added in 1812, Mississippi in 1817, and Alabama in 1819. But, they were not unique in that their settlement involved wars and the removal or eradication of the native peoples to gain their lands.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 from the French opened the way for this territory to be gained by white settlers. Migrants from Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky all flowed into these territories to establish a new lives. Along with the settlers came their slaves. The institution of slavery fit the labor shortage situation well in this region. States with large populations of slaves such as Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee found a lucrative sales outlet in the Deep South in the early 19th century. Slavery dominated the economy, especially when "King Cotton" was introduced and rose to prominence. River travel through the region on the Mississippi, Alabama, Tombigbee, and other rivers moved crops to commercial market outlets such as New Orleans and Mobile. Steamboats also appeared early on these same rivers moving more people, goods, and crops faster than ever before.

Of course-in the thinking of the day-in order to turn vast forests into fields for crops, and open rivers to navigation and commerce, the native people had to be removed or subjugated. The Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians largely inhabited what would become these 3 states. Slave Country describes the effort and importance of conquering these Indian tribes, and goes into detail about Andrew Jackson's efforts against the Creek "Red Sticks."

Slave Country is a very readable blend of social, economic, political, and military history. Rothman's liberal use of primary sources gives the reader a better understanding of the thoughts and motivations of the people who called this land their home and fought to defend and or claim it for themselves. I highly recommend this book to anyone who desires a better understanding of how the United States expanded and all the issues that came from the idea of "Manifest Destiny."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Diverse Lot of Historians

I am sorry that I have been unable to post for the last few days, but I have been doing a significant amount of traveling to locate a new residence. I have accepted a position with the Kentucky Historical Society and will be making the 500 mile move within the next week.

Is there a need for such a significant level of specialization that exists within the ranks of historians today? That is a good question, and one that often used to come to my mind when watching programs like the History Channel or Book-TV on C-SPAN. These programs always have recognized scholars providing narrative background or opinionated information to supplement the programming. And almost always these historians are known to be a "specialist" in their field. Obviously, you probably wouldn't want a specialist in Medieval history giving commentary on the Civil Rights Movement and vise-versa; but, is this specialization into such seemingly limited areas of expertise necessary?

In a graduate school class popularly called "Research and Bibliography," our professor had a number of his department colleagues come in and discuss their area of specialization. We heard from a women's historian, a Latin American historian, a classics historian, a public historian, an African historian, a labor historian, and an intellectual historian, if my memory serves me correctly. There are also many other types of historians; in American history alone there are: Early American, Jacksonian, military, and Gilded Age historians, just to name a few. At the time I took this course I though this specialization may be a little overkill. But, as my graduate career continued, and as I found out how much one can learn about their specific field,and how much research work is being done in each specialized field, I changed my opinion.

Of course, not everyone has interests in every field of history. For example, I don't find Early Modern European history to be particularly fascinating, but there are students that do. And, some students think that the Civil War gets too much attention for being only a four year period. Although I think that the last statement is very short-sighted, they are entitled to their opinion and own interests. Therefore, I think that specialization within the field of history is a good thing. After all, if we all focused solely on one topic, instead of exploring diverse topics and then sharing information, how much of a well-rounded education would we receive, and how much beneficial knowledge would be still unknown?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thoughts on Revisionism

I spoke to a friend from graduate school recently that said in a job interview she was asked to express her thoughts on historical revisionism. I couldn't help but think how I would have answered this question if it had been asked of me without time to prepare an answer. I'm not sure that I would have done very well, because in my thinking, it is a probably a loaded question.

As I mentioned in a recent post; history is always changing. History in my opinion is provisional; as our experiences does historical interpretation. Things that happen in the present or recent past effect how we see the past and how we explain the past. In that sense I am in favor of historical revisionism. This form of revisionism helps us get at a usable truth of the past; one we can sometimes relate to better than older interpretations. I suppose that is one reason that people can keep cranking out book after book after book on important historical figures and events. For example, someone might view Martin Luther King Jr. one way in one generation, but another generation might see King differently.

The form of revisionism that I think is harmful to history is that type that deliberately seeks to change past interpretations based on biased or faulty information with no other motivation than to try to overthrow previous interpretations. When a historian seeks out primary sources that support their theory and then purposely ignore others that disprove the same theory is where things often go wrong. To me that is simply being untruthful. Similarly, generalizations can be a good thing to help us get a better handle on events that happened so long ago, especially when those generalizations are supported by stacks and stacks of historical evidence. But generalizing based on a limited number of sources or on abnormal or unreliable sources is walking on thin ice historically speaking.

Thank goodness there are credible editors and peer reviewers who usually don't allow such spotty history to go unnoticed or unannounced. Some history critics can be down right vicious in their attacks on unbalanced or unfounded historical interpretation. But in one sense that is a good thing...hopefully their sharp eyes, expertise, and criticism keep "bad" history to a minimum and out of print.

If you are unsure of the historical strength of something you are reading, don't hesitate to look for reviews from respected historians. Look at nonprofessional reviews as well; believe me, there are lots of knowledgeable and discerning nonacademic historians out there with things to say as well. Because, after all nothing is much worse than spending time on a book that his full of holes...historically speaking again, of course.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Just finished reading - Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream by Lerone Bennett, Jr.

I wrote in an earlier post that if you don't read any other book in this, the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, that you should read House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War by Stephen Berry. I must revise that statement, and add Forced Into Glory as well. But, be forewarned, this is not your typical "Lincoln the great American" book. Nor is it a critique of Lincoln's alleged responsibility for our modern big government and tax issues, and it really isn't a biography either, although it does look closely at different aspects of his life.

