Monthly Archives: April 2009

On using battlefields

Not long ago I went to a military park located in the middle of a fairly good-sized city.  I arrived bright and early, and as I headed into the visitor center, I noticed a couple walking their dogs along the trail.  I didn’t really think anything about it.

After seeing the exhibits, I hit the trails myself, where I encountered more dog-walkers.  In fact, I saw many more dog-walkers than sightseers.  I was seemingly the only person on the battlefield with a map and a camera instead of a dog leash and a sport bottle.

I finally arrived at the park’s largest, most impressive monument.  Sitting on the base was a college student, her back leaned against the pedestal on the front, with a textbook open in her lap and a cellphone stuck against her ear.  The battlefield was apparently a study lounge as well as a dog park.

As the morning progressed, the park got more corwded.  Dog-walkers began to give way to walkers and joggers, in ever-increasing numbers.  By this time I’d started counting “battlefield users” as compared to “battlefield visitors,” for the purpose of reporting my findings in a planned blog post on the subject of battlefield use, which you are now reading.  I finally had to give up counting.  There were simply too many walkers and joggers to keep track of, although I think I could accurately state that they outnumbered the obvious tourists by ten to one or more.

They came at me one by one and two by two.  They came with large, friendly dogs and they came with small, nervous dogs.  They came with strollers.  They came wearing fashionable, color-coordinated jogging suits, and they came with mp3 players of all shapes and colors.  There were quite literally dozens of them.

One guy in particular stands out in my mind.  I was reading an interpretive sign when I heard rapid footfalls, and turned to see a sweaty fellow with headphones in his ears, decked out in what appeared to be a uniform obtained from the Fantastic Four.  He came to a stop, caught his breath, nodded hello, and then crouched over, put his hands on the ground, propped his feet on a bench, and did a set of push-ups.

Of course, this issue of “multi-tasking” is something that many historic sites face.  Some of them actually include “fitness trails,” with pull-up bars and the whole nine yards. 

Chances are, if you’ve done any kind of work with historic sites, you’ve had to accomodate unconventional use of your facilities to one degree or another.  It’s worse for small institutions like museums that are a part of bigger ones like government entities or universities.  If you’re a staff member at one of these institutions-within-an-institution, there’s a chance that somewhere up the line there’s a supervisor who doesn’t really know why you exist, and doesn’t really care.  And if that’s the case, God help you.  Sooner or later you’re going to end up having to justify your performance in terms that have nothing to do with what you’re technically supposed to be doing.

In other words, if you’re doing public history, you’ll eventually find your institution being put to some strange and unintended uses.  Sometimes this can be a good thing.  It gives your site a larger role in the life of the community than it would otherwise have, and I think most people who manage historic sites and museums want members of the community to feel something like a sense of proud ownership with regard to it.  It helps motivate them to get involved and support the place.

Still, there was something about the inundation of joggers and dog-walkers at this battlefield that was more than a little disturbing.  Patriotic obligation aside, there’s simply the question of good taste.  At the end of the day, a battlefield is a place where a great many dreadful things happened within the space of a few hours.  You’ll find few places in America where death and violence have taken place on such a concentrated scale.  I suppose people have every right to use battlefield trails for no purpose other than exercise, but this behavior does indicate a rather striking failure of perception. 

Of course, this problem of internalization isn’t limited to battlefield “users.”  It’s also common among battlefield “visitors.”  Your common tourist, visiting a military park to learn and to see the sights, may never fully appreciate the horror involved in the notion of thousands of men trying desperately to kill each other within such a relatively confined area.  But the common tourist does, at least, take the field for what it is primarily intended to be.

In one sense, the very scale of violence that took place on most battlefields may work against our ability to comprehend the loss of life.  We can all identify with an individual life lost, but how do you get your head around thousands of them?  At some point one stops thinking in terms of human lives and starts thinking in terms of abstract numbers. 

When I graduated from high school my parents and I went to New York.  I had long wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History, so we had to make our way over to the Central Park West district.  Walking back, we passed the Dakota, where a small group stood reverently outside the entrance where John Lennon was shot.  They took pictures, as tourists will do, but their overall demeanor was consistent with what you’d see at a cathedral.  In fact, they wouldn’t have been out of place at the site of Bergen-Belsen.  The emotional impact seems to work in inverse proportion to the body count.  Kill one prominent man, and you sancitfy an otherwise ordinary spot.  Kill scores of anonymous soldiers and farm boys, and the impact diminishes rather than increases. 

