Wednesday, September 30, 2009

History Meets Pop Culture

I have always been a "to each, his own" type of person. I wouldn't necessarily go out and get a tattoo of the 16th president of the United States on my throat, but hey, who am I to say DeShawn Stevenson of the NBA's Washington Wizards can't do it.

I have no idea why this young man would have a backwards "P" on the side of his face, or why he has a Frankenstein crack inked on his forehead. Maybe if I made almost $4 million a year I would find some unique ways to spend it too. I certainly have no idea why he would choose Abraham Lincoln to put on his neck. Maybe it is to honor the man. I noticed that on either side of Lincoln's countenance are number 5's. So, I'm not sure if this is a tribute to the five dollar bill or to the Great Emancipator. DeShawn is number 2 on the court, so I guess he is not making a statement about his number.

No doubt it would be a great conversation starter. And if Mr. Stevenson is looking for endorsements, maybe he will get a call from Subway to do a "Five dollar foot long" commercial. Well, as I began, "to each, his own."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Online Exhibit Review: Debating Emancipation at the Lincoln Cottage

Last winter I attended the "Lincoln and the South" conference in Richmond, Virginia. At one of the sessions Frank Milligan, Director of the President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers Home spoke about the history of the cottage (more mansion than cottage) and how they are presently attempting to interpret the site. I was certainly impressed with the site and I hope to make a visit when I get to D.C. in the future.

To help interpret the importance of this historic site where Lincoln's partly formulated his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, the Lincoln Cottage has developed an online exhibit. In this online exhibit you an active participant in the debate and are able to place yourself in the shoes of Lincoln's cabinet members and see how they advised the president in this epic announcement.

Part of "Debating Emancipation" follows Doris Kearns Goodwin's lead in her best selling A Team of Rivals. The site gives short biographies on the cabinet members, their thoughts on issues related directly to emancipation, and lists their political rivals, and relationship with Lincoln.

As you travel throughout the site you will get to learn about figures such as David Hunter and John C. Fremont who played secondary roles and the events in Missouri and South Carolina that they instigated. Also you can learn about congressional acts such as the confiscation acts that played into Lincoln's evolution in thinking on race and winning the war. In addition, as you go, you get to test your knowledge of what you have learned to advance to the next section. The site concludes with Lincoln's proclamation and what you as a cabinet member did to help or hinder the president's decision.

Be sure to take a few minutes to visit this site and learn more about this event that is one of the most important in our nation's history. The following is a link to the site:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Just finished reading - Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 by Ted Ownby

So which is it? Is it the reverent and evangelical South, or is it the impulsive and violent South? Well, it is and has almost always been both. In writing Subduing Satan author and professor Dr. Ted Ownby of the University of Mississippi has produced an interesting and easy to read social/religious history that most anyone interested in Southern history can appreciate.

In Subduing Satan, Ownby covers a lot of territory. He divided the book into three sections that cover the thoughts expressed in the subtitle. The first part, "Male Culture," explores the "sinful" Southerner. To do so he explains that most of the impiousness of Southern men usually occurred away from home, family, and church. The second part looks at Southern "Evangelical Culture." And, the third and final part shows that even the South was not immune from the "Change and Reform" that came with the technological inventions of the early twentieth-century.

Southerners often found their worlds to be worlds divided between an earthy heaven and hell. In the field, on the farm, and in town on Saturdays and on court days Southerners, (especially men-due to age old double standards) found outlets of vice. Competitions in drinking, fist-fighting, and card playing, and circus entertainments brought out the worst in many men on Southern main streets. Blood sports such as betting on cock fights and dog fights, and manly agricultural contests such as corn shuckings, fodder pullings, and log rollings were often fueled by spirits in liquid form and held on farms and fields, and on plantations.

Spirits in the heavenly form were the domain of Southern homes, churches, and revival tents where women were expected to be the guardians of virtue, and where men were expected to aspire to better natures. No matter the denomination, Sundays were meant to be days of praise, worship, quiet rest, and visiting with friends and family.

As the years rolled on into the early twentieth century, ideas and change came to the South. Inventions such as the telephone, phonograph, the automobile, and moving pictures brought changes to sinners and saints. How to deal with these modern conveniences and their potential to increase sins found in courting, dancing, and entertainment worried many evangelical Southerners. Southern churches had long disciplined their members for unbecoming behavior, but during the early twentieth-century fewer and fewer churches could be found formally correcting their member's misbehavior. Ownby contends that, "No longer satisfied to separate themselves from the sinful excesses of non evangelical behavior, they now tried to stamp out many sins altogether. By giving up church discipline, evangelicals were not giving in to the world but redefining their place in it."

