Monthly Archives: September 2009

Battle maps galore

Here are some more fiber optic battle maps from the folks that brought you the one at Cowpens.  I love these things!

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Electric Map 2.0

A couple of days ago I posted about a news item that Eric Wittenberg mentioned on his blog.  To recap, the folks at Gettysburg National Military Park are thinking about reviving the Electric Map in the form of a film presentation.

Critics of the map said that it was too big and too antiquated, and I agree.  But I can also sympathize with those who miss seeing the battle play out in three dimensions, and I think that basic approach remains the best way to demonstrate the troop movements for visitors.  Given that fact, and all the uproar, I wondered in my post (as I’ve wondered before) why the NPS didn’t utilize fiber optic technology to create a smaller, modernized, smoother version of the Electric Map for the twenty-first century, such as the one at Cowpens National Battlefield.

I should’ve thought of this before I published that post, but I decided to see if I could find an online video of the Cowpens map, so those of you who haven’t been there could see what I was talking about.  To my surprise, I found one. 

The ex-museum guy in me gets all giddy over this sort of thing.  This baby is remarkably compact, located inside a tiny auditorium with a few benches.  There’s a separate map above it that depicts the overall strategic situation in the Revolutionary South, although in this clip it’s replaced with illustrations.

Now imagine one of these in the new visitor center at Gettysburg, along with a fiber optic wall map to show the invasion of Pennsylvania and Lee’s retreat back into Virginia.  I think it’d be pretty sweet, and visitors could still get that three-dimensional orientation that the Electric Map provided—without the bulk and noise.

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

I’m ready for my close-up

The past few days have given us a flurry of Lincoln movie news, which you can read about in a series of posts by Brian Dirck (here, here, and here).  Robert Redford has a Mary Surratt film in the works, and Spielberg is still pursuing his long-awaited Lincoln project.

Coincidentally, the History Channel has been on a Lincoln assassination kick today, with one documentary on the plot to steal his body and another on Booth’s possible connections to the Confederate government.  The latter is on  right now; as I type this sentence, Ed Steers, Jr. is giving some on-air commentary.  Steers is a diligent Lincoln researcher and the author of Blood on the Moon, a fine book that I highly recommend.

All this reminds me of a story I tell whenever the subject of Lincoln movies or the assassination come up.  Steers came to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum to lecture during my first stint there, back when I was fresh out of college.  Steven Wilson (ALLM’s curator and my boss) took Steers and his wife to dinner down in Cumberland Gap that night, and allowed me to tag along. 

John Wilkes Booth, via Wikimedia Commons

John Wilkes Booth, apparently a doppelganger of yours truly. Via Wikimedia Commons

When the conversation turned to Lincoln movies, Steven jokingly suggested we all produce our own, with himself in the role of Edwin Stanton, and me as John Wilkes Booth.  Ed Steers examined me critically for a second or two, and then said approvingly, “Yeah, you’d make a good Booth!”

I was pretty flattered.  Remember, this came from one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities in the world.  Of course, he was comparing me to the murderer of the most beloved figure in American history.  But still.

With an endorsement like that, you’d think either Redford or Spielberg would’ve called me by now.  Maybe I should get a new agent.

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Reincarnating the Electric Map?

Eric Wittenberg draws our attention to an interesting news item from Gettysburg.  They’re throwing around the idea of bringing back some version of the Electric Map in a conventional, movie-theater format. 

I’m not sure what they’ve got in mind, but the news item makes an implication that has me scratching my head: “The Electric Map was disassembled earlier this year and placed in storage, where it remains today. But before it was taken apart, the Electric Map presentation was filmed, Park Superintendent John Latschar said Thursday. The film is being edited, he said.”

Did I get that right?  Are they thinking about just running a film of the Electric Map running through its paces?  If that’s the case, I’ll pass.

Maybe they’re planning to put together a new, original film that will basically be a two-dimensional, onscreen animated map.  That’s not a bad idea, but it won’t really accomplish anything that hasn’t already been done with the shorter tactical films in the battle galleries.  The only advantage would be that visitors could see the entire battle as a whole, as they did before.

As much as I love the new exhibits, I still can’t figure out why they didn’t replace the Electric Map with a smaller, fiber optic version similar to the one at Cowpens.  The decision to demolish the old map seemed to have a lot to do with its unwieldy size and outdated technology; the approach at Cowpens would have eliminated both of these problems.   Anyway, we’ll see what they’ve got in the works.

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Lincoln Museum collection won’t be locked away

Here’s an item from Civil War News with an update on the collection of the recently-closed Lincoln Museum in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  Those of you who have followed this story know that part of the material will go to the Indiana State Museum, and the archival stuff will go to the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne.

Paul Manships Hoosier Youth statue of Lincoln outside the Lincoln National Life offices in Ft. Wayne

Paul Manship's "Hoosier Youth" statue of Lincoln outside the Lincoln National Life offices in Ft. Wayne. From Wikimedia Commons

The State Museum “will create a permanent Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection Gallery and host a Lincoln exhibit at least once every three years, not counting traveling exhibits.”  In other words, the collection’s highlights will still be on public view, despite the Lincoln Museum’s closure.  That’s good news.