This perverse arithmetic doesn’t speak very highly of the value we place on human life.  But of course the major factor involved isn’t math but time, that most corrosive of all agents when it comes to memory. 

Two hundred years from now, our descendants might very well be going to the top of One World Trade Center for no other reason than to admire the view.  They’ll think it a fine place to have their pictures made and propose to their girlfirends; the fact that it was once the scene of unimaginable misery may sadly be nothing more than a vague, almost subconscious awareness. 

Jefferson stated that the earth belongs to the living, and he believed it to be cause for hope.  In many ways it is, but there’s a certain tragedy in it, too.

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Threatened places for 2009

Speaking of the Manhattan Project—and because I badly need to restore some gravitas to this blog after that last stunt—check out the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the 11 Most Endangered Places for 2009.  This year’s list includes the Enola Gay hangar at Wendover, Utah. 

A lot of other Manhattan Project sites are in jeopardy, too.  Down the road from me in Oak Ridge, demolition of the massive (and massively important) K-25 uranium enrichment plant started last year.  The news story that I just linked mentions something about a possible “memorial and education center” there, but I didn’t see any statements to that effect from the Department of Energy.  We’ll see.

Here’s a true story.  Last year I sat in a meeting with community leaders from various counties in central Kentucky.  One of the presenters was a lady from some historic preservation agency; I think she might have been with the Kentucky Heritage Council or the Kentucky Trust for Historic Preservation.  When she took questions, one guy raised his hand and asked her—in all seriousness—how to go about getting a building’s historic designation removed. 

See, the local park evidently included a historic house that was in the way of a planned community swimming pool.  And there are only so many places you can put a swimming pool.

He asked this question of someone working for a preservation agency, mind you.  This would be analogous to asking somebody from the World Wildlife Fund if they could please recommend a good harpoon cannon for taking out humpback whales.

Thankfully, it’s pretty hard to get a building’s historic designation removed, unless its condition deteriorates to the point of becoming a hazard.  So it looks like the gentleman is stuck with it.

Alas, being a “community leader” offers no inoculation against stupidity.

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You will believe a Taft can fly

My good friend Dustin, a longtime comic book aficionado and fellow sojourner on numerous historical road trips, leveled this challenge in a comment to my last post: “Extra Credit: combine Dr. Manhattan and William Howard Taft. Show your work.”

Fusing America’s 27th President with Watchmen‘s blue-skinned, nuclear-powered superhero is a tall order indeed.  A tall order, that is, for a lesser historical blogger than myself.  All I need is a picture of Taft and Microsoft’s Paint program, and then consider it done…

(CUE TRUMPET FANFARE)

Washington, D.C.  1912.  During a top-secret experiment in a laboratory hidden beneath the Smithsonian, mild-mannered commander-in-chief William Howard Taft accidentally leaves his Twinkie behind in an atomic test chamber.  Rushing to retrieve it, he finds himself locked inside as the dreadful mechanisms switch on. . .

His body transformed in the ensuing firestorm, Taft is granted powers far beyond those of mortal heads of state.  Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s. . .

DR. MANTAFTAN!!!

taft-manhattan1

Tell the folks at HNN they can just go ahead and give me that Cliopatria Award now.

(Pre-lab accident Taft portrait from Wikimedia Commons)

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Who watches the Watchmen? Maybe public historians should.

Sometimes public historians can find instructive lessons in unlikely places.  Take Hollywood, for example—an industry not known for either intellectual sagacity or scrupulous adherence to historical fact, but one that’s got the art of transferring messages pretty well covered.

When you’re dealing with the past, you’re dealing with different worlds.  All your assumptions have to go out the window—assumptions about the way people think, relate to each other, make a living, etc.  You’re entering a world with its own parameters and its own logic.  In that respect, it’s a little like playing Dungeons & Dragons.  You’ve got to know how the board is set up, what the rules are, and what the forces are that govern the action.