Although Ownby touches on race at a few places in the book, his focus and discussion is clearly on white Southern culture and society. To me this seems somewhat strange because even though Southern society was segregated more and more during these years, whites and blacks were interacting in diverse ways in many of the places that are studied in Subduing Satan. Regardless, the book is very informative and well supported with strong research. I heartily recommend it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Underrated Historic Event: The California Gold Rush

After considering a few new category ideas to examine, I thought I'd take a look at underrated historic events every now and then.

To kick things off I'll provide some information on what I think is one of the most unexamined, yet important events in American history; the California Gold Rush.

John L. O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" in the mid 1840s to describe, in his opinion, America's right to spread republican democracy across North America. The idea of manifest destiny was partly the reason for war against Mexico shortly thereafter. A win in the war with Mexico meant that the country could continue to expand, and would now stretch from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast.

Although the Treaty of Hidalgo (February 1848) officially ended the Mexican-American War, American settlers had already occupied what would become California and had declared it an independent republic. But, less than a month before the treaty was signed James Marshall found gold near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. California and the United States would never be the same.

The discovery set off a stream of migration to the gold fields that wouldn't end for years. People came from near and far to try to strike it rich. They came from Oregon, Mexico, China, Argentina, Australia, England, France, the Pacific Islands, and of course all points east in the United States. Those from the east coast came mainly by three routes. The longest was by sea around the southern tip of South America. The next longest was overland across the American plains and Rocky Mountains. The shortest was by sea to Panama and then across the isthmus to the Pacific. Thousands came by all three routs, and hundreds died in the gold fields or came back in poverty. Some few fortunate ones made their fortune, although those that did strike it rich usually attained their wealth by proving goods and services rather than from taking it from the streams and mountains in the form of yellow rocks and dust.

The California Gold Rush was much more of a multicultural event than some think. As mentioned above prospectors came from across the globe. Languages and customs clashed as men waded streams and partied in saloons. Southerners brought their black slaves to do the hard work of mining, and Native Americans in California that had never seen white men, black men, or yellow men, now had frequent encounters; many of which didn't bode well for the indigenous peoples.

Of course California's population explosion resulted in it becoming the 31st state in 1850. California's admission resulted in a compromise measure to keep a balance of power between the slave states and free states that made up the Union. California was admitted as a free state, so the slaves states were thrown the bone of a stronger fugitive slave law. Also included in the compromise was the organization of the Utah and New Mexico territories, and the prohibition of the slave trade in Washington D.C. (although slavery as a practice wasn't banned there). So, in effect the California Gold Rush was a major precipitating factor in the outbreak of the Civil War a little more than 10 years later.

California's role in the national schism has started to receive more attention in the past few years in books such as The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush (2002) by H.W. Brands and the New American Dream, and The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (2007) by Leonard L. Richards. Hopefully more work will continue on this important era and subject in America's history.

To learn more about the California Gold Rush I recommend the PBS documentary, The Gold Rush, and their interactive website located at:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Online Exhibit Review: Kentucky Military Treasures

Advances in technology have transformed museums. The things that are now possible with online exhibitions is simply amazing. Where once a person would have to make an appointment with a museum's curator to get a close look at artifacts; now its possible to simply log on to certain online exhibits to appreciate valued relics of the past.

The Kentucky Historical Society has recently placed many items in their military history collection into a most impressive online exhibit titled Kentucky Military Treasures.

If you are military history enthusiast this exhibit is not to be missed. But even if you don't have an interest in military history you will appreciate this incredible exhibit.

The exhibit features five different sections: "Signature Stories," "Curator's Corner," "Enduring Voices," "Timeline," and "Resources." Each section reveals a wealth of information and virtual access to the artifacts that is unbelievable. For example, in the "Signature Stories" section, when you click on Richard M. Johnson you can then click on the powder horn thumbnail picture and then enlarge and reduce it and also spin it 360 degrees to see it at different angles. The signature stories are of Kentucky soldiers that are told in a unique manner and span from the War of 1812 to the present conflicts.

In the "Curator's Corner," features are given on the weapons and flags in the KHS collections, as well as a look at the history of the Old State Arsenal, built in 1850. Currently the Old State Arsenal is undergoing a renovation process, but will soon open as the home of many of these Kentucky Military Treasures.

The following link will take you to this excellent online exhibit: Be sure to visit when you get the chance.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Hinton Rowan Helper

Few if any Southerners stirred up as much fuss among their own people before the Civil War as did North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper. His book, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, published in 1857, was hailed by many Northerners, and especially by the infant Republican Party as a work of brilliance, but by Southern planter-politicans as an attempt at anarchy.