I had heard this book mentioned at the "Lincoln and the South" conference I had attended in Richmond back in March, and my friend Mr. Hari Jones of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C. had recommended it as well when I visited there on Lincoln's birthday back in February.

Mr. Bennett uses this 600 + page book to critique Lincoln's stance on race and debunk the long held idea/myth that Lincoln was the "Great Emancipator." Now, I know what many people will say. "Of course Lincoln was racist, what white man wasn't in the mid-19th century?" Well, Bennett covers that excellent point and offers a number of examples of men who worked to see blacks gain citizenship and equality. His examples are not just your standard John Brown, Wendell Phillips (although Bennett does use him a lot), William Lloyd Garrison types. To make his point, Bennett moves closer to Lincoln's own region, Illinois, and uses the examples of Elijah P. and Owen Lovejoy and Lyman Trumbull to show that some politically ambitious men didn't follow the standard race line.

One part of the book that I found especially interesting was Lincoln's fondness of telling off-color stories and jokes (mainly racial), and his fondness of minstrel shows. Bennett relays a number of these incidents by quoting those who were around Lincoln and witnessed these events. Lincoln sought to relieve severe bouts of depression through humor and theater, but according to Bennett Lincoln didn't choose his topics with an air of sensitivity.

Although he brings up some good points, I think Bennett mainly beats a dead horse over the "Great Emancipator" issue. It is pretty clear from Lincoln's language in the Emancipation Proclamation he wanted to be fairly elusive in its intentions. Bennett examines this event from a number of different angles and adds a few different perspectives I hadn't considered. But, I think here, Bennett might be missing the bigger picture while focusing too closely on the details.

Another issue that Bennett makes clear is Lincoln's colonization plans. Lincoln, being follower of the great Whig Henry Clay, followed Clay's ideas that the best possible solution to the problem of race in America was to deport blacks to other countries or regions; Central American, the Caribbean, or Africa. Lincoln looked for opportunities to establish colonization as a reality according to Bennett right up until the time of his death.

Bennett seems to be quite thorough in his documentation, and backs up most of his allegations with solid evidence. I recommend this book mainly to see another side of Lincoln that is largely hid due to what his administration did accomplish. Some of Lincoln's historical warts often get left out in favor of a more pretty appearance in many historical examinations. I think it is important to know historical figures for the real men they were; the good with the bad. This work presents more of the bad than the good of Lincoln in effort to balance out the myths that have persisted since 1865. I encourage you to read Forced Into Glory and decide for yourself.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Connecting the Dots of History

One of my biggest challenges in educating the public about American history is providing a proper chronological frame of reference to help them better understand whatever it may be that I am speaking about. This is of course more difficult in some situations than others, and obviously it largely depends on the audience and the topic being discussed.

For example, it isn't a real struggle to get 4th graders to understand that the Revolutionary War happened over 220 years ago; they usually accept what you tell them at face value as the truth. But, to get them to truly understand how different things were 220 years ago versus today, and what all has happened in between those two historical points is much more of a challenge. Getting them to understand that communication worked at a snail's pace and that travel was largely limited to walking, riding a horse, or sailing on a ship is difficult because it is so foreign to their modern understanding. Then, getting them to fully understand the historical significance of something like the Revolutionary War and what that means to them today is a real challenge. But, no matter what age one deals with, seeing that light bulb go off when they make that historical connection is indeed priceless.

I think one of the most important things in teaching history is to get one's audience to understand that, although events happened long ago, and personalities have long passed away; many of those events and those past peoples' actions still have an effect on us today in the present. Helping people make personal connections to the past is what makes all the difference.

Making connections to the past can be done in many ways. Some people can relate better from a generational viewpoint. Explaining how something worked in a person's great-grandparent's day helps provide a historical frame of reference. Some people relate to the past by visual comparisons. Looking at images or photographs that type of person can compare the clothes, buildings, and other things of everyday life and then come to a historical connection. Some people like looking at the actual material culture of past people. I think that is one reason why museums are so beneficial to the public. Museums provide a informal learning environment where people can spend as long or as little time as they like looking at "old things" and not be under pressure to learn as they might be in say a classroom environment.

History museums, for both practical and educational reasons, have stepped up their exhibits in the past 10 to 15 years. It is no secret that museums compete with entertainment venues such as movies and sports for the public's time and money. To better compete with these other attractions they have incorporated more technology and interactive exhibits to make learning more fun while not sacrificing their educational value or credibility.

If you haven't been to a history museum in a while, do a little searching on the Internet and find something that looks interesting to you personally, and then go and experience and learn...make those connections to the past...that's what they are there for.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"We Shall Remain"

On Monday evening I watched the premier episode, "After the Mayflower," from PBS's new series on American Indians, We Shall Remain. In the coming weeks four other episodes will be aired in the following order: "Tecumseh's Vision," "Trail of Tears," "Geronimo," and "Wounded Knee."

"After the Mayflower" told the intriguing story of the relationship between the Wampanoag Indians and the newly arrived English settlers in what would become Massachusetts. The Indians under the leadership of Massasoit, and later his son Metacom (aka King Philip) tried to appease the English at first, but a European hunger for land, and misunderstandings and extreme differences in cultures led to a brutal and devastating war.