This, I think, is one of the biggest challenges to doing effective public history.  In exhibits and documentaries, you generally have little space and time to convey information.  How do you establish the parameters of the world you’re taking your audience into, given these limitations?  How do you familiarize your audience with the contours of a particular time and place in a way that seems effortless?

The makers of Watchmen, the movie based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, were faced with this same problem.  They, too, had to find a way to orient the audience to a world that’s similar to, but also quite distinct from, our own, and I think there’s a thing or two we can learn here.

In case you’re into neither comics nor movies, Watchmen is set in an alternate 1980’s America in which comic book-style superheroes not only exist, but have influenced the course of U.S. history since before WWII.  This America, like our own, has fought wars in Europe and Vietnam, landed on the moon, and become a protagonist in the Cold War.  But the existence of heroes has altered this America’s history at critical points.  Superhero intervention, for example, secured U.S. victory in Vietnam (and thereby ensured Nixon’s continual re-election).  But it also exacerbated tension with the Soviets, so that by the mid-1980’s the world of Watchmen stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Since the movie’s world has its own logic and its own historical background, establishing its context becomes something of a problem.  The conventional approach would be to use scrolling text or a voice-over, recounting all the necessary background with traditional narrative and exposition. 

The filmmakers have taken a more deft and creative approach.  In the opening title sequence, a series of brief little vignettes recount the history of this alternate America and the main characters’ backgrounds by depicting instantly-recognizable moments from American history as they would have played out in Watchmen‘s hero-inhabited universe. 

The plane that drops an atom bomb on Hiroshima flies by, only it’s named after a scantily-clad female crimefighter whose image is painted on the fuselage.  An atomic-powered superhuman shakes hands with President Kennedy.  Another is the subject of an Andy Warhol painting, while a third poses for photographers outside Studio 54.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you can occasionally find this sequence online.  I say “occasionally” because Warner Bros. keeps asking sites that post the video to remove it, which is why a link here is just as likely to take you to a dead end as it is to the sequence itself.  Just go see the movie.*

This five-minute sequence tells you everything you need to know about Watchmen‘s America and its past, with no text or narrative of any kind.  It’s just a series of these historical clips set to the tune of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan.  It’s a creative and very effective solution to the problem of context.

Let me suggest that Watchmen offers this lesson for anyone engaged in public history: Figure out the contours of the world in which you’re trying to place your audience, and then find a creative way to establish them. 

The people who tell myths and fables succeed or fail based on their mastery of communication.  Historians engaged in telling the truth should try to be at least as savvy as they are.

*On a related note, you may be wondering why I haven’t added a little pizzazz to this post with a still or poster image from Watchmen.  Well, Virginia, here at Past in the Present, I try to do whatever I can to keep from getting my keister sued off.

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Trivial Pursuit

The buzz used to be that Lincoln had Marfan Syndrome.  Then it was chronic depression.  Now cardiologist John Sotos is telling us that Lincoln had something called multiple endocrine neoplasia, type 2B, a rare genetic disorder that leads to cancer. 

Sotos is the same guy who diagnosed President Taft with obstructive sleep apnea.  Apneos, a company that specializes in sleep disorders, assures us that “[w]ith the possible exception of Lincoln, no man has faced greater challenges as President than William Howard Taft. ”  Apparently the War of 1812, the Great Depression, and the Cuban Missile Crisis were minor nuisances compared to a tendency to doze off in public.  But I digress.

Anyway, the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia has some fabric from a pillowcase stained with Lincoln’s blood.  Sotos is trying to talk the museum into allowing a DNA test on the artifact to determine if his cancer syndrome theory is true. 

I don’t find any of this medical speculation to be particularly significant, and I’ve said so.  What we’re dealing with here is a very specific question.  Was Lincoln sick, or wasn’t he?  That’s the scope of this investigation, and when you get right down to it, it’s rather limited. 

But you’d never believe it by listening to Sotos, who can make a pitch like a seasoned Hollywood pro.  From the above-linked news item:

The disorder leads to thyroid or adrenal cancer, and Sotos cites Lincoln’s weight loss in office and an appearance of ill health during his final months. He said a finding that Lincoln had the genetic disorder and probably cancer could shed light on his presidency.…

If Lincoln was seriously ill and knew it, Sotos said, that might explain stories of his premonitions about death.

