Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Trivial Lincoln: Let’s Get Physical

One of my favorite classes to teach is Lincoln’s Life and Legacy, an introductory course that my college requires of all incoming freshmen.  I assign an entrance essay that asks students for a short description of what they know about Lincoln and where they’ve gotten their information about him.  Because every student has to take the class, the responses offer an interesting look at popular conceptions of the sixteenth president. 

These essays are usually pretty similar.  They invariably reference the Gettysburg Address, emancipation, and Lincoln’s assassination.  A lot of them mention some aspect of Lincoln as a tragic hero (the loss of his loved ones, his depression, the cost of the war, and so on).  This semester’s papers were different in one respect.  My section is predominantly composed of nurisng students, and a lot of them knew something about the question of Lincoln and Marfan syndrome, an idea proposed by Abraham Gordon in a 1962 article.

First described about thirty years after Lincoln’s death, it’s a genetic disorder affecting connective tissues, resulting in long limbs, a narrow chest, and a hollow face.  Marfan was present in a distant Lincoln relative, and the president himself had some of the outward characteristics, as the photo at left shows.

More recent scholars aren’t so sure.  Marfan also affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and there’s no evidence that Lincoln suffered any of these symptoms.  Marfan patients often suffer from near-sightedness, whereas Lincoln was far-sighted.  Finally, Marfan patients generally have slender, delicate hands; Lincoln’s were anything but, as is obvious from the casts made by Leonard Volk in 1860.    The preponderance of the evidence suggests that Lincoln wasn’t a victim of Marfan.  One skeptic, in fact, suggests that Lincoln’s symptoms indicate a fatal genetic cancer syndrome, which would have doomed him to a relatively early death even if the assassination had not taken place. 

If you ask me, all this medical speculation is interesting but not terribly significant.  None of it explains Lincoln’s place within the nineteenth-century American political spectrum, or his rise from backwoodsman to national leader, or the policies he pursued as president.  It doesn’t address any of the questions historians should be asking. 

There’s no way to understand this man and his era other than by immersing yourself in reams of source material and applying mature, sophisticated thinking to what you find.  One of the challenges of history is the fact that there are no shortcuts to approaching the truth.

(The standing, long-limbed Lincoln photo is from the National Portrait Gallery’s Civil War site.   The image of a cast of Lincoln’s right hand is from the Library of Congress.)

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory

Ringside seats to the heritage wars

There’s an interesting post at Civil War Memory on the perils of engaging Confederate history.  It’s an emotional topic that’s sometimes tied up with questions of modern identity, so things can get a little heated.  That’s especially true on the web, where disgruntled readers can weigh in with as much vitriol as they can muster.

 One of the advantages of being from East Tennessee–aside from getting such wonderful, aw-shucks manners–is the ability to enjoy these debates with absolute delight.  Having a background that’s neither Yankee nor secessionist makes me feel like a guy at a cockfight who doesn’t place any bets.  He can sit back and enjoy watching the blood fly, secure in the knowledge that his own backside isn’t on the line.

When I worked at a Lincoln/Civil War site, tourists used to ask about my sympathies with some frequency.  On the one hand, I was employed at a Lincoln museum, so many visitors assumed that I was heartily anti-Confederate.  On the other hand, I pronounced “get” as “git,” so they suspected that I had some repressed resentment over the way the whole late unpleasantness turned out.  When I told them that I wasn’t rooting for anybody, and that I had nothing but respect for the participants on both sides, they were always a little disappointed.  Who studies history just so they can understand it, anyway?

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web

Earl Hess rethinks the rifled musket

I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate in Dr. Earl Hess’s history courses, and he probably did more than anyone to get me started on a career in the field.  I’m therefore a little predisposed to like his new book, which challenges a lot of well-worn assumptions about the influence of technology on Civil War tactics.  But I’m not the only one who’s talking about The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth.  Check out the buzz from Civil Warriors, Civil War Bookshelf, and TOCWOC.  Better yet, order your own copy and see why he’s one of the finest Civil War scholars working today.

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Filed under Civil War, Historiography

Fee proposal at Gettysburg

In case you haven’t heard, the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center is considering a change in its free structure.  Instead of a combined price of $12.00 for an adult admission to the film and Cyclorama, the proposed change is a flat rate of $7.50 for admission to the exhibits as well as the movie and Cyclorama presentation.  The NPS website has more details.

Protests to the contrary, I can state with a fair degree of professional certainty that $7.50 is quite reasonable for admission to a large museum.  Furthermore, a lot of NPS sites already charge flat admission fees, visitors who want to see the film and the Cyclorama will save money, and the battlefield itself will still be free.  Why should any of this be controversial?


Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Voices of the Land at the East Tennessee Historical Society

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite public history institutions, the East Tennessee Historical Society always comes in near the top of my list.  Its headquarters is on the first floor of the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville, which it shares with the Knox County Archives and the McClung Historical Collection.    The permanent exhibit at ETHS closed several years ago in preparation for the opening of a much larger new exhibition,Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee.  I’ve waited for it eagerly, and it’s been well worth it.

To me, the most remarkable thing about Voices of the Land is the richness of its narrative content.  It asks and answers the key questions that anybody has to confront in order to make sense of East Tennessee.  Beginning with the Native Americans who made the region their home for centuries, the exhibit carries us through the period of European contact and trade, and then explains the forces that shaped migration and settlement in the 1700’s.  If you’re a frontier and Revolutionary War fanatic like me, you’ll appeciate the ample space devoted to the Watauga Association, King’s Mountain, the abortive State of Franklin, and the territorial period.  (I’ve never understood why Tennessee’s frontier era isn’t a popular subject.  Kentucky, for example, has gotten a lot of mileage out of its frontier period; I suppose the Daniel Boone name recognition factor goes a long way.)

Following early statehood and Indian removal, the exhibit explains the factors that shaped a predominantly Unionist East Tennessee within a Confederate state.  There’s a particularly large section on the Civil War, with a wealth of artifacts on the partisan fighting that broke out after secession, recruitment and mobilization, the homefront, and the campaigns in 1863 that ultimately ended Confederate power in the region.  After the Civil War, Appalachia found itself subject to external forces, and the tension between these forces and the region’s internal realities is the focus of much of the exhibit’s final sections.

If you’ve spent any time reading history blogs or magazines lately, then you’re aware of the uproar over the new Gettysurg Museum of the American Civil War, part of which revolved around the role of artifacts in the exhibit galleries.  Critics of the Gettysburg facility will be glad to know that Voices of the Land puts a premium on original objects.  There are so many items to see here, in fact, that it will take serious history enthusiasts more than one trip to really appreciate them all.  Some of them were on display in the old exhibit, but there is quite a bit of new material, and the inventory includes everything from Davy Crockett’s first rifle to memorabilia from the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  There’s a good balance between the great characters and the anonymous; you’ll find John Sevier’s candlesticks as well as items carried by slaves.

Antiquarians of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s used to lament that East Tennessee’s history remained largely forgotten.  In some ways, the same holds true today.  We’ve listened to regional stereotypes for so long that we might be forgiven for forgetting who we really are.  The ancients used myths to remind themselves of their identity; today we use historical truth.  East Tennessee’s truth is a fanatstic story, and Voices of the Land tells it very well.

(For more information on the exhibit, check out the Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s coverage of the opening, available here.)

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History