The Smithsonian and the ALPLM lobbied for the material, and I know it would’ve been in great hands at either of those institutions.  Personally, though, I’m glad it’s staying in Indiana.  One of my fears, when I heard about the Lincoln Museum’s closure, was that Indiana’s schoolkids and history buffs would lose access to this fantastic resource because it would end up in another part of the country. 

Lincoln came of age in Indiana, the collection has been in that state for decades, and it’s appropriate that it stay there.  The ideal scenario would’ve been for the Lincoln Museum to stay open and the collection to remain intact, but given the circumstances, I think this is the best possible outcome.

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Macaroni a la Monticello

In honor of the excellent Italian cuisine I enjoyed this evening, I humbly direct your attention to this highly unexpected item from the Thomas Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress.

“[P]rovided the flour be of a good quality, & not ground extremely fine, it will always do very well.”—TJ, the Martha Stewart of the eighteenth century

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LOL with JQA

File this one under “Signs of the Times.”  Somebody at the Massachusetts Historical Society noticed that John Quincy Adams wrote very brief entries in the diary he kept after his appointment as minister to Russia.  Next thing you know, Adams has his own Twitter account

They’re posting the diary entries on a daily basis, exactly two centuries after Adams wrote each one.  So far he’s still on his voyage across the Atlantic, headed to St. Petersburg.  Today’s entry: “9/7/1809: Head wind. Calm. Rain, Fog. Lat: 60-30. Long: 7-14. No Soundings. Phocion. Cato of Utica. Birds. Cards.”

Some entries are linked to a Google map marked with the coordinates he put down, so you can trace his voyage across the Atlantic as he tweets merrily away.  Pretty nifty!

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Filed under History on the Web

Don’t fear the Dark Side

There’s an interesting post over at Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf.  Its main concern is the state of Civil War historiography, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role of narrative in historical writing.

Narrative history is one of those loaded terms.  When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (who is a first-rate scholar) had recently put out a successful book with a commercial publisher.  One day in class, the subject of “literary” history came up.  The professor made some wry remark about having “gone over to the Dark Side.”  He wasn’t talking about writing a popular book.  He was referring to its narrative format.

Part of me gets this dichotomy between narrative and analysis.  I completely agree that the historian’s reason for being is to understand the past and then to convey what he’s found.  The historian is not first and foremost a storyteller—although if he tells a good yarn in the process, then so much the better.  Few things irritate me more than reading Amazon.com reviews in which the reader says he loved a history book because “it was just like reading a novel,” or because he “got so caught up in the story.”  And I’m fully aware that a narrative framework imposes certain limitations on the historian, as does any other framework.

Still, I think we tend to draw too stark a distinction in terms of quality and seriousness between narrative history and whatever else it is that narrative history isn’t.  Most narrative history, if it’s written by any scholar worth his salt, will almost inevitably analyze and explain as well as relate the course of events.

I’d submit that every narrative historian, to one degree or another, will use the technique that David Hackett Fischer—whose body of work I admire as much as that of any living historian—calls “braided narrative.”  In two outstanding books, Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing, Fischer unashamedly employs a chronological approach, while interweaving analysis throughout.  The narrative and analysis work hand-in-hand to relate the events in question as completely as possible.  It’s an extremely effective approach, but I think the main difference between Fischer and other writers of narrative is that he’s more explicit about employing it, and employs it more extensively.  Any writer of history who uses a narrative framework will have to weave in some analysis to one degree or another, simply because you can’t really explain anything without doing it.

Actually, it’s worth asking when a given historical work becomes narrative history.  Is it when chronology is the main organizational technique?  That raises some problems.  Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom is generally chronological, but I don’t think anyone would call it a narrative.  Technically it tells a story—the story of colonial Virginia’s plantation labor system and its impact on notions of liberty and race—but within that general chronological framework, it’s thick with analysis.

Does a historical work become narrative when it relates a discrete sequence of events, following principles of time and location?  This, too, is somewhat problematic.  The author of even the most straightforward campaign study or account of a particular event (or series of events) will periodically stop his account for exposition or to summarize a conclusion.  Indeed, when John Demos wrote The Unredeemed Captive, his primary motive, as he says, was to “tell a story,” and that’s exactly what he did.  But major portions of the book are pure analysis and exposition.  Demos uses the story as a means to dissect colonial family life, Indian culture, French missions, and so on.  The book is as much an examination of the three-way relationship between English, French, and Indians in early America as it is a relation of the story of its main characters.

In fact, the history books that seem to me to be closest to pure narrative are the volumes in Allan Eckert’s “Winning of America” series.  And they contain so much imaginative reconstruction that tthey seem to me to be more non-fiction novels than historical works, so even here the designation “narrative history” is questionable.

I don’t think writing narrative is tantamount to going over to the dark side.  The only dark side in historical writing is doing bad history.  There’s definitely plenty of bad narrative history out there, just as there’s plenty of mediocre analytical history.  What separates good historical scholarship from bad is the quality of the questions asked and answers provided.

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