‘I don’t think it was mysticism, I think that was him knowing what his body was telling him,’ Sotos said. ‘Then if you’re a historian, I think you have to say … how does that affect how you run the war, your clemency toward soldiers who may have deserted their post, the way you reconcile with the South?’

website on his research offers more breathlessly-reported implications.  You want to unlock the mystery of Lincoln’s awkwardness around women?  How about his indifference to his own personal safety?  Multiple endocrine neoplasia might just be good for whatever ails you.

What’s next?  Could a nasty arthritic cramp account for the brevity of the Gettysburg Address?  Could a flare-up of irritable bowel syndrome explain that spat with Meade after Gettysburg?

The fact of the matter is that by raising all these  speculative implications, Sotos is writing a lot of checks, and I doubt he’ll be able to cash them by drawing on mutliple endocrine neoplasia.  He likes history, and he wants to make the ever-elusive Original Contribution to historical understanding.  But his approach is too reductionist to accomplish everything he hopes for it.

In fact, his medical training may be a real liability when it comes to historical investigation.  From a purely medical standpoint, a human being is a skin sack full of physical components that interact in various ways.  When the machine breaks down, it’s a matter of finding the glitch and correcting it.  It seems that Sotos has approached not only Lincoln, but the study history as a whole, in this same manner. 

You’ve got a singular historical figure in extraordinary circumstances, and Sotos approaches this situation in the same way he would approach a patient with chest pains.  He finds some physical ailment that accounts for all the symptoms, and he runs with the ball.  That’s great if you’re dealing with a human body with a given complaint, but if you’re dealing with a human being in a set of historical/political/cultural circumstances, it’s just not the right tool for the job.

Lincoln was fatalistic during his entire life, and given his Calvinist upbringing, that shouldn’t be surprising.  His conciliationist approach to Reconstruction didn’t emerge out of thin air during his last months in office.  His leniency toward condemned soldiers is perfectly consistent with his behavior as a boy, when he regretted shooting a wild turkey and could never again bring himself to fire at anything bigger, and lectured his friends when they caught and tormented animals.

If Sotos wants to explain Lincoln, then he’s going to have to do history.  And that means poring over manuscripts, muddling through clunky monographs, chasing down references, and staring at the screen of a microfilm reader for hours on end.  That’s where you’ll find out what these people were doing, what made them tick, and what roles they fulfilled in their own societies.  No magic bullets.  No sudden “eureka!” moment in the laboratory.  It’s not any museum’s red tape that’s stopping him; it’s his attempt to diagnose history with one fell swoop.

“I’m not interested in how Lincoln might have died. I’m interested in how he might have lived,” he told the reporter in the story linked above.  If that’s true, then he needs to stop bringing a knife to a gunfight.

(Lincoln photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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The view from Rocky Mount

Last time I related the results of the weekend’s successful TomTom field test, and promised to post one of my historic site reviews for the destination.  It was one of those Tennessee frontier museums that I’d intended to visit for a long time and had just never gotten around to seeing.  I’m pleased to report that it exceeded my expectations.

Rocky Mount Museum is a historic house and farm in Piney Flats, up in Tennessee’s history-saturated northeastern corner.  The really surprising thing about the house is the fact that it’s still there at all.  William Cobb built it for his family in the early 1770’s, when permanent settlement in what became Tennessee was still in its infancy.  It’s got to be one of the oldest homes in the entire state.  It’s also quite a substantial structure.  If you’re expecting a tiny frontier cabin, you’re in for a surprise.  The main house has a good-sized parlor, two upstairs bedrooms, a dining room across a covered dogtrot-style passageway, and an additional room converted into an office.

This office is one of the things that makes Rocky Mount so significant.  After the State of Franklin dissolved in the late 1780’s, North Carolina finally and permanently ceded its western lands to the Federal government.  The area that’s now Tennessee was organized into the Southwest Territory, with North Carolina’s William Blount appointed governor.  From his arrival in 1790 until 1792 (when he moved to a new frame house in Knoxville that’s also become a nifty museum), Blount stayed with the Cobb family and conducted the territory’s business out of the downstairs office.  Rocky Mount was therefore the first capitol of the Southwest Territory, and Blount’s time here figures significantly in the tours and programming.

