Saturday, October 31, 2009

John Brown's Raid: Coincidences and Ironies

John Brown's raid was something of a dress rehearsal for major actors in the coming drama that would be the Civil War. Using hind-sight, historians have noted the coincidences that seemingly abounded among the players in the Harpers Ferry tragedy.

Brown had run into United States soldiers -later Civil War generals -Edwin V. Sumner (Union) and J.E.B. Stuart (Confederate) during the Bleeding Kansas years. Brown could not have known back in Kansas that Stuart would be the one that would come to the door of the fire engine house in Harpers Ferry to demand his surrender.

Colonel Robert E. Lee would be sent to Harpers Ferry while on leave at his Arlington home to supervise the counter-insurgency operations. Lee, of course, would reach the peak of Confederate command during the war and became the South's most famous general. Thomas Jonathan "soon to be Stonewall" Jackson was in charge of a group of Virginia Military Institute cadets that provided security at Brown's execution by request of Governor Henry A. Wise. In the groups of militia at Brown's hanging was an actor that would later achieve a notoriety that he would never see by his reputation on the stage. John Wilkes Booth might actually have taken a lesson from Brown's book when he used a terrorist action in his assassination of Lincoln in 1865. Henry Clay Pate, who would become a colonel of a cavalry regiment under J.E.B. Stuart during the war, visited Brown while in jail. Brown had captured Pate in Bleeding Kansas and had spared the Virginian's life.

Among the strangest of ironies was the fact that the first casualty of the Harpers Ferry raid (an action designed to help African Americans) was a free black man; railroad baggage handler Hayward Shepherd. Shepherd had inadvertently run into raiders Oliver Brown and Stewart Taylor as he looked for a co-worker during the initial chaos of the raid. When asked to stop on the railroad bridge, Shepherd walked back toward the railroad office, both men shot at him and hit Shepherd in the back. He would die the following day. In later years the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans would dedicate a monument to Shepherd in Harpers Ferry for his "character and faithfulness." The monument is an interesting interpretative spin on what was probably nothing more than a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Letter to John Brown in Jail

In the month and a half that John Brown was incarcerated for his leading role in the Harpers Ferry raid, his image among the Northern population changed drastically. His clear and concise answers to questions by the prosecution team and by newspaper reporters, brought to the public a different side of Brown that few who had heard of his terrible Kansas reputation believed possible.

One person who was not impressed by Brown though was Mahala Doyle. Mahala was the wife of James Doyle, and the mother of William and Drury Doyle; all three killed by Brown and his men back in Pottawatomie, Kansas in 1856.

The Doyles had moved from Tennessee to Kansas in 1855 because, like many poor whites, they felt the future was not very bright in a slave state for nonslaveholders. To them, the Kansas Territory out west hopefully offered a new start. But, like others that moved to the plains, the Doyles got caught up in the antislavery vs. proslavery fight. In a war like bleeding Kansas, people who sat on the fence about the slavery issue often ended up having to choose a side. The Doyles chose to support the proslavery Law and Order Party, not because they liked slavery, but because they hated abolitionists more; and for that decision they would suffer.

Two events are believed to be the source for John Brown's rage on the night of May 24, 1856. On May 21, proslavery forces had attacked the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas, burning the Free State Hotel and destroying the printing presses of the town's printing shops. On May 22, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks had clubbed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner at his desk in the capital building in Washington. Brown, long furious over the pacifism and perceived lack of backbone shown by abolitionists, had had enough. He would make a stand; make an attack, to show that those who opposed slavery could be as brutal as those that favored slavery.

As Brown's men knocked on the cabin door of James Doyle, his wife Mahala and their six children slept. When Doyle opened the door, the men rushed into the cabin and snatched James, and his two oldest sons William and Drury. Mahala begged Brown to spare sixteen year old John, which he did. The three Drury men were taken into the nearby woods and John Brown's sons Owen and Salmon hacked them to ribbons with fierce broadswords. To make sure James Doyle was dead, Brown fired a shot into his head. The attack was bloody and brutal as fingers and arms were severed from bodies and deep gashes were inflicted to heads and chests.