Hinton Rowan Helper was born in December 1829 in what was then Rowan County, North Carolina to a small farming family. Helper's father died when he was very young and his inheritance left him over 200 acres, but little direction. Although he dutifully worked the fields, Helper was not fond of farming; he preferred learning and adventure. Helper had received a better than average education from a local academy, and after spending a few years as a store clerk apprentice he left for the excitement of New York City. Like many of his generation, the goldfields of California called out the opportunity for wealth to Helper. He went west in 1851, but returned to North Carolina in 1854. Helper's first book was Land of Gold, published in 1855, and was his story of how his West Coast adventure had failed to meet his high expectations.

The book that would make him famous (or infamous, depending on political viewpoint) was his next work; The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It. In it Helper argues that slavery had dramatically retarded the South's economy. He contended that slavery was the one deterrent for the majority of white Southerners to advance their economic and social status. He thought that if slavery was abolished in the South then it would develop a more diverse economy, increase industrialization, and allow greater advancement for the majority of the population (non-slaveholding whites). His plan was in no way to be confused as a sympathetic plea for the slaves. His later writing makes it clear that he felt that African American slaves were certainly inferior to whites and that there was no place for them in America. In the Impending Crisis he called for deportation of blacks, but with little explanation of how to best accomplish this act. Another underlying reason he wanted slavery abolished is that he felt the institution brought the races into too close proximity of one another.

Helper deftly used the 1850 census to show in tables how the South lagged behind the North in almost every economic category. His free state, slave state comparisons of New York to Virgina, Massachusetts to North Carolina, and Pennsylvania to South Carolina were strong sociological arguments when that discipline was still in its infancy.

The Impending Crisis was published during the few years when tensions between North and South were wearing thin. The Kansas-Nebraska Act four years before had left Northerners fearing that slavery could spread to the westward territories. The events of "Bleeding Kansas" were daily headlines all over the country. Helper only added fuel to the fire by being a Southerner who opposed not only the expansion of slavery to the west, but also called for its end in the South. Helper's strong words naturually infuriated those of the pro-slavery power in the South. He wrote, "Too long we have yielded a submissive obedience to the tyrannical domination of an inflated oligarchy; too long we have submitted to their unjust and savage exactions. Let us now wrest from them the sceptre of power, establish liberty and equal rights [for whites] throughout the land, and henceforth and forever guard our legislative halls from the pollutions and usurpations of the pro-slavery demagogues." To the planter-politicians of the South this was nothing more than a call for anarchy, and thus loss of control and power. It couldn't be tolerated and served as another justification for secession only a few years later.

Helper was rewarded for his "republican" thinking by receiving an appointment to be consul to Argentina from 1861 to 1866. There he married Maria Louisa Rodriguez and they had a child. Helper returned to the United States in 1867 and continued to write about political issues. He took up the cause of white supremacy during the Reconstruction years where he called for the removal of blacks from America.

Helper's life was shortened by his own hand when he committed suicide in Washington DC in 1902. He had spent his last years in poverty and petitioning to anyone that would listen for a railroad link between North and South America. He felt this link would bring economic recovery to his beloved South and help remove the unwanted black and brown people from the United States.

The Impending Crisis today is a must read for students wanting to understand the dynamics that helped lead to Civil War, and should serve as strong evidence to those that feel that slavery had nothing to do with the outbreak of the war.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Dangerfield Newby

A letter was found upon the body of one of the five African Americans in John Brown's raiding party on Harper's Ferry. The letter was quite well written, especially for a enslaved person not allowed to learn to read or write in antebellum Virginia. It was a letter of love and desperation; it asked for deliverance. 

 It reads as follows: August 16, 1859 Dear Husband. your kind letter came duly to hand and it gave me much pleasure to here from you and especely to hear you are better of your rhumatism and hope when I here from you again you may be entirely well. I want you to buy me as soon as possible for if you do not get me somebody else will the servents are very disagreeable thay do all thay can to set my mistress againt me Dear Husband you not the trouble I see the last two years has ben like a trouble dream to me it is said Master is in want of monney if so I know not what time he may sell me an then all my bright hops of the futer are blasted for there has ben one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles that is to be with you for if I thought I shoul never see you this earth would have no charms for me do all you Can for me witch I have no doubt you will I want to see you so much the Chrildren are all well the baby cannot walk yet all it can step around enny thing by holding on it is very much like Agnes I mus bring my letter to Close as I have no newes to write you mus write soon and say when you think you Can Come. Your affectionate Wife HARRIET NEWBY. 