There are several other buildings to see besides the main house.  A detached kitchen, a smaller building that functions as a smokehouse and cloth-making area, and a slave cabin are also located on the grounds, along with a barn and livestock fields.  It’s a beautiful site with a gorgeous view; “Rocky Mount” wasn’t just Cobb’s creative nickname, because the house actually does sit on a high hill topped with rocky outcroppings.

The interpretive scheme relies heavily on first-person techniques and hands-on demonstration.  Teams of costumed interpreters conduct groups through the buildings.  All the guides working on the day we visited were extremely knowledgeable, not just about the site but about the Tennessee frontier and early American history in general.

In fact, the quality of the interpretation is one of Rocky Mount’s greatest strengths.  All too often I’ve found myself visiting a historic building and being led from room to room by a bored intern with the weary delivery style of a telemarketer.  You won’t find that here.  Rocky Mount’s guides are very engaging, and they know their stuff.  Ask a question about the most minor object tucked away in a corner, and they’ll not only identify it but also weave it into the larger story of life on the eighteenth-century frontier.  Is it homemade?  Yes, we make it out of such-and-such.  Where do you get the materials?  Well, this part comes from Mr. So-and-so’s store in Jonesborough, and then we get that part in monthly shipments from Virginia. 

And Mr. So-and-so’s store, and all the rest of it, is actually documented.  It’s not so much a tour as it is a step into a fully realized, fully recreated world, all based on painstaking research.  You get a sense of the household’s place within a genuine, living frontier community.

This is living history in its fullest sense—not just clothes and personas, but actually doing the kinds of things necessary to keep a 1790’s farm going.  After seeing the house, we headed over to the kitchen, where a guide showed us how to bank the cooking fire to keep the coals smouldering while she explained techniques for preparing practically every food and medical remedy you’d find on an eighteenth-century plantation.  Later, she took us past the garden, where we held the herbs up to our noses and smelled them, and then into an outbuilding to watch different kinds of fabrics being prepared, running them through our fingers to feel the difference.  I’ve toured a lot of historic home sites, and I’ve seen a lot of first-person interpretation, but rarely have I seen any of this done so well.

I’ve also got to say that the way the buildings are stocked and furnished is incredibly convincing.  Rocky Mount looks like a place where people live; if the Cobb family happened to show up, I imagine they could find everything they’d need to get by here.  Because the tours are guided, there aren’t barriers and cases all over the rooms to remind you that you’re in an artificial environment.

A museum and orientation film offer an introduction to the history of the Tennessee frontier, from the French and Indian War to the early statehood period.  Some of the exhibits are pretty dated, but they’re in the process of being updated, and they’re still worth a look, despite the wear and tear.  As You’ll be able to get an overview of the major events and personalities in early Tennessee history.  (Seeing the powder kettle Mary Patton used to supply the King’s Mountain expedition was a real treat for me, and one I wasn’t expecting.)

There is one thing I found a little odd, and that’s the selection of books for sale in the gift shop.  There are quite a few hard-to-find titles on local and nineteenth-century Tennessee history, but many of the works on the frontier that you usually see in Tennessee museums aren’t there.  I was particularly surprised not to find a copy of Walter Durham’s history of the Southwest Territory, which seems like such a natural fit.  But this is a minor point, and I don’t intend it as a criticism of the site’s overall quality.

I’d enthusiastically recommend a visit to Rocky Mount Museum to anybody who’s planning a trip through northeastern Tennessee.  And if you’re a Tennessean within driving distance of the Tri-Cities, you owe it to yourself to go.  My only regret is that I didn’t make it there sooner.

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Historical Touring with TomTom

There are few things I like more than a good historical field trip, but I’m cursed with a poor sense of direction.  Hence my recent interest in automotive GPS navigation systems.

It’s something I’ve resisted for a long time, because I’ve got a Luddite streak a mile wide.  I was the last member of my generation to trade my tapes for CDs, and my CDs for an iPod.  Most of my cell phones have been antiques, and until pretty recently I habitualy kept my cell turned off.  So I considered GPS car navigators to be more superfluous pieces of junk being foisted on a fad-crazed public.