I am anticipating seeing all five episodes, because I have a self-recognized weakness in my knowledge of American Indians that I wish to strengthen. This series excites me for a number of reasons; first, because I have some Native American ancestry, and secondly, because American Indian heritage is the center pole of American history. After all, the Indians were here long before other peoples and they have influenced American culture more than most Americans realize; and certainly more than they get credited.

"Tecumseh's Vision" should be a fantastic portrayal of one Indian's attempt to confederate the diverse tribes to resist continued European encroachment in the early 19th century. "Trail of Tears" promises to be a sad but interesting story of the Cherokees and their forced removal from the Southern Appalachians. How can "Geronimo" not be interesting? I am looking forward to finding out more about this Apache and his style of fighting. "Wounded Knee" is to tell the story of the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 1970s. My father once told me he went on a pheasant hunting trip to Nebraska back in the 70s just a week before a heavily armed demonstration at one of the reservations. So, I am looking forward to learning more about those events as well.

All Americans could benefit by learning more about American Indian history. PBS is making it easy for use to gain a better understanding of that history. Please join me in watching the next few weeks' episodes. For more information go to:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Hemp Brake

While in Kentucky last week I was excited to get to briefly visit both the Kentucky History Center and the Frankfort City Museum. These museums offer a wealth of knowledge on their individual subjects and have some neat artifacts I haven't seen elsewhere.

One item that caught my attention and that was displayed in both museums was a hemp brake. I knew very little about hemp, how important hemp was to Kentucky's economy before the Civil War, or even how a hemp break operated. But, by reading the museum's labels and doing a little online research I am now much better informed on this interesting plant, its significance, and how it was processed.

I had always assumed that hemp and marijuana was one in the same, but I found out that hemp grown for industrial use is quite a bit different than its drug cousin. Both plants are in the cannabis family, but hemp has only minute amounts of THC that the psychoactive cannabis contains. One website said that, "If one tried to ingest enough industrial hemp to get a 'buzz,' it would be the equivalent of taking 2-3 doses of a high fiber laxative." Another said that there is not enough THC in industrial hemp to have any physical or psychological effects. Interesting.

Hemp growing has a long history in American. George Washington grew hemp; as did Thomas Jefferson. In fact, Jefferson invented a hemp brake of his own for use at Monticello. Hemp was first grown in Kentucky in the 1770s, and due to the state's climate and soil, especially in the Bluegrass Region, hemp thirved as an agricultural product. In 1850 Kentucky produced 40,000 tons of hemp that was valued at $5,000,000.00. Now, I don't know what the translates to in today's dollars, but believe me, that was a load of money 160 years ago.

Hemp in the antebellum era was used for a number of items. One of the most popular uses was rope, especially for sailing vessels. Other uses included course cloth and bagging used in gathering and then bailing cotton for market. Hemp made up about 5% of the total weight of a cotton bale and the hemp growers fortunes relied heavily on the ebb and flow of the cotton market of the states in the Deep South. As the country expanded westward so did hemp growing. By 1860 Missouri had displaced Kentucky as the nation's leading producer of hemp. The Civil War disrupted hemp production in Kentucky and Missouri as their commercial ties to the cotton states was cut off. Although hemp production continued up to the 1940s and 50s it fell off significantly due to the introduction of jute, tariffs, and drug legislation aimed at hemp's similar looking cousin marijuana.

The hemp brake works much the same way a flax break works. Hemp had to first be cut and then shocked into bundles to dry. When the hemp was sufficiently seasoned it was taken by the armload and laid across the break while the operator moved the brake handle up and down repeatedly. I imagine this was back breaking work that would built up some serious deltoid and triceps muscles. As the brake was moved up and down it crashed into the stalks and the woody outer shell would fall away leaving the long stands of fiber. The stands then would be gathered and ran through a set of "hackles" (a set of spikes) to comb the fibers into usable product. For rope production the fibers were then twisted, and for cloth production they were of course woven. I have seen this process completed for flax at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia, and it is just tiring to watch it let alone perform it for hours and hours a day.

The hemp brake is just another relic of the past that we have largely forgotten. Its use is hardly applicable to our world today, but understanding what it is and how it worked gives us greater insight into the lives of our ancestors; some of which relied on such tools to provide for their families.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Eleutherian College: The Oberlin of the Ohio River Valley

On my recent visit to Kentucky I decided to continue my travels another 150 miles or so to visit with my mother for Easter, and see my second hometown...Madison, Indiana. (I say second because I proudly claim Harriman, Tennessee as my original hometown since it is my place of birth and childhood years.)

When I was a teenager my older brother and I used to go out to the country to fish at one of his friend's farm pond. To get there we always passed through the little village of Lancaster, which is just off of Highway 7. I always noticed that on the left, and high a commanding hill, stood an impressive stone building. Way back then I didn't know the story of this old structure. I had heard the Eleutherian College briefly mentioned in my Indiana history class in school, but I never really understood its historical significance until a few years ago when its restoration efforts were making local news.

This past Saturday was a beautiful day so my mother and I went out to see the old building. We were surprised to find a small visitor's center open to help interpret the site. The visitor's center is a former 20th century residence that was built on what was once the foundation of the John Gill Craven House, a former "station" on the Underground Railroad. We were treated to a tour of the grounds and the college building that we both found quite interesting.

The Eleutherian College was founded in 1848 by Dr. Thomas Craven of Oxford, Ohio, and like the more famous (and still operating) Oberlin College in northern Ohio, it was opened to students regardless of gender or color. This might not sound impressive to our modern sensibilities, but in 1848 a co-educational and interracial institution was a very radical idea. We learned from our guide that the name Eleutherian is derived from the Greek "eleutherous," which means freedom or equality. Classes at Eleutherian were first conducted in an old meeting house, and then in 1856 the grand stone building pictured above was constructed. The building measures 65' x 42', has 3 stories, and features dual staircases from the first to second floors. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a listed National Historic Landmark.

The most fruitful years of the college was from 1856 to 1860. In 1856 the college included 18 African American students, 10 of who had formerly been slaves. In 1860 the school had 200 students, 50 of which were African American. The college was dissolved right after the Civil War and then became a teacher's training school in 1887. In 1897 the building was deeded to the town of Lancaster and was used as an elementary school until 1937. Our guide informed us that many of the African American students worked in a number of different trades to help pay for their education. One student made cabinets and a fine example of his work has survived the years and is on display in the visitor's center. Other students worked for local farmers and millers.

This immediate area was a hotbed of anti-slavery in the mid-19th century. Many of the community leaders had northern roots in Ohio and Vermont and they apparently brought their strong abolitionist sensibilities with them. A short distance from the college building is the Lyman Hoyt House, which was built in the 1840s. Hoyt and his wife Aseneth were conductors on the Underground Railroad. Lyman was also an officer in the local Neil's Creek Anti-slavery Society founded in 1839 there in Lancaster and actively supported the Liberty Party.

Largely due to the grassroots activism by local lovers of history such as Jae Breitweiser this site is being saved and interpreted to educate the public. It just goes to show you what the diligent efforts of a few determined people can accomplish for the greater good.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I'm Glad I Wasn't On a Horse Today

Today I drove from Petersburg, Virginia to Georgetown, Kentucky. The trip clocked off the odometer right at 500 miles. While I was driving lots of thoughts kept running through my head, but one that kept coming back was how difficult it must have been to travel before automobiles were invented and interstate highways crossed the land.

Highway 60 from Lynchburg to Lexington, Virginia is one of my favorite drives, especially in the fall when the leaves are changing, or like today, when the leaves are just budding out. But I can't image what it would be like to travel on horseback or in a wagon those rugged few miles. What took me about an hour must have taken days for early travelers with beast power and dirt roads.

Luckily, I didn't have to stop, but I am sure that just over 100 years ago travelers had to find places to sleep and eat during their travels. Again questions kept coming across my mind. Were people along the way hospitable? Did they enjoy meeting traveling strangers? How much would they charge to stay overnight? I can just hear a discouraged traveler haggling a blacksmith in attempt to save some money on horseshoes; much like the modern day traveler might haggle to get a tire replaced.

Another leg of the trip is even more daunting. I-64 west from Lexington, Virginia to Huntington, West Virginia is mountain after mountain, after valley, after valley. I can appreciate the pioneer travelers going on south through the Valley of Virginia to the Cumberland Gap to avoid the greatest part of those seemingly never-ending mountains. I seriously thought about going that way myself to avoid them. I kept having one problem that pioneer travelers didn't have to deal with though...coal trucks kicking up gravel.

For the last leg of my trip I decided to get off the interstate and take highway 460 from Mt. Sterling, Kentucky to Georgetown, Kentucky. This route brought me through some of the most beautiful horse country I have ever seen. Ancient stone walls and huge brick manors line the road along with modern black plank fences and more horse than you can shake a stick at. I went through Paris, Kentucky and saw a highway sign that John Hunt Morgan and his men had visited in 1862. There seemed to be a number of historic houses and buildings in Paris, many in the process of restoration. Its always good to see old buildings being restored rather than torn down. I have always been a believer that old buildings help connect generations like few other things can.

On your next trip be safe, but try to imagine what those old timers went through getting from place to place. And be thankful for the automobile and the interstate highway.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just finished reading - Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles

When I was young I remember seeing an episode of the Brady Bunch where Bobby became infatuated with the story of Jesse James and began to consider him a hero. Mr. Brady wanted Bobby to learn the true story of Jesse James so he had an old timer come to the Brady house and tell Bobby the true story of James. Like Bobby, I didn't know much about Jesse or his brother Frank James...until I read this book. I had previously read some about the bushwhacking war that went on in Missouri during the Civil War, and of course, I had heard of Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson; and one of my favorite Civil War movies is Ride With the Devil, which covers this aspect of the war. But I didn't understand the background and motivations for those that brought about this neighbor-on-neighbor, personal-style of warfare to Missouri and beyond.

Jesse Woodson James was born the son of a Baptist preacher, Robert James, and a strong-willed mother, Zerelda Cole James, in 1847 in Clay County, Missouri. Robert James had emigrated to Missouri from Kentucky with Zerelda in 1842. Robert James was not only a minister, but also a successful farmer and owner of a small number of slaves. Jesse had been preceded in birth by his brother, Alexander Franklin (Frank), who was born in 1843. Robert James went to California in 1850 for the Gold Rush, but instead of finding riches, he died of camp fever. Zerelda married a much older Benjamin Simms two years later, but Simms died in 1854. Then a year and a half later she married Dr. Reuben Samuel. They would remain married the rest of their lives and have a number of children together, but it was clear early on that Zerelda ruled the roost in this union.

Jesse was just 13 when the Civil War broke out. 18 year old brother Frank joined the states' Confederate forces, but was quickly captured and paroled. Back at home in Clay County, Frank joined up with William Clarke Quantrill's guerrilla band and participated in the terrible raid on Lawrence, Kansas in August of 1863. Jesse joined up with the group of bushwhackers in the spring of 1864 at the age of 16. The type of warfare that Jesse and Frank James waged in western Missouri is difficult to understand. In a sense the Civil War provided the opportunity for neighbors to take vengeance on neighbors for feuds that predated the conflict, but often dealt with the whether the victim was pro or anti-slavery. Those with a history of anti-slavery, and then were pro-Union, or who were in the Republican Party during the war, became the James's most noted targets. During the war Jesse was shot on two different occasions in almost the same location; the right chest. The first wounding didn't do much damage, but the other punctured his lung. He healed from both rather quickly and was soon out again on his exploits.

After the formal surrenders of the Confederate armies many of the bushwhackers continued their backwoods war. Jesse and Frank were not in the exception. Instead of fighting the pro-Union Missouri militias, now they started fighting against the Reconstruction policies and politicians that had so starkly changed the James's worlds. They targeted banks and express companies for robberies that were run by Radical Republicans, and waged a war in the press with a befriended editor, John Newman Edwards, to claim their innocence and express their desire to overthrow an unpopular governance. A good example of their anit-Radical tactics is the James-Younger Gang's famous raid on Northfield, Minnesota in 1876. This botched robbery was largely an effort to damage former Union general, Freedman's Bureau officer, Radical Governor and Senator of Mississippi, Aldelbert Ames, who owned a flour mill and had banking interests in Northfield.

Politically, the James brothers were largely successful. They helped discourage or at least keep Northern influence at bay in Missouri. All the while their public relations, especially with former Confederates, could not have been better. Edwards the editor carefully crafted their image as Robin Hoods of sorts. After a rather long career as a thief and murderer, Jesse would meet his death in 1882, at the hand of one of his associates Bob Ford, who had been hired by Missouri governor Crittenden to finally bring Jesse to bay. As Jesse climbed a chair to dust and straighten a picture Ford shot him in the head. Frank would live in hiding and obscurity for many years, and finally passed away in 1915.

Jesse James is an American figure who has long been shrouded in myth and legend, but Stiles does an excellent job of stripping off the layers to get at the real Jesse James, and does so in an excellent style of writing. If this book sounds interesting, also check out the movies Ride with the Devil, and the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Just finished viewing: Sherman's March: The Shocking Campaign that Ended the Civil War by The History Channel

Somehow I missed another History Channel Civil War program during its original airing, but thanks to my local library I was able to check out this interesting DVD. Originally shown in 2007, Sherman's March depicts the actions and engagements of Sherman's 60,000 men (named bummers) as they marched some 650 miles from Atlanta to Savannah then up through South Carolina into North Carolina, all in about 100 days.

The DVD focuses largely on Sherman and Grant's plans to wage a multi-front war in order to keep the Confederate armies from supporting one another as they had previously in the conflict. The main two campaigns were of course, Grant's movement on Richmond against Lee's army, and Sherman's movement on Atlanta against the Army of Tennessee. Both started in early May of 1864 and both used flanking movements to approach their objectives. But Sherman focused more on destroying not only the South's material ability to continue the war, but also their will to continue to fight.

After burning part of Atlanta on November 15, 1864, Sherman set off the next day with a vow, "I can make this march and make Georgia howl," he said. Make it howl he did. Being so deep in enemy territory Sherman set out with basically no supply line. He quickly issued Special Field Order #120 that allowed his soldiers to "forage liberally." As they marched, soldiers were allowed to take what they pleased; be it food or material goods. Sherman called this brand of fighting, "hard war," modern historians now call it "total war;" that is, war not only against the enemy armies, but also against the civilian population. One Georgia woman said "Like demons they rush in," to describe a bummer raid on her farm. As the march continued the soldiers burned and stripped the countryside bare for a 60 mile wide swath of destruction across the Georgia countryside.

One noted point that the DVD brought up and that I was not aware of, was that Sherman had a special map made up that had important 1860 census information for each country. With this map he knew where he could do the most damage, and possibly expect to find provisions for his men and animals. Pretty smart, eh? This helped solve much of his supply problem on the march. Another problem that irritated Sherman was the number of slaves that followed his army as they marched. He was more than willing to take on adult male slaves and use them to build roads and do heavy labor, but he did not want woman and children following along and slowing down the march. At one point in the march one of his generals, Jefferson C. Davis (can you imagine the jokes he had to put up with?) pulled up a pontoon bridge after the army crossed a river in order to keep the slaves back that followed. Of course, they were left to Confederate cavalry that nipped at Sherman's heels and were returned to slavery. None of this had much of an impact on Sherman, as he viewed African Americans in general as an inferior race.

Sherman to this day has an interesting place in history. He seems to be either loved or hated. Some consider him as savior, while others consider him a terrorist of the first order. Whatever your take on Sherman, it is hard to deny that his actions helped end the war sooner than if he had adopted and conducted a more passive campaign. His destruction of military and civilian property and the Confederate will to continue the fight probably saved lives in the long run. And although there was not a significant army to oppose him, Sherman helped end the war by marching and destroying property, rather than inflicting battle causalities to both the enemy and his own men; as Grant was doing against Lee in Virginia.

The DVD does a pretty good job of capturing the historic feel of the event. Granted, Sherman's beard leaves a lot to be desired. And although the march historically happened during the fall and winter months, the DVD showed the environment as if it was summer time.

The video is certainly worth watching for a 94 minute overview of Sherman's actions from November 1864 to March 1865. For more details, look into Noah Andre Trudeau's recently released book, Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea.

Monday, April 6, 2009

My Visit to the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners' Museum

Today I was fortunate enough to get to spend a few hours at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News. If you have never been, it is definitely a must see. I am not exaggerating when I say that you could spend a whole day at the museum learning about all aspects of maritime travel, construction, and warfare. The building is simply enormous.

I had heard what a wonderful new addition the $30 million USS Monitor Center was to their existing facilities, but I never imagined it would be what I saw.

If you're not familiar with story, the USS Monitor was an ironclad ship that participated in a famous battle with the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimac that the Confederates turned into an ironclad) at Hampton Roads, Virginia on March 9, 1862. The battle was pretty much a draw, as both sides apparently had had enough after pounding each other that day. Although the battle was indecisive, it ushered in a new era of naval warfare. One exciting feature of the Monitor Center is a very well produced short film titled Ironclad Glory: The Battle of Hampton Roads, that tells the story of the battle in dramatic fashion and in a high-tech-three-screen theater.

In December of 1862 the USS Monitor sunk in a severe storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It wouldn't be until 1973 that the vessel was located, and then 30 more years before it was brought to the surface. Another film (in another theatre) is narrated and hosted by actor Sam Waterston and details the skill, daring, and care it took to raise the rotating turret part of the wreck from the watery graveyard where it had rested for 140 years. This film is also excellently produced and is interactive in that you are asked to make decisions that the archaeologists, historians, and diving crew faced. You enter your answers by pressing buttons and the film takes the audience's poll. Very neat! The raised turret is now in the Center, and a reproduction turret is nearby for comparison. In the Center there is also a partial life-size model of the inside of the CSS Virginia ,and large number of artifacts related to both of the ships.

Again, if you are near Williamsburg, Jamestown, or Yorktown, take the short drive down I-64 to Newport News and check out the Mariners' Museum and the fabulous USS Monitor Center. If you can't make it, check out their excellent educational website at

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Hogshead

One of my favorite things about studying history is learning about the everyday things of times past. Today we don't even take for granted some of the items that were used in the 18th and 19th centuries, simply because many of these things aren't used anymore. For example, in an earlier post I discussed the simple plow. Most of us don't use plows (especially animal pulled plows) today, as they have been replaced with more modern or better developed equipment to make its nature of work easier and the older item virtually obsolete.

In today's post I thought I'd discuss another seemingly simple item that has always interested me; the hogshead barrel. By looking at the picture here, the hogshead looks pretty much like any other barrel, but hogsheads were much larger than a normal barrel. In colonial times, by law, hogsheads were to measure 48 inches tall and 30 inches across the head. That's four feet tall with an almost three feet opening!

Hogsheads, of course, were meant to hold and store something; most often crops of one kind or another. Tobacco was the most widely known crop to be packaged and shipped in hogsheads. A fully and tightly packed hogshead of tobacco weighed from 1,000 to 1,500 pounds. When I worked as a museum educator I used to ask students why hogsheads were round. When I told them how much the hogsheads weighed, they quickly understood they would be much easier to roll than lift.

To pack a hogshead, tobacco was usually placed in the hogshead's open end until it was full, then a screw mechanism operated from above compressed the tobacco until it was stuffed full. But not only tobacco was stored and shipped in hogsheads. They were used for sugar, molasses, salt, flour and other grains, and even liquids, such as wine and beer. Salted or pickled pork, salted fish, and other perishable items also found hogsheads useful for shipping. Material culture items such as dishes, hats, hand tools, and other assorted good were sometimes packed in straw or sawdust and moved to market in hogsheads.

I can only image the skill it took coopers to make these large barrels. Individual staves had to be cut and fit as closely as possible, especially when the hogshead was meant to hold liquids. The staves were most often made of oak; white oak being a favorite. Oak is a strong dense wood, so breaks and leaks were less likely with its use. Then the bands had to be cut and split from saplings. The bands were usually made from fibrous wood saplings such as red, white, and water oaks, as well as hickory and ash. The bands had to be malleable, and of course their purpose was to hold the staves together. Later, iron barrel bands replaced sapling straps, but I have not been able to track down when exactly this transition occurred. The hogshead was then topped off (and bottomed off) with a "head." Heads were fitted boards that kept the contents safe inside the hogshead.

The 55 gallon drum and the common cardboard box has largely replaced the use for heavy oak hogsheads these days, but a closer look at what seems to be an obscure item gives us better insight into what life was like - as some of the students today say - "back in the day."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Civil War's Sesquicentennial is Approaching

If you haven't realized it, the Civil War's 150th anniversary will soon be upon us. Just google "Civil War Sesquicentennial" and you will see that planning and events are well underway in many states. Some "with it" states have established sesquicentennial commissions or committees, and some have started web sites just for education and event announcements. Some of these web sites are impressive, such as North Carolina's, Arkansas', and Virginia's, while other leave a little to be desired (I'll be nice and not point those out...see for yourself). Others don't seem to be so on the ball yet in setting up accompanying technology...come on Tennessee you should have something too Maryland, and Kentucky also. Maybe these states are waiting to see what happens like they did in the real war. Ouch!

Virginia being the hot bed of Civil War history is already off and running with their first major event, which is only about three weeks away. The University of Richmond is hosting an all day conference titled "America on the Eve of the Civil War," on April 29.

The conference is free but pre-registration is required as seating is limited. Featured speakers will include Edward Ayers, David Blight, Charles Dew, Gary Gallagher,Gregg Kimball, Nelson Lankford, Elizabeth Varon, and Joan Waugh, among a number of others. Topics of discussion will include: "Taking Stock of the Nation in 1859," "The Future of Virginia and the South," "Making Sense of John Brown's Raid," and "Predictions for the Election of 1860." The intention of the conference is to have speakers discuss events of 1859 and their effect, limiting themselves only to what would have been known at that time. This should make for some very interesting conversations and will eliminate the "hind-site tendency" that creeps into so much history.

Although it is only 2009 (translated to 1859, 150 years ago) important events that helped precipitate the Civil War were already happening. There is no need to wait until 2011 to get the ball rolling on this commemoration. I encourage you to use the technology you have available to learn about what is going on in your area to remember those terrible four years in American history; then act on what you find that interests you, and go out and learn something new. I promise, you'll be the better for it.

Friday, April 3, 2009

My Civil War History

In conversations, when people get to know me better, they often ask me, "when did you become interested in the Civil War?" That's a fair enough question, and one that I always like answering because it brings back such great personal memories.

I have to say that my real interest in history began at about 10 years old, when I was in the 4th grade. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had a great 4th grade teacher, Ms. Owings, who made history come alive for me. So, you could say that started the ball rolling, but what started my specific interest in the Civil War, I would have to contribute to my father and the book pictured above.

Dad had taught some high school history in the 1960s, and had collected a nice little personal history library that I found fascinating. But, the greatest book of all in the collection was the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. And I have to be honest it was the pictures, not historian Bruce Catton's skilled writing that captured my imagination...although I would later very much enjoy Catton's works. This book was first published in 1960, at the beginning of the centennial of the Civil War. I literally wore this book out. In fact, my mom still had my dad's tattered copy. I have a 1988 reprinting of the original edition. I understand a few years ago they updated the edition with new pictures and illustrations. Not to be biased, but I can't see how this book could have been improved. If you have ever seen this book, I am sure the one thing that you remember is the battle maps. These impressive pictures show a number of battlefields from a birds-eye-view that display terrain features and troop positions. To a 10 year old boy this was just about as close as I could get to being there.

When I was around eleven I finally got to see my first battlefield in person. We had moved to Indiana from Tennessee when I was nine, and if you know your history, there just aren't a whole lot of battlefields in Indiana. But, both sets of my grandparents lived in Kentucky, so as we went to see my Grandma Tedder one time, I asked if we could stop by Perryville State Historic Shrine (that was the name at the time), which wasn't too far out of the way. I was so excited to get to go. I remember climbing all over the cannons; the visitor's center with the huge (seemed huge at least) mannequins; and all of the amazing artifacts; the stonewalled Confederate cemetery, and the stout Union monument. I remember stopping at road-side antique shop on the way back to the main road, and dad bought me a minnie ball (found at Perryville) and a rusty old bayonet (not a real Civil War bayonet, but I didn't care). For a long time it was the happiest day of my life.

A year or two later I returned to Perryville as a reenactor. Yes, they actually let 12-13 year olds fire guns in reenactments way back then. Mom drove me and my best friend down on a Saturday morning. Lord knows what she did all day while we were being soldiers. We stayed at my grandmother's house that night and then were back at it on Sunday. What a great experience for a boy who loved the Civil War.

I remember at about this time the mini-series The Blue and the Gray came out. We didn't have a VCR at the time so I had to make sure that we got out of church Sunday night (my dad was a minister) on time to see the first episode.

I kept up my interest for a few more years. I remember when my brother got his driver's licence and an old Jeep, I made him promise me he would take me to Virginia to see all the battlefields there (we never made it). I became more interested in sports and other teenage things during those coming years. I really didn't get back into the Civil War until I was in college...back in Tennessee. I found another reenactment group to fall in with and started reading voraciously on top of my normal studies. I guess I didn't change my major to history because I was so far along, but I kept up my interest through reading, a little reenacting, and movies like Gettysburg and Glory.

After college, work took over most my free time, but I still read some history from time to time. After about 10 years of work I decided to return to school part-time and get a bachelor's degree in history and see where that would take me. Classes at East Tennessee State were great. Historical Methods under Dr. Page really got me excited about research and writing. After completing my degree I knew I wouldn't be satisfied if I didn't try to find an occupation that involved history, so I talked to some museums and some of the history faculty at ETSU, and they recommended I get a master's in Public History. A little online research led me to Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. I had a great two year experience there that included a wonderful summer fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia. After graduation I landed an education position at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier here in Petersburg, where I worked for three years.

So, there is my Civil War history. Yet again it brings back fond memories of great times, and wonderful people who have helped me along the way, especially my parents. To them I am truly thankful for their support and ever-present encouragement.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

On This Day 144 Years Ago

As we approach the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War, I can't help but keep asking myself each day, "what important happened today?" That is an easy one for me on this particular day, because as I write this, I am not more than a quarter of a mile from where, on April 2, 1865, the scene pictured above occurred.

Today marks the 144th year since the Union Army of the Potomac (more specifically the Sixth Corps) broke through General Lee's thin Petersburg line held by the Army of Northern Virginia here in Dinwiddie County. Why is that important you might ask?

Well, it has been said many times that this was the beginning of the end of the Civil War. The Union breakthrough forced Lee to retreat into the inner defenses of Petersburg, and that night evacuate the city. But not only that...Lee knew that if Ulysses Grant captured Petersburg, the Confederate capital at Richmond would also fall as well. After Lee's lines were breached at Petersburg he sent President Jefferson Davis a telegram about what had just happened and advised the immediate evacuation of the Confederate government from Richmond. Lee moved his army westward out of Petersburg with the hope of eventually linking up with Gen. Joseph Johnston in North Carolina to continue the war. Lee only made it about 90 miles west of Petersburg where he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox...just one week after the breakthrough at Petersburg.

Petersburg had been Grant's focus since June of 1864. For over nine long months Grant and Lee played a game of chess to decide who would remain. At 4:40 am on April 2nd check would be called by Grant. Checkmate would have to wait a week.

The Union's Sixth Corp, spearheaded by the Vermont brigade, formed for attack outside Union forts Welch and Fisher, only about a mile from the Confederate defensive earthwork fortifications. At 4:40 am the signal shot was fired and approximately 14,000 Union soldiers advanced as quietly as 14,000 men can. Confederate pickets fired warning shots and tried to scramble back to their main defenses...many were captured or shot. The sleepy Confederates quickly awoke and attempted to hold back the Union tide.

It is believed that Captain Charles G. Gould, leading a part of the 5th Vermont, was the first man to reach and cross the earthworks (pictured above). Gould upon reaching the top of the earthworks was shot at by a Confederate defender, but the weapon misfired. Gould jumped into the works and slayed his would be killer with his sword. He was immediately bayoneted in the face by another Confederate, and then hit over the head by a sword wielding Confederate officer. In the hand to hand fighting he was finally stabbed in the back by another bayonet. The roughly 2,800 Confederates however were greatly outnumbered by the waves of Union attackers, and the position was quickly brought under order as many Confederates fled rearward or were captured. Charles Gould was lucky...he survived his three vicious wounds and later received the Medal of Honor for his bravery.

Later in the day, after the Sixth Corps had cleared any threats to their left flank, they turned to meet the last obstacle to Petersburg...Fort Gregg. About 300 Mississippians defended Fort Gregg against approximately 7,000 Union attackers. The defenders held out as long as they could. At one point they tried to hurl rocks and brick bats at the enemy when ammunition ran low. The Mississippians held long enough for Lee's army to reach the inner defenses that evening.

Today these historic grounds are preserved by Pamplin Historical Park and the National Park Service. The Confederate earthworks that remain in Dinwiddie County are some of the best preserved Civil War fortifications still in existence.

To close today's thoughts, and as the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War approaches, take a minute each day to think how what happened so long ago still affects your present existence.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why does history keep changing?

Since I formally began studying history a number of years ago, I have observed that history...or at least the telling of history changes over time. Why so? Well, I think there are several reasons for this.

First, and to state the obvious, history is to a large degree telling the story of something in the past. Duh, you say! But, how we view something of the past is largely due to our own past and present experiences. Things that have happened and are happening in current events effect what historians chose to write about and how they will interpret past events. And since current events are always changing as time marches on, so do the interpretations and perspectives of historians. For example, since 2001 and the beginning of the war on terror, there has been a marked increase in the number of books written on the subject of domestic terrorism, especially concerning terrorism by groups in the Reconstruction years. Another example, although older, is the Civil Rights Movement and the enormous amount of scholarship that it produced on the African American experience in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s...and continues to today.

Secondly, but along the same lines as the above explanation, is that the people writing history change as well. People, such as Indians and African Americans who before the Civil Rights Movement who didn't have the opportunities afforded to them in some locations, later gained those opportunities and were able to learn the art and science of historical research and writing. Another example of this is women's history. The social changes of the 1960s and 1970s brought many women historians into what had largely been a male dominated field and introduced new perspectives and told new stories that had previously been undiscovered (unfortunately, due to lack a of male interest) or ignored (unfortunately, due to a lack of male interest). The gains that have been made in historical scholarship by including minorities' and women's work has been enormous. Some of my favorite history books would have not been written if the people writing the history had not changed in the 20th century.

Thirdly, as time passes, new sources are found. The great "social history" movement that swept historical scholarship since World War II has sought to investigate history through previously undiscovered writing history from the "bottom up." History was once written largely only through limited primary sources; letters, journals, diaries, and newspapers, and of course, secondary sources-what others had already written. But historians not so long ago began to "think outside the box," and by using sources such as estate inventories, court documents, and even oral histories, these historians opened up a world of new information. Locating new information of course changed how we saw events of the past, and only naturally new interpretations developed...and in this way one could say history changed. Revisionism, depending on its context can be both a good thing or a bad thing...but that's another post. People discover and donate new primary documents to archives every day, and of course, previously unavailable documents can shed new light on a historical subject that once seemed closed to additional scholarship.

Lastly, and related to the third, is that the availability of research sources have changed...largely through I mentioned in a previous post. Historians who were once unable to gain access to sources due to limitations in time, or distance, or both, now have ways of getting their hands on them. Secondary source...i.e. historiography research, is now much quicker through technology. Articles can be scanned and emailed; scholarly journals are available online; interlibrary loans are seamlessly processed. All of this makes researching much easier and much less frustrating for the historian, and it allows him or her more time to make critical decisions, and to explore avenues that would not otherwise be considered.

So, there you have reasons why history keeps changing. Hopefully as time goes on we get better in telling the stories of the past and make them more accessible to the public.