Dangerfield Newby did all he thought he could to try to free his wife and other enslaved people of Virginia by joining Brown and his raiders. His and Brown's efforts to bring freedom to the bondsmen of the Old Dominion proved to be unsuccessful, but their futile attempt in 1859 would eventually bear fruit in 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States. Dangerfield Newby was apparently born in Culpeper County, Virginia, around 1815, to his Scottish White master father and his Black enslaved mother. Since Newby's mother was a enslaved, he too was bound to that status. Newby was later freed by his master father in 1858 when the elder Newby moved to Ohio. But Dangerfield was unable to rid slavery from his existence as he had married Harriet, an enslaved woman. Newby traveled throughout Ohio trying to raise funds to free his wife, but her master in Virginia refused to sell her and his youngest child for under $1000. Newby had raised almost $750 at the time of the raid, but unable to raise more he must have felt that joining Brown and the other raiders was his best chance to free his wife. 

 Another letter, this one written in April of 1859, has also survived. Like the one written in August it is a letter of longing. Harriet asked for Dangerfield to come visit that fall no matter what. He, of course, never made it. Dear Husband I mus now write you apology for not writing you before this but I know you will excuse me when tell you Mrs. gennings has been very sick she has a baby a little girl ben a grate sufferer her breast raised and she has had it lanced and I have had to stay with her day and night so you know I had no time to write but she is now better and one of her own servent is now sick I am well that is of the grates importance to you I have no newes to write you only the chrildren are all well I want to see you very much but are looking fordard to the promest time of your coming oh Dear Dangerfield com this fall with out fail monny or no money I want to see you so much that is one bright hope I have before me nothing more at present but remain your affectionate wife HARRIETT NEWBY 

During the excitement of the raid, Newby shot John Boerly, a Harper's Ferry town grocer, who was on his way to work. Boerly was shot in the groin and bled to death shortly thereafter. Newby and Brown's son Oliver, along with some other raiders tried to hold the Potomac River bridge when they were forced back. 

During the retreat Newby was shot in the lower part of the neck; some said with a metal spike. He was the first of Brown's men to die that day. Newby would not rest in peace. Infuriated townspeople cut off his ears and other body parts, poked sticks in his wounds, and threw him into a ditch where he was soon found by wandering town hogs and partly eaten by them. Newby's Harper's Ferry raid was over quickly. 

Harriet Newby and her children were sold after the raid to a Louisiana planter. It is not know what became of them. Newby's remains eventually were taken to John Brown's farm in North Elba, New York, and buried there.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Visit to Woodrow Wilson's Birthplace: Staunton, VA

Labor Day weekends provide a wonderful opportunity for visiting historic sites. For this year's edition of the holiday weekend my girlfriend Michele and I visited historic Staunton, Virginia (pronounced Stanton). Unfortunately I had never actually been into the town of Staunton; although I had been to some sites near there such as the Frontier Culture Museum. If I had known what I was missing I would have visited much sooner.

During our time in Staunton we were able to take in a visit to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, which also includes the home where he was born on December 28, 1856.

The museum was quite well done. The staff was very personable and made us feel very welcome. In the museum's galleries there are a number of exhibits on different periods of Wilson's life. It was interesting to learn about his mother and father, his early life, and his personal accomplishments. For example, I was not aware that he was the only President (1913-1921) that earned a PhD. He also served as the president of Princeton, the governor of New Jersey, and was the 27th or 28th president (depending on how you count Grover Cleveland's two administrations). He studied at a number of different institutions, including Davidson College, Johns Hopkins University, the Princeton. The largest part of the exhibit naturally featured his two terms in office as president, which of course included the World War One years. Wilson's stance on race has been the subject of quite a bit of scholarship in the past decade or so, and while there was some mention of his attitudes on race in the museum, it was interpreted in text by stating that he was largely representative of white men of his era who thought that racial segregation was best for both blacks and whites. Wilson's upbringing in mainly Southern states probably influenced much of his thinking on race. Also a highlight of the museum is Wilson's 1919 Pace Arrow Presidential limousine. The auto has been lovingly restored to its original magnificence.

The best part of the visit was the guided tour of Wilson's birthplace house (pictured above). Our guide was great. He was a former teacher and he really knew his Wilson stuff. The birthplace home is located in the Gospel Hill section of Staunton. It was called Gospel Hill because of the religious meetings that were held at blacksmith Sampson Eagon's shop. The house was built in 1846 by the First Presbyterian Church of Staunton to house the minister (Wilson's father) and his family. The Greek Revival style home has 12 rooms and is furnished with both representative period furnishings and Wilson family furnishings. Our guide informed us that the church rented three or four slaves from local owners for the Wilson's use as domestic servants. Unfortunately, not much more is known about the servants. While the front (street side) of the house is impressive, the back is amazing. The three-level back porch overlooks the home's beautiful gardens and what is now Mary Baldwin College.

If you ever have the chance to visit Staunton please do so and take the time to stop in and look through the museum and take a tour of the birthplace house. Also take advantage of the great dining spots and historic atmosphere of the downtown area. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Online Exhibit Review: Beauty, Virtue & Vice

As one can see from the majority of the posts I write, I am fascinated by 19th century American society and culture. From 1800, when a young nation was just coming into being, to 1900, when a plethora of inventions and discoveries were starting to emerge, so much was changing and happening. During those years, like many other things, fashion changed too, but the ideal beautiful woman largely remained much the same.

The American Antiquarian Society is currently showing an online exhibit titled, Beauty, Virtue & Vice: Images of Women in Nineteenth-Century American Prints. In this exhibit twelve different topics are covered and a number of examples are provided to give visual testimony to their interpretation.

Some to the topics that one might expect to see are of course explored, such as, the "Standard of Beauty," "Ideal Beauty," "Women as Objects of Beauty and Desire." But, also examined are topics such as "Variations on the Beauty Standard," which explains that even women from different ethic groups (Native Americans, African Americans, Islanders) were sometimes portrayed in a beautiful light, even though the population was largely racist. On the "Threats to True Womanhood: American Slavery" page, the amalgamation pictures vividly illustrate white America's fear of race mixing, and a different take on how important it was to them to keep white beauty "protected."

Certainly the 19th century white woman was expected to remain in her sphere of influence and not to venture into the "men's world." Women in that era were felt to be the bearers of morals to their children, and thus were held to expectations that men were not subjected to. Women had to be pious, submissive, pure, and domestic. Women who did not conform to society's standards were often mocked, shunned, and sometimes ostracised from the community. But as the page, "Women in Public Life" shows, women that demanded equal rights, participated in what were considered unwholesome occupations and habits were also sometimes portrayed as beautiful.

One thing that hasn't changed since the 19th century is the notion that "sex sells." On the page "Images of Women in Advertising Strategies" beautiful women are shown to market just about everything. From sheet music, to playing cards, to hair tonic, to soap, beautiful women adorned the packaging and advertisements of products in effort to get both men and women to buy them.

Probably the most common and beloved image of women (both in the 19th century and now) is that of mother and nurse. On the page"Idealizing True Womanhood: Images of Women at Home," beautiful women perform those age old duties of mothering and healing the ones she loves. The images on this page are highly romanticised and give the viewer the idea of what women were truly mean to be and do in the 19th century.

I encourage you to take a few minutes and view the images of women in the pictures shown. In addition take time to read the text that interprets the pictures; it is almost as interesting as the pictures. The following is a link to the exhibit:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Loss at the Wilderness, A Win at Port Republic

About seven or eight years ago a Civil War buddy and I took an extended Virginia and Maryland battlefield driving tour. One of the many spots we visited were to the battlefields of Cross Keys and Port Republic, near Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was taken at how rural the landscape had remained over the years and I remember thinking that I hoped it would stay that way.

Thanks the good work of the Civil War Preservation Trust, the Shenandoah Battlefields Foundation, and a number of dedicated individuals, almost 200 acres have just been added to those already preserved at this battlefield. This is great news coming on the heels of the Wilderness Walmart setback last week. Here is the CWPT's release:

"I now have the privilege to let you know that CWPT has successfully raised our portion of the matching grant to help save 178 absolutely key acres at Port Republic, Virginia!

Partnering with the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF), we are helping to buy the development rights and preserve forever 178 acres at Stonewall Jackson's final battle of the 1862 Valley Campaign.

Of the total $420,000 cost, the SVBF is putting in $140,000 of the price, the Commonwealth of Virginia is putting in $140,000, and we have applied for an additional federal grant of $98,000...meaning CWPT's final $42,000 has sealed the deal. This is a $10-to-$1 match of your donation dollar.

Good economy...bad economy...ANY economy...this was a great opportunity to save significant land at a vitally important battlefield. I hope you agree.

I also hope that you will take a look at the other on-going preservation fights we are engaged in, and will help to the extent you can, so we can achieve even more victories! Thank you for your tremendous dedication, incredible support and wonderful generosity."

Congratulations CWPT and Shenandoah Battlefields Foundation. Great job and keep up the good work!