I changed my mind after last month’s North Carolina trip.  Most of the historic sites I visit are in rural areas, where you don’t have to deal a flurry of turns within a few minutes or seconds, and where it’s usually easy to turn around when you get off-track.  That wasn’t the case in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, where I almost killed myself while trying to juggle printed directions and steer at the same time.  Worse, on two occasions, the online directions were completely wrong, telling me to take a turn when I should’ve gone in the opposite direction.  And, of course, printed turn-by-turn directions are useless if you take the wrong road or miss an exit.  (I do that a lot.)

I finally decided that this was a case where there was something to be said for gadgetry, so it was off to Best Buy.  I picked the TomTom One 130S, which is pretty cheap but still has a good-sized screen and speaks the actual street names.  

On Saturday a friend of mine and I conducted the first field test.  We headed off to a historic site neither of us had visited before, with absolutely no maps or printed directions of any kind, completely at the mercy of a 3.8-inch box with a computerized female voice. 

This, my friends, was no light matter.  A few years ago the two of us set out for Gettysburg with a set of Mapquest directions.  We did okay until we actually got to town, at which point we circumnavigated the roundabout near the Wills House for what seemed half an hour, trying to figure out which street to turn into.  Our attempt to get from our hotel to Cemetery Hill produced similarly unfortunate results, although we did get to a see a lot of things we weren’t necessarily looking for—Lee’s headquarters, the Lutheran Theological Seminary, a local resident’s spacious driveway, etc.  We’re not exactly Lewis and Clark.

Luckily for us, the TomTom passed our road test with flying colors.  The difference with printed directions was like night and day; in fact, the spoken directions were so spot-on and handy that I didn’t even have to look at the screen.  I’m O.C.D., so I’m usually thinking about the next turn, keeping a close eye on the mile markers and my odometer, terrified that I’ll make a misstep.  This time I just enjoyed the drive, knowing that the device would prompt me in time to turn or exit.  When I missed a ramp on the way back, the device recalculated in seconds and got us right back on track.

Another great thing about these gadgets is that it makes your trip so much more flexible.  If you’re using printed directions you’re chained to your route.  Change your itinerary, and the directions become useless.  With GPS, you can alter your route as much as you want.  Happen to spot an exit for some out-of-the-way museum on your way to Antietam?  No problem.  You can hit all those spontaneous little finds and then move on to your original destination, and see everything in between.  You can use the search feature to find other historic sites near the place you’re headed, or the ones along your route.  You can hit every historic marker in your county, or every bivouac from your favorite campaign.  The only limitations are your gas tank, your trip budget, and the number of vacation days before you’ve got to head back to work.

I’ve got only a few minor complaints.  First, roads sometimes change, which requires you to update your device by plugging it into your computer from time to time.  For instance, my history-related trips usually start out on US 25E.  It’s the Yellow Brick Road for all those Carolina Rev War battlefields, the Tennessee frontier sites to my east, and the Shenandoah Valley and all Civil War points beyond.  It’s also perennially under construction, and has been for as long as I can remember.  Some of the newer road changes  between Claiborne and Grainger Counties aren’t on my TomTom’s map, which is really odd, since they’ve been in place for a while and the unit itself is brand new.  It wasn’t really a big deal; we just ploughed on ahead and the TomTom adjusted accordingly.

The second issue is more applicable to historic travel in particular.  To plot a route, you need to enter a city and then pick your point of interest.  You can either enter the name of the location or select it from a list of categories.  The thing is, different types of historic sites fall into different categories.  Battlefields and state parks tend to fall under “Parks and Recreation,” whereas historic house parks are usually under “Museums.”  There’s also a category for “Tourist Attractions,” but it seems to consist mostly of amusement parks and stuff like that.

I also haven’t figured out a way to enter a point of interest without first selecting a city, another nearby point, a route, or a map region.  You need to give the device a ballpark range before it will bring up a specific destination.  This can be irritating.  Everybody knows that you have to head to Gettysburg to see Gettysburg National Military Park.  But what if you get an urge to visit Moore’s Creek Bridge or Lincoln’s Boyhood Home?  If you can’t name a nearby town, you might have to do a little online digging first to see what’s in the vicinity.  Of course, since you’re probably going to look into a place you’re planning to visit, this isn’t a serious drawback.