When Brown was captured and jailed over three years later, word of course spread across the nation like wildfire. Mahala Doyle who had moved back to Tennessee, took a few minutes to scratch out some words to Brown as he sat awaiting his fate. She wrote the following:

Chattanooga Tennessee 20th November 1859
John Brown
Altho vengeance is not mine, I confess, that I do feel gratified to hear that you ware stopt in your fiendish career at Harper's Ferry, with the loss of your two sons, you can now appreciate my distress, in Kansas, when you then and there entered my house at midnight and arrested my husband and two boys and took them out of the yard and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearing, you cant say you done it to free our slaves, we had none and never expected to own one, but has only made me a poor disconsolate widow with helpless children while I feel for your folly. I do hope & trust that you will meet your just reward. O how it pained my Heart to hear the dying groans of my Husband and children if this scrawl give you any consolation you are welcome to it.
Mahala Doyle
[Noted on Back] my son John Doyle whose life I begged of (you) is now grown up and is very desirous to be at Charleston on the day of your execution would certainly be there if his means would permit it, that he might adjust the rope around your neck if gov: wise would permit it
M Doyle.
[address leaf] To John Brown Care of the Jailer Commander of the Army Charles Town. At Harper's Ferry Charlestown Jefferson County V.A.

It is interesting to think what Brown must have thought as he read these words. Did he feel any sorrow for having committed those murders in Kansas in 1856, and having caused this woman so much suffering? Or, did he still view the bloody deed as part of his work as God's active servant in ridding the United States of the terrible stain of slavery?

Monday, October 26, 2009

John Brown's Weapons

John Brown came to Harpers Ferry in part to capture firearms from the national arsenal that he hoped to eventually place in the hands of slaves.

Not many people realize though that he and his men arrived at Harpers Ferry quite well armed already. For his attack, Brown would choose several weapons to arm his men, some of which were the most advanced of the day.

In 1857 Brown had been given 200 Sharps rifles by the Massachusetts Kansas Committee. These rifles were unlike the common muzzle loaders of this era and had become quite popular with the antislavery free-staters in the Kansas wars. Some of the Sharps were given the name "Beecher's Bibles" because a number of them had been sent out to the plains under the auspices of being boxed Bibles, and had been praised by the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher for their effectiveness in combating the proslavery Missouri forces. The 52 caliber breech loading Sharps rifles were invented by Christian Sharps, were produced in Hartford, Connecticut, and were one of the most accurate and fastest firing weapons available. The rifles given to Brown had already been shipped west and were stored in Iowa. When Brown eventually settled on his plans for Harpers Ferry he had 198 of the rifles shipped back east, and in September they were sent to Chambersburg, and then to the Maryland farm where Brown and his men were preparing to make their raid.

Brown's most well recognized weapons were pikes (pictured top). These fierce spears had ten inch double-edged blades attached to six foot long ash handles, and were manufactured by Connecticut blacksmith Charles Blair. Brown had contracted with Blair while on the same fund raising tour to the East in 1857 that had earned him the Sharps rifles. Brown thought these lance-like weapons would make intimidating tools for the free state settlers in Kansas to keep Missouri border ruffians at bay. Brown signed a contract with Blair to pay him $1 per pike for 1000 pikes. Brown was unable to pay the required full amount before returning to Kansas so they remained in Connecticut until 1859.

Brown thought the pikes would fit in perfectly with his Harpers Ferry plan. He believed the pikes would be perfect to give out to men, both black and white, that responded to his call who were not familiar with handling firearms. Brown hoped the fearsome pikes would force shocked and awed slaveholders to relinquish their bondsmen and instill fear in Southern whites in general.

In June of 1859 Brown paid the final installment on the pikes. And, in September, 950 of them were shipped to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and then on to the Kennedy Farm, just a few miles from Harpers Ferry. Few of the pikes were used in the Harpers Ferry raid, but the large shipment was discovered in the aftermath and were used for political capital by Southerners. Fiery Virginian Edmund Ruffin sent a pike to each of the governors of the Southern states with a note attached that said, "Sample of the favors designed for us by our Northern Brethren."

The other weapon Brown was supplied with was the 31 caliber Maynard pistol. These revolvers were produced by the Massachusetts Arms Company in Chicopee Falls and used a special tape-roll percussion cap that looked much like the cap rolls used by cap guns today. Unfortunately for Brown, the 200 Maynard pistols arrived at the Kennedy Farm without the proper percussion caps and were thus useless to him and his men.

Weapons that have provenance to John Brown's raid are some of the most sought after by serious collectors. Recently one of the John Brown pikes sold at auction for $13,000. Others pikes are in the museum collections at the Museum of the Confederacy, Harpers Ferry National Park, the Smithsonian, and the Kansas State Historical Society. The National Firearms Museum has one of Brown's Sharps rifles, and the Smithsonian has John Brown's personal Sharps, but not one that was at the Harper's Ferry raid.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Would Harpers Ferry Have Happened Without the Secret Six?

Almost any organizer planning an event will tell you that participation and funding are of utmost importance in order to encourage success. John Brown had participants for his Harpers Ferry Raid (although he certainly wished for more), and thanks to six principal Northern men, he had a source of financial funding and moral support. These men had given money and arms to Brown while he was waging his antislavery war in Kansas, and Brown readily sought them (and their money) out before his planned raid on Harpers Ferry.

Who were these so called "Secret Six?" All were noted abolitionists, and five of them had connections to the New England Transcendentalist movement. Two were or had been ministers, one was a wealthy businessman, another was a millionaire heir, and two were respected academics.

The lone non-New Englander was 62 year-old Gerrit Smith. Over his lifetime Smith ran the full spectrum of antislavery. At one time he was a committed colonizationist, but over the 1840s and 1850s he had developed into immediate abolitionist. Smith had inherited millions of dollars in script and land from his father Peter Smith, who had been in business with John Jacob Astor. Gerrit Smith had given much of his land in up-state New York (North Elba) to freed and escaped slaves for homesteads. In fact, the Brown family had moved there in the late 1840s. After Brown's successful 1858 raid into Missouri that brought eleven slaves out of bondage, Smith was impressed and provided Brown with additional much needed funds. In the aftermath of Harpers Ferry, Smith would destroy his correspondence with Brown in order help distance himself from the event and had himself committed to an lunatic asylum for a time.

57 year-old Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe had by the time of Harpers Ferry Howe led an interesting life. He had served as a surgeon in the Greek Revolution in the 1820s, and had become involved in antislavery work in the 1840s. He was married to Julia Ward, who would later write the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," based on the tune to the song "John Brown's Body." Howe had funded antislavery efforts in Kansas during the 1850s, but he had opposed the use of violence and was lukewarm at best on Brown's plans for Harpers Ferry. After the event Howe fled to Canada and published a disclaimer of his involvement with Brown.

48 year-old Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was involved in almost every reform movement in the 19th century. He was an advocate for temperance, women's rights, penitentiary reform, and public education. He was vocally adamant against slavery and strongly encouraged slave insurrections. He had provided funds and arms for antislavery forces during the Bleeding Kansas wars, and had become convinced that violence was the proper response and cure for the institution of slavery. Parker had left America in February of 1859 to recuperate from a health breakdown related to tuberculosis, but continued to support Brown. Parker later published a letter titled "John Brown's Expedition Reviewed." Parker died in Italy in May of 1860 from tuberculosis.

36 year-old Thomas Wentworth Higginson like Parker had been a minister, but had been forced to resign by his church for being too radically liberal in his views in the 1840s. Higginson had traveled to Kansas and participated in antislavery activities there in the 1850s before returning to Boston and continuing his work as a writer there. Higginson had urged Brown to undertake his Harpers Ferry plan almost a year before it actually happened and was the only "Secret Six" member who did not flee the country and he never denounced Brown's raid or his involvement. In the Civil War he was a colonel of the 1st South Carolina Colored Infantry.

49 year-old George Luther Stearns was a wealthy factory owner that had met Brown and immediately took to him "like iron to the magnet." Stearns provided both arms and money to Brown. While visiting with Stearns in Boston, Brown became friends with Stearns's young son, to whom Brown wrote a fascinating autobiographical letter. Stearns too left the United States for Canada after the raid was put down, but he remained proud of his involvement with and support for Brown. During the Civil War Stearns helped raise black troops for the Union army.

28 year-old Harvard educated Franklin Sanborn was a Boston-area teacher (Emerson's children were among his students) and secretary of the Massachussetts State Kansas Committee. Sanborn had introduced Brown to Parker and Higginson, and had pledged allegiance to Brown and his cause, often providing financial (sometimes very small amounts) support and moral encouragement through letters to Brown. In 1885 Sanborn published a Brown biography; The Life and Letters of John Brown.

These six men certainly helped Brown's Harpers Ferry plan unfold. Without their support of arms and money it is likely that Brown could not have kept his small army fed, clothed, and armed. While in later years some of the six felt remorse for their support and Brown's use of violence, others cherished and reveled in their association with Brown and their role in helping bring on the Civil War and the conflict that helped begin the end of slavery in the United States.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Was Youth a Factor in John Brown's Raid?

George Bernard Shaw is quoted as having said or wrote something to the effect that youth is a gift wasted on the young. I suppose what he meant is that when we are young we don't appreciate all the greatness of life due to inexperience. Much along the same lines, but in a somewhat different context, is the thought that youth make the best soldiers. Being young often means being impetuous. Sometimes being young means being daring. Being young can mean acting without thinking. And, being young often means carrying through on a cause when self preservation is whispering in your ear.

Could there be something to the fact, that of the twenty-one men who went with John Brown to Harpers Ferry, only Brown and two others were older than thirty-four years old? Could youthful enthusiasm have blinded these young men from thoughts of deadly repercussions? Or, was it commitment to their leader and cause that made them seemingly ignore that clear and present danger and rush into history?

For your consideration, here is a roll of the raiders, and their ages, that followed Brown:
Jeremiah Anderson, 26 years old
Osborne Perry Anderson, 29 years old
Oliver Brown, 21 years old
Owen Brown, 34 years old
Watson Brown, 24 years old
John E. Cook, 30 years old
John Anthony Copeland, Jr., 25 years old
Barclay Coppoc, 20 years old
Edwin Coppoc, 24 years old
Shields Green, approx. 23 years old
Albert Hazlett, 22 years old
John Henry Kagi, 24 years old
Lewis Leary, 24 years old
William Leeman, 20 years old
Francis Jackson Meriam, 21 years old
Dangerfield Newby, approximately 35 years old
Aaron Stephens, approximately 26 years old
Stewart Taylor, 22 years old
Dauphin Thompson, 21 years old
William Thompson, 26 years old
Charles Plummer Tidd, 25 years old
Of the raiders, sixteen were white men, three were free African Americans, one was a freed slave, and one was a fugitive slave. Five of the men escaped the raid and pursuit dragnet. Four of the five that escaped later fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Just finished reading - They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook

In an introductory historical methods class as an undergraduate student we were asked to read An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. This brief but fascinating book provided the story of Wakeman, a tomboy-type young woman from rural New York, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted to fight in the Civil War. No, it is not a novel it is a true tale. Her letters to her family give a story of duty to her country, life in the army, and her determination to soldier as well as the men surrounding her. Unfortunately, like so many male soldiers, she gave the ultimate sacrifice, her life, to her cause and country when she died of disease in Louisiana.

Lauren Cook, the author of An Uncommon Soldier is one of the co-authors of They Fought Like Demons. Cook is an independent scholar from North Carolina. Her partner in this work, DeAnne Blanton, is a senior military archivist at the National Archives and specializes in 19th century army records.

They Fought Like Demons not only tells the story of New Yorker Union soldier Wakeman, and Kentuckian Confederate Mary Ann Clark (see my May 29 posting), but also well over 200 other women who disguised themselves as men to enter the service of their country.

The authors contend that women were able to remain secretly in the armies for a number of reasons. First, entry examinations were not very thorough in that time. A check of sight, hearing, and teeth (to tear cartridges) was often as far as physicians often went to claim a soldier fit for duty. Ill-fitting clothes were the rule rather than the exception in the Civil War, and thus hid women soldier's unmasculine figures. In addition, women had the ability to separate themselves from comrades when nature called. Instead of visiting the community sinks, female soldiers (and male ones too) often sought out a more private setting for their bodily functions. Bathing was hit and miss in Civil War armies, so detection by this method also was not always easy, and with so many young men in the armies, it was often difficult to tell the difference between beardless boys and disguised women unable to grow facial hair.

Women soldiers were most often detected when they had physical features that gave them away. Small hands and feet, along with a soft womanly face or neck lines sometimes made comrades suspicious. Also, feminine movements such as jumping or throwing also sometimes belied their disguises. But, the most common determiner was when women were wounded or sick and had to be examined by a physician. Another give away was when they became pregnant and remained in service but were unable to perform their duties or hide their condition.

Why did some women go to all the trouble to enlist? The authors relate that women's reasons for becoming soldiers varied widely. Most women that went into the service did so for the same reason men did; a true desire to help their side and for patriotic reasons. Some wanted to remain with their male lovers when they enlisted. Others saw the opportunity for adventure and freedom and a better paying job than they could get as a woman. Some that remained in the service undetected and came home after the war, chose to keep up the disguise to maintain the level of citizenship that they were afforded to them in they army as men but denied to them as in civilian life as women, such as voting and property rights.

In their conclusion the authors explain why studies of women soldiers in the Civil War are important: "Clearly, the service of women did not alter the outcome of battles and campaigns, and the service of women did not alter the course of the war. Their individual contributions and exploits are fascinating but are not the primary reasons for their historical significance. Women soldiers of the Civil War merit recognition because they were there and because they were not supposed to be. They deserve remembrance because their actions made them uncommon and revolutionary, possessed of a valor at odds with Victorian and, in some respects, even modern views of women's proper role. Quite simply, the women in the ranks of the Union and Confederate armies refused to stay in their socially mandated place, even though it meant resorting to subterfuge to achieve their goal of being soldiers. They faced down not only the guns of the adversary but the sexual prejudices of their society."

They Fought Like Demons is an easy and quick read that needs to be in every Civil War enthusiast's library. Without it, the story of the Civil War soldier is not complete.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

More John Brown: Online Information

While doing some searching on the web for John Brown information I have come across a multitude of pictures and perspectives on this historically controversial figure. And, with this being the sesquicentennial anniversary of his famous effort at Harper's Ferry, his coverage has naturally increased. Two sites that I have been impressed with are the Civil War Preservation Trust's site and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History's site.

The CWPT has had an ongoing effort to preserve land at historic Harper's Ferry for a number of years and they have been largely successful. Their site is quite brief in nature on the surface, but once you explore it, there is actually a lot of information to be had. I especially liked the map that showed the route of Brown and his raiders from their base at the Kennedy Farm in Maryland to the town of Harper's Ferry. Also, there are three excellent published articles. Two are by Harper's Ferry Historian Dennis Frye that were featured in the latest issues of the CWPT's magazine Hallowed Ground. One of these articles is a brief history of the raid, while the other looks at how the event has been commemorated over the years. Great stuff! Another article, borrowed from Civil War Times Illustrated about the raid, is by Tim Rowland. The site includes an impressive photo gallery of images of participants and places associated with the raid, but unfortunately the images do not have labels that describe the people or their significance. In addition, there are online lesson plans for teachers, online resources for more learning, and several primary resources about this monumental event. The CWPT's John Brown site is located at:

The Gilder Lehrman online exhibition of John Brown is an ongoing project that is being featured in conjunction with a formal exhibition now being shown at the New York Historical Society. The site will feature additional information each month while the exhibition is in progress.

The site offers some special images of primary source documents that describe the national events that led up to Harper's Ferry, Brown's personal history up to Harper's Ferry, the political violence that helped lead to Civil War, and Brown's legacy from the end of the war to the present. This site is located at:

Happy browsing!

Friday, October 16, 2009

150 Years Ago Today: John Brown's Raid

One of America's most significant events in history happened 150 years ago today. In my mind John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry on the evening of October 16, 1859 was the spark that brought the nation to civil war 18 months later.

Many people do not realize that Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry wasn't his first assault on the institution of slavery. In 1856 he and several of his followers attacked a family of Southern settlers in Kansas, hacking five men to death with swords. Then, in 1858 he helped assist a number of Missouri slaves make their way to Canada and freedom.

So, what made Harper's Ferry so important to go down in history? Well, timing has a lot to do with it. Of course he didn't know that the nation would go to war a year and a half later, but the raid's importance is largely tied to and included in the important events preceding the Civil War. Another important fact is that the United States arsenal there made it an attractive target for Brown and his men. They hoped to capture the weapons stored there, arm area slaves with them, and then carry on a war against slavery by using the Appalachian Mountains as a stronghold. Brown's plan has received its fair share of criticism. He attacked in an area where there was not a large number of slaves. He only had a small band of committed followers to complete a mission that called for many more. In fact, some historians believe that he went into the raid wishing to be captured to become a martyr, and thereby stir the national controversy over slavery to the fever pitch it became and create the war he would not live to see.

Brown has been labeled many things over the years. Some have called him a madman, others have called him a terrorist, but I think the best labels would be "dedicated" and "earnest." He hated slavery like probably no other white man in his time. Socially he felt totally comfortable in the presence of blacks and he treated them like he did anyone else; a very rare thing in the mid-19th century. To Brown violence was the means toward ending the scourge of slavery. He believed that it had to be cut out like a cancer.

As we know Brown's mission failed to free a large number of slaves immediately. But, it could also be argued that his plan and actions eventually did accomplish his goal. By straining relations between the North and South over this most divisive of issues he did actually help bring on the war that would in effect end slavery in America.

Brown is an interesting figure that has received his fair share of historical attention; some of which are better than others. If you want to learn more about him and his mission try Stephen Oates's, To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, or David S. Reynold's, John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

My Visit to Gettysburg National Battlefield Visitor Center

As I mentioned in the last post, I was in Gettysburg last weekend. I had heard a lot about the new $135 million Visitor Center, both good and bad, since it opened about a year ago, so I really wanted to see it for myself and make my own judgement.

The first thing that surprised me was the parking lot. I had been to the old Visitor Center a number of times, and it was always busy, but I don't remember the parking lot there being all that full. When we got to the new Center at about 11:00 am last Friday, we had to park in the last row of the last lot. It was that full. I suppose I could have been negative and complained about having to walk so far, but I couldn't, I was too happy to see a historic site having so much business.

The new building is quite impressive. The main entrance is stone and the rest is a kind of red siding that I think is architecturally designed to look somewhat like a traditional Pennsylvania, a barn on steroids that is.

Inside it has a huge bookstore, a cozy looking restaurant, ticket lines, and lots of people. There is no charge to look around, but if you want to see any of the special features you have to buy a ticket. I can't imagine that any Civil War nut would not want to see what all is available. The tickets for the museum, film, and Cyclorama were only $9.50 each with a AAA discount. We looked around at some of the weapons and artifact displays while we waited for our time to see the film. I had heard that some people were disappointed that the huge number of weapons and artifacts that were displayed at the old center were not available for viewing now. I didn't think this was a significant drawback because now the museum holds a great deal of artifacts and they are displayed and interpreted better than before.

The film "A New Birth of Freedom" was quite well done and narrated by Morgan Freeman. I especially liked the images, pictures, and documents that they chose to show in the antebellum section of the film. Although only about 2o some minutes, the film deftly covers the events that led up to the war, the three days of battle at Gettysburg, the end of the war, and even covered a little Reconstruction. Overall the film reemphasizes the importance of learning about this monumental era and the relevance of it on our present lives.

From the film we were taken to the area where the restored Cyclorama painting is now displayed. This huge painting-in-the-round measures some 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet in height. The narration and light show almost made me feel like I was right in the thick of the Union lines that received the brunt of Pickett's charge. The recent 5 year restoration project of the painting, which was painted in 1884, makes this a must see. The foreground of the painting is littered with battlefield debris to make the feeling all that much more life-like and visually leads right to the edge of the enormous painting.

Next we went through the museum. I was very impressed with the displays and interpretation. There were interactive computer displays throughout the museum, and a number of short videos. Instead of covering just the three days of battle (which it did in great detail), the museum went much further, by explaining the causes of the conflict, and the significant events of the war.

We finished our visit with a trip to the bookstore. I was good and didn't buy any books, but they had just about any Civil War book that you could ask for, and certainly almost every book on Gettysburg. The store also had a plethora of other items that museum stores carry, but with a much wider selection than usually available.

I left feeling good about the new Visitor Center and wondering why some people were not pleased with it. I guess you can't suit everyone. If you ever get to the Gettysburg area, you should make time to stop in and see it for yourself.

For more information see their web site:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Have Your "Likeness" Made at R.J. Gibson Photography

Amateur and professional historians alike are thankful for the invention of photography. When the Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre presented his work in the late 1830s, the ability to tell stories about the past changed forever. The daguerreotype, and later processes such as the tintype and ambrotype (glass plate) quickly made photographic images of the past a more significant source of information than painted portraits. Whereas painted portraits are often subject to an artist's interperation, photographs capture exactly what is in front of the lens.

Last Friday Michele and I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and took the opportunity to call on Ron Gibson's photographic studio on Steinwehr Avenue to have our "image struck." We had wanted to have a period picture made for quite some time and thought we would take a few minutes to do so while we were so close to one of the most respected period photographers around. When it was all said and done were so happy we chose Mr. Gibson's studio because Ron and his wife Dee made the experience really special. Not only was it fun and entertaining, but it was an educational experience as well. Ron took the time tell and show us the photography process the mid-nineteenth century way in great detail. Both Ron and Dee took extra-care to find the right wardrobe selections for us to make our civilian appearance period correct and to position us in an era-appropriate pose.

The process of making our tintype was fascinating. First the sheet of metal had to be prepared by brushing all dust and debris away to make a clean and clear surface. Then a chemical was poured over the sheet of metal to create the "film" that would capture the image. We were then posed, even to the point of using a period "headrest" for Michele since she was standing to make sure she didn't move while the picture was being taken. The "tin" was placed into the camera, the lens opened and as about twelve seconds ticked off, the image was made. Then the tin was put into a chemical bath, and then finally another bath in which the image you see above slowly emerged.

Getting a period photo made was one of those rare chances to step back in time. I highly recommend it, even if you aren't a history nut like me. You will come away impressed at how difficult it must have been for period photographers to practice their craft and how special it felt to have your "likeness" made so long ago.

To find out more about Ron Gibson's photography please visit his web site at:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Web Site Review: Slavery in the North

Few people with only a basic understanding of American history know that slavery was legal for a number of years in the North after the Revolutionary War. Before, during, and shortly after America's war with England slavery flourished in Northern urban areas such as New York and Philadelphia where African Americans were used for both domestic and commercial labor.

In effort to correct much of this misunderstanding and to shed more light on the institution of slavery in the North, Mr. Douglas Harper has created a web site chocked full of information of slavery in the Northern states.

I found the pages on "Northern Profits from Slavery," and "Fugitive Slaves" especially interesting. Northern shippers, particularly from New England benefited from the transportation of Africans to America until 1808. Congress forbade the slave trade in the Constitution to end in that designated year as a compromise between the states. The page on fugitives brings up the important Prigg vs Pennsylvania case that influenced much later legislation on escaped slaves.

All of the information that is provides is very useful and informative, but is not presented in the most aesthetically pleasing manner. Another downside to the site is that it takes a significant amount of time to load. But, other than those two drawbacks, I really enjoyed browsing the site and learning more about "Slavery in the North;" hopefully you will too.

The site can be viewed at the following link:

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Power of Partnership: Rosenwald School Building Program

One important thing that I have learned from studying history is that partnerships can make a big difference in the lives of others. Decisions to help those less fortunate or in difficult circumstances can impact the lives of those in need like few other things.

In 1912, African American educator Booker T. Washington and Sears and Roebuck Company president Julius Rosenwald met and a relationship was formed that would certainly impact the lives of thousands of African American Southerners.

Rosenwald was a member on the Tuskegee Institute's Board of Trustees and had provided generous funds to the school's mission of educating black youth. In 1913 and 1914 six small schools in rural Alabama were built from surplus funds that Rosenwald had provided. In the next few years a school construction program was started and based at Tuskegee. In 1917 a formal fund, the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, was set up and run from Chicago. The school building program was moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1920 that had a large impact on offering educational facilities all across the South to African American students. By 1928 one of every five rural schools for blacks in the South was a Rosenwald school that taught one-third of the region's children.

The program largely stopped in 1932 with Rosenwald's death. By that time it had built almost 5,000 new schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings at a price of some $28.4 million. These school served over 663,000 students in 883 counties of 15 states.

The program was built upon the idea of matching grants. African Americans of the community where the school was to be built had to match the funds Rosenwald provided in cash or in-kind donations of labor and or materials for construction. This idea of self-help was strongly encouraged by both Washington and Rosenwald. They both understood that personal sacrifices of blood, sweat, tears and hard-earned cash would build a strong community commitment to education and its future rewards.

The schools not only served as educational facilities, but also turned into community gathering spaces for their local communities. Barbecues, family reunions, political speeches, dances, and other activities happened at the school buildings when not occupied by the scholars.

Even after schools were desegregated in theory in 1954 with the Supreme Court decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, many of the schools stayed in operation until integration was fulfilled in practice in the 1960s and 1970s.

In recent years a movement has started preserve a number of the Rosenwald schools, many of which have become dilapidated, or at best are in disrepair. This of course brings up some level of controversy in the African American community about whether we should preserve buildings from times (segregation) that brought such terror and pain. I personally think most of the preservation work is an honest and sincere effort to commemorate and show the power of community pride and cooperation it took to build the schools rather than a remembrance of the "Jim Crow" era and its practices.