These are definitely handy gizmos to have if you’re a dedicated history tourist.  Every battlefield stomper should have one, especially if you want to make a lot of first-time trips.  There’s your TomTom review for the discerning heritage tourist.  Next time I’ll review the site we visited on our field test, a house on a rocky hilltop with an interesting story to tell.

(Lewis and Clark portraits via Wikimedia Commons)

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It’s just a flesh wound

The historical blog world being a rather small community, I assume that most of the people who are reading this already know that the debate over those elusive black Confederate soldiers has stirred up again.  Check out Civil War Memory and the Old Virginia Blog if you want to jump in.

The black Confederate proponents remind me of some hockey-masked, machete-wielding lunatic from a slasher movie.  You can shoot him, burn him, drown him, run him over with a dump truck, and he just keeps coming back for more.  Right when you think he’s had enough, in that split second before the closing credits roll, he sits bolt upright, ready to wreak more havoc in the next installment.

I suppose we owe the persistent critics of pseudo-historical myths a debt of gratitude for fighting the good fight—or toting the weary load, as it were.  Of course, many criticisms have been levelled at the notion of thousands upon thousands of eager black Confederate troops, critcisms based on interpretation of evidence, the need for context, the selection of sources, and so forth.  And all those criticisms are right on the mark.  But will it make any difference?  Will it change any minds?  I doubt it.  There comes a point when evidence and argumentation becomes irrelevant, and that point comes when the problem is one of perception.

Let’s say you run into a guy who tells you that he makes extra cash by raising live dinosaurs.  He takes you behind his house, where he shows you a huge enclosure filled with alligators.  They’re everywhere, sunning themselves on logs and rocks, sliding through the water, strutting across the ground.  “See there?” he says, with perfect satisfaction.  “A whole pen full of dinosaurs.  Big, scaly dinosaurs.”

“Those are alligators,” you reply.

“What are you talking about?  Look at ‘em.  Big, mean reptiles.  Sharp teeth.  They lay big eggs.  Dinosaurs.”  And he’s as serious as a heart attack.  What do you do?  There’s no real response that you can make.  The difference in perception is so basic that communication is no longer possible.  And of course, the guy who sees the dinosaurs is convinced that he’s won the argument.

In that case, there’s not much left for you to do.  Maybe my slasher movie analogy was wrong.  Maybe a better illustration would be the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, still trying to come at the opponent who had already hacked off his arms and legs.

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

We might eventually be sorry about the whole slavery thing

I’m a little embarrassed.  There’s a political to-do here in my home state of Tennessee involving historical memory, and I didn’t even know about it until Dimitri Rotov pointed it out via this post

We’re trying to decide whether or not we’re sorry about that whole slavery and Jim Crow business.  Evidently we’re not sorry yet, but there’s a good possibility that we might be in the near future. 

Mr. Rotov raises some interesting objections.  For one thing, this measure “puts the government in the position of making a claim against the lives of Tennessee residents, the majority of whom are transients or descendants of non-Tennessee ancestors.” 

See, the problem is, my family has been in Tennessee for a long time.  On the other hand, my great-grandfather was named for Gen. George H. Thomas, so I’m guessing they were Unionists.  Then again, they could’ve been anti-secession slaveholders.  And I’m not sure about my mom’s side of the family. 

What if I’m not sorry right now, but I find out that my great-great-grandpa rode with Forrest, or something?  Can I defer my apology until later, pending a genealogical investigation?

Anyway, we’re still thinking about it, so we’ll have to get back to you.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Civil War ship in inland Georgia

Here’s a nifty outdoor exhibit for you.  Last weekend the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia unveiled a full-scale replica of the USS Water Witch, a blockader captured by a Confederate raiding party near Savannah in 1864.  The story of its capture is one heck of a tale—check out the account on the NCWNM’s website.  It’s like something out of a nineteenth-century version of Tom Clancy.

I didn’t know much about the museum until I ran across the Water Witch news story, but now that I’ve scoped out the exhibits online, I think I’m going to have to take a trip to Columbus.

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites