Monthly Archives: May 2010

Fly on the wall (2)

While we’re on the subject of credibility in historical films, there’s another scene from HBO’s John Adams that’s worth looking at, one which illustrates authenticity of a different kind—the authentic depiction of historical personalities

Before watching the scene, we’ll set the stage with a few descriptions of the characters involved.  Here’s David McCullough describing Jefferson and Adams in the book on which the series is based: “Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with his arms folded tightly across his chest.  When taking his seat, it was as if he folded into a chair, all knees and elbows and abnormally large hands and feet” (p. 111).

Joseph Ellis describes Jefferson as “a listener and observer, distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, shy and nervous in a distracted manner that was sometimes mistaken for arrogance” (p. 32).

Finally, here’s Edmund S. Morgan on Benjamin Franklin: “[He] could not see anything without asking himself what it was, how it got that way, what made it tick.  He had that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why” (5).

Now here’s the scene, with Adams and Franklin critiquing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence:

I’d say these guys did their homework. 

Good writing, good acting, and good direction can bring us as close as we’re likely to get to seeing historical figures in the flesh, and when it happens, it magic.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution

Fly on the wall

I have no idea why this review of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto just appeared on one of Roger Ebert’s “far-flung correspondents” blogs, since the movie came out a few years ago.  Anyway, it’s well worth a read, because it touches on an important issue regarding historical films.

Every historical movie will have some inaccuracies, either intentional liberties or simple mistakes.  But regardless of how many historical flaws Apocalypto contains, it’s also saturated with details that “allow us to feel when the credits roll, that we actually attended the events depicted here, what some call ‘the fly on the wall’ theory.”  In other words, a movie like this creates a credible past.

Moviemakers create worlds, and it’s healthy for us to remember that when we’re talking about the past, a different world is exactly what we’re dealing with.  Historical filmmakers should build their worlds from the ground up in the same way that good science fiction filmmakers do.  Otherwise, the world they create won’t be credible.  It will be nothing but the past lightly grafted onto the present, like a poorly-done reenactment.

For a great example of a credibly, thoroughly authentic past, take HBO’s John Adams.  There is nothing modern about the world the characters inhabit.  Indeed, there’s nothing modern about the characters themselves.  They lack make-up.  They have bad teeth.  Even their speech is distinctive, since the filmmakers tried to reconstruct colonial dialects.  (The result is sort of halfway between a British accent and modern American English; it’s like an entire nation inhabited by William F. Buckleys.)

The world of John Adams wouldn’t be a vacation for anybody but a hardcore reenactor.  It would have all the hallmarks you’d associate with visiting a Third World village: unfamiliar speech, uncomfortable living conditions, strange food.  Watch this excerpt from the first episode, and then ask yourself how long it would take you to get accustomed to living in this world:

This is a world where it’s hard to keep out the cold, where children curtsey when their father arrives home, where simmering imperial tensions can explode in the blink of an eye.  This isn’t modern America in knee breeches.  These people live differently, speak differently, behave differently.  They are different, and they inhabit a different America.  It’s a remarkable artistic achievement.

There aren’t many ways that entertainment media can advance historical understanding.  Drawing attention to neglected people or incidents is one of them.  Creating worlds with this level of authenticity is another.  It reminds us of a fact we too often forget, one summed up memorably in Leslie Hartley’s dictum: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  Movies like this are a valuable corrective for those occasions when we feel too comfortable with the past, when we forget the span of years that separates us from the people who lived there.

2 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Diminishing returns

Wondering how much new revenue the proposed Gettysburg casino might generate?  Judging by the long faces among gambling industry leaders, I’d say not that much: 

As new casinos keep popping up, even with overall gambling revenue stagnating, casino companies are fighting harder for smaller shares of their market.

Executives at the East Coast Gaming Congress, a national casino conference, said Tuesday that with many states now adding table games to the mix, it’s going to be even tougher to succeed in the cutthroat East Coast market.

‘We have to fight this explosion of gambling all around us,’ said Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which has four casinos in Atlantic City. ‘We have to continually reinvent ourselves as a destination.’

Operators of commercial casinos in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia told the gathering in Atlantic City they are being forced to fight for one another’s customers.

‘I don’t think it’s saturated yet, but it’s clearly crowded, clearly more challenging,’ John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming, said of the East Coast market As new casinos keep popping up, even with overall gambling revenue stagnating, casino companies are fighting harder for smaller shares of their market.

More details in the original news item, released just yesterday.  Still sticking by that rosy economic impact study?

1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

I know they have a legal right to meet there

…but seriously, can’t the “Aryan Nations” find some place besides Gettysburg National Military Park to have a rally?

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Having a blast at the blockhouse

This past weekend I once again signed on as an artilleryman with the militia from Martin’s Station, this time for an event at Natural Tunnel State Park near Duffield, VA.  NTSP’s most famous attraction is its namesake geologic feature, but the main attraction at the reenactment area was a great reconstruction of an eighteenth-century fortification.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse represents the home of John Anderson, built in the 1770’s not far from the park.  It bruned about a century after its construction, but today a monument marks the original site.  During the Revolutionary era, it was a significant landmark for migrants starting out on the Wilderness Road.  Because Anderson’s house was a relatively secure structure near the road’s point of origin, it was a convenient gathering place for people waiting to join parties headed into Kentucky.  It was also a handy storehouse and defensive post for settlers during periods of Indian trouble.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse at Natural Tunnel State Park, from the NTSP Information site.

Unlike the familiar walled forts that stood at places like Boonesborough and near Sycamore Shoals, which were made up of a series of buildings linked by palisades, frontier blockhouses were solitary, individual buildings.  What they lacked in size, they made up in strength.  The second story was wider than the first, so that the walls of the upper floor jutted out beyond those of the one below; imagine a small cabin perched on top of a slightly smaller wooden box.  This made it extremely difficult for assailants to climb up onto the roof.  Furthermore, since the edges of the second floor stuck out over empty space, openings in the floorboards allowed defenders to shoot or pour boiling water downward, directly onto the heads of anyone approaching the building too closely.

Two additional features make the Wilderness Road blockhouse a tough nut to crack.  There’s no mud chinking to seal empty spaces on the outside walls.  The wood pieces themselves fit snugly together, making a solid and more impregnable structure.  And unlike most frontier cabins, which had external chimneys, this building’s chimney is built within the walls, so that an attacking party can’t tear through it to get inside.

The Wilderness Road Blockhouse  has its own small visitor center, with an exhibit and gift shop.  It’s a great little interpretive area, with an extraordinarily effective use of limited space.  The exhibit explores the blockhouse itself, the Wilderness Road, and frontier life in general.  It’s a great spot, with a fantastic view of the surrounding hills.  Check it out the next time you’re in southwestern Virginia.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting

If George Washington chops down a cherry tree in the forest and there’s nobody to hear it but Glenn Beck, does it make a sound?

The other day I was sitting in Pizza Hut with a friend of mine, enjoying a plate of boneless chicken wings, when I looked up at the TV mounted on the wall to find Glenn Beck talking about George Washington. 

Beck’s new favorite book is George Washington’s Sacred Fire, by Peter Lillback.  He’s been bragging that its sales have skyrocketed because of his endorsement, and evidently he’s right.  As of my writing this, it’s ranked no. 1 on Amazon.  I haven’t read the book, but as far as I can determine (and if anybody knows differently feel free to correct me), Lillback is trying to make the case that Washington was a more orthodox Christian than a lot of us believe.  Personally, I think Washington was well along the deism end of the spectrum, though not as far as some of his contemporaries. 

While I was looking for information about the book, I found out that Beck has been on a real Washington kick lately.  On May 7, his guests were Andrew Allison and Earl Taylor.  Allison is co-author of The Real George Washington; Taylor is president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the organization that published Allison’s book.  Beck has been encouraging people to read that one, too, but based on the transcript of his interview with these guys, I think I’ll have to pass.  Here’s a sample: 

BECK: Yes, and [Washington] was trusted on making treaties. And people, they did. They trusted him. Tell me the story of — I’m trying to remember the name of the Indian that came up and made the George Washington prophecy. A, is it true? Tell me the story and then, is it true? 

TAYLOR: That is true. This is actually in the French — during the French and Indian War when he in his early 20s was on aide to General Braddock – British General Braddock. And they were leading about almost 1,500 troops out to western Pennsylvania, Fort Duquesne, around Pittsburgh now. And Washington had warned — because Washington knew the area and he had warned Braddock that there are places that are real good ambush sites, I wouldn’t go there. 

Washington at Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela, from the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-02418)

Well, General Braddock, he was a — he was a British general. And, you know, they’re — most of them are quite proud. And they know it. So they march right into — through this area. And almost 1,000, I guess the number is 700 French troops with Indians ambushed them and just started mowing them down. And out of the almost 1,500 that they started with, there was over 1,000 deaths and wounded. And among those were all of the officers including Braddock, except George Washington. And he wrote the next day to his family, he said, ‘I don’t know why I’m still here. It must be the hand of Providence that had preserved me. I’ve got bullet holes in my hat, through my clothing. I’ve had two horses shot out from under me.’ 

BECK: He was never wounded ever, was he? 

TAYLOR: No. Not in battle. 

BECK: And he — and the troops talked about bullet holes through his clothing and he was on a white horse. 

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. 

BECK: It would be like camouflage! 

(LAUGHTER) 

BECK: Camouflage your horse! 

TAYLOR: Well, 15 years later, Washington — this was in 1770, Washington was with a group of men that were reviewing and kind of scoping out the same area. And an old Indian was part of an Indian band that discovered them and invited them to sit down in the council, around the council fire. And this old Indian chief gets up and he said, ‘I was there. As a matter of fact, I was in command when the Indians and the French drenched this area with the blood of the soldiers. And we killed a lot of them. But we could not kill that man.’ He said, ‘I had moved my best marksmen on him and I told them they cannot miss and they usually did not miss.’ ‘But this time,’ he said, ‘we couldn’t hit him.’ 

BECK: And is this the same Indian that said, you will be a great leader of… 

TAYLOR: Yes. And that was his — that was his prophecy. He said, ‘I’m telling you, the great spirit is with that man. He will one day be the great chief of a great nation.’ 

ALLISON: Preside over an empire. 

TAYLOR: ‘He cannot die — he cannot die in battle.’ 

Washington did indeed escape from Braddock’s defeat without a scratch, which is remarkable enough, but if the part about the prophecy sounds more like drama than history, it’s because that’s probably all it is.  Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis wrote a play about the incident in 1828, claiming that he got the story from Dr. James Craik, a physician who was at Braddock’s defeat and on the 1770 surveying expedition.  (He was also, incidentally, one of the attending physicians at Washington’s death.)  

Years later, the tale turned up again in Custis’s Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, where he again attributed it to Craik but admitted in a footnote that Washington made no mention of the incident in his diary.  Interestingly enough, the same footnote mentions a separate meeting with Indians during the same trip that is found in the diary, and for which (unlike the supposed prophecy visit) we have a specific name for the embassy’s leader.  I suspect that Craik took this visit, embellished a few details, and turned it into the prophecy story after Washington was dead and elevated to the pantheon of early national heroes, but that’s just me. 

This wasn’t the only bit of questionable history Beck and his guests were throwing around.  Here’s Beck during the same show: 

His country, Britain and then the United States of America, had him serving for year after year after year after year. After he won the Revolutionary War, he went back to be that farmer in Mount Vernon. And things started to fall apart. And they came knocking at his door and said, ‘George, we need you, because the whole thing is falling apart.’ I’m paraphrasing, but I think it was pretty close to — ‘Have I not yet done enough for my country?’ No. He went back and he didn’t say very much during the Continental Congress and the constitutional convention. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. He was a revered figure. He was — that’s my favorite painting of him. He was a revered figure. He was a guy — this was actually a painting done on the, just on the words of one of the — I think it was a farmer if I’m not mistaken. A farmer came into the field one day, and heard some noise and heard him standing there, in the field and he just watched him as he got down in Valley Forge on one knee and he prayed all by himself. He’s a guy that in the end could have been made king. He could have been made a ruler. He’s a guy who could have been really upset at Congress. Boy, oh, boy. 

The “farmer” was supposedly a Quaker named Potts, who decided after seeing the general in prayer that soldiering wasn’t such a bad gig after all, and became a fervent supporter of the Revolution.  That, at least, is the story as it originally appeared in the Washington biography by Parson Weems, who never met an anecdote he didn’t like.  Since then it’s appeared in illustrated form so many times that the question of whether or not it actually happened is essentially moot.  It probably didn’t.  Weems is a notoriously unreliable source, and in 1918 Valley Forge park officials refused to allow the erection of a monument to the event when they were unable to find any evidence to substantiate it. 

At one point during his Washington segment, Beck claimed that “it’s ironic to me that we make up a lie about ‘I shall not tell a lie’ on George Washington when there are so many great truth stories with him.”  That makes two of us—or maybe one of us.  I’m glad he’s urging his audience to study the founders; I just wish he’d do it a little more carefully himself.

9 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

And the reports are filtering in

…from the 2010 Raid at Martin’s Station.

The fort’s website has posted a slew of fine images, including some photos of the artillery in action, with your humble blogger making an appearance.  Here we are maneuvering the grasshopper into position, and here we’re giving the Indians a dose of canister.  Note the fellow with the wide-brimmed hat, dark waistcoat, green breeches, and fingertips hardened from blogging.

I had a glorious time, gained a new perspective on Revolutionary-era warfare, and did not blow my own face off.  HUZZAH!

While browsing around the web in search of photos of the event, I also ran across a few items posted by participants with their own historical blogs, which I’ve added to my blogroll here.  Let me direct your attention to a series of posts (here, here, and here) by a physician who was on hand to tend to the wounded and instruct the young in the art of eighteenth-century medicine.

While I was standing inside the fort with the rest of the cannon crew before we went into action, I spotted an intrepid frontierswoman shouldering a firelock in order to head out and do battle with the menfolk.  It turns out she has a blog, too, and you can read her account of the raid here.

Finally, you’ll find a number of additional photos by browsing through recent threads at this discussion forum, which is well worth your time.

My thanks to the park staff and all the living historians who were present for making a first-time reenactor feel welcome.  When do we get to do it again?

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting

Even protected battlefields can be threatened

If you take a look at the Civil War Preservation Trust’s 2010 list of most endangered battlefields, you’ll notice that some of the sites included are national parks or have some similar type of protective designation. 

On the face of it, this might seem a little odd.  You’d assume that once a site becomes a national park, it’s safe and sound.  Nobody is going to build a row of condos on federally protected land, and no short-sighted local zoning board can approve a retail development within a park’s boundaries.  The truth of the matter, though, is that while designation as a park protects land within a site’s boundaries, threats from outside those boundaries can be considerable.

Anyone who doubts the impact of development outside of a site’s boundaries should visit Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro, NC.  This is one of my favorite places, and one of the most important pieces of ground in America, where a British attempt to destroy Nathanael Greene’s army in March 1781 proved so costly that it led to the march to Virginia that ended at Yorktown.  It’s a beautiful park, and the NPS has done wonders in interpreting it.  I consider it a must-see for anyone interested in the Revolution.

It is sadly, however, crowded by construction.  Getting a perspective on the field as it appeared during the battle is extremely difficult, and the park will unfortunately never be able to interpret those parts of the field that lie outside the central core, since they’ve been churned up and built over.  GCNMP is a stellar example of what the NPS can do, but it’s also an example of the limitations that urban growth can place on a site.

Development proponents, of course, might call preservationists unreasonable and ask why we can’t be satisfied with what we’re allotted, why we’re always demanding more, more, more.  I’d be sorely tempted to ask them the same thing.  Preservationists need to remember that every time we draw a line in the sand, someone will be waiting to cross it and force us to draw another.  And another, and another.  We should be at least as persistent as they are.

2 Comments

Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

Here’s a little sample

…of how I spent my Saturday.

I didn’t take my camera, and couldn’t have used it if I had.  (It wouldn’t do to have a member of the cannon crew standing there taking pictures and video.)  Here, though, is some footage the 2009 Raid at Martin’s Station that’s available on YouTube.  If I can get my hands on any pics or videos from this year’s event, I’ll post them, too.  Enjoy!

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

I’ve finally seen the elephant

A lot of people ask me if I reenact, and they’re sometimes surprised when I say no.  In fact, it surprises me a little.  I’ve been seriously interested in history for about ten years now, but I’ve never engaged in living history, although I’ve helped organize events.  I suppose it’s been a combination of lack of time, severe allergies, and a general aversion to being hot and sweaty that’s kept me from it.

Not long ago I plugged the tenth Raid at Martin’s Station, a frontier/Rev War event held at Wilderness Road State Park near Rose Hill, VA.  I’ve been to it several times, but always as a mere spectator.  WRSP has an active group of living history interpreters, one of whom is a schoolteacher I’ve known for many years.  In fact, it was my dad who got him involved in reenacting when the hobby took off after the Civil War centennial.  This year he asked me if I’d be interested in taking a spot on the cannon crew for the Martin’s Station event, and I said yes.

The cannon in question was a “grasshopper,” a light bronze gun which fires a three-pound projectile.  I knew a little bit about grasshoppers, because they were used in some of those Rev War battles in the South that fascinate me to no end; Tarleton had two of them at Cowpens.

This grasshopper in the visitor center exhibit at Cowpens is very similar to the one I helped service. From Cowpens National Battlefield's website

While the infantry assembled within the fort walls, we went over the routine.  My task was simple.  When the battery commander gave the order, I was to remove a round of canister from the box and hand it off to a runner.  I’d also be responsible, as were all the men on the crew, for helping move the piece into position.

The battle itself was a surreal experience for me, and not just because it was not the sort of thing you get to do every day.  One of the things I found while researching my master’s thesis is that accounts by men in the ranks differed greatly from those by officers.  Commanders remembered the battle with a bird’s eye perspective, as a set of objectives to be accomplished.  Accounts by average militiamen, such as the memoir by James Collins (who was only sixteen when he fought at King’s Mountain), tended to be more impressionistic, consisting of a series of kaleidoscopic and fragmented details: the thirst, the sweat, Ferguson riding into and out of view, and so on.

Once the shooting started during my own little trial by fire, I understood why this was the case.  When the gun crew was still inside the fort, I could observe the infantry assembling in the yard, the riflemen on the walls, and the officers passing around giving orders.  I couldn’t see what was going on outside the walls, of course, but my perspective of the action within the fort itself was pretty good.  Once we were ordered out, though, my perspective shrank to a pinpoint.  I knew nothing but what was happening right in front of me, and my memories of that part of the battle are exactly the sort of disjointed details I’d read in veterans’ accounts: the smell of gunpowder, the ungodly and inhuman yells of the Indians (a sound that raised the hair on the back of my neck), the shouted orders, the breeze, the pain in my feet, the red ammunition box with the word VENGEANCE painted in black on the top, the blurred faces of the spectators as we rolled the cannon past them.

Here’s an anecdote that will illustrate how much my point of view diminished once the frantic process of hauling and firing the cannon started.  After the battle was over, when we had the gun back at the fort and the tourists were allowed in, I looked around to see that an outbuilding had been set on fire and was now a smoldering ruin.  Right in front of me were the sprawled bodies of the “dead.”  I had passed directly in front of all this twice during the engagement, but didn’t notice any of it until it was over.

I also lost all sense of time.  I didn’t have my wristwatch on, for obvious reasons, and I have no idea how long the battle lasted.  It could have been twenty minutes or an hour.  Things seemed to speed up once we were ordered to take the grasshopper out of the fort, but I don’t know if this last phase of the battle was actually shorter or if it was simply due to the haste with which we had to move and load the grasshopper.

I was also surprised at how easily and quickly I forgot things that I’d long known—at least in an abstract sort of way—about eighteenth-century weapons.  Before we wheeled the cannon outside, I was given a pistol and told to take a post on the fort wall.  I hadn’t taken three steps before I absent-mindedly lowered the pistol barrel to the ground, dumping out every bit of the powder.  Once I finally stepped up onto a platform and stuck the pistol out of a firing port, I made an even more basic mistake.  Despite reading countless descriptions of the procedure for cocking and firing flintlock weapons, I neglected to pull back the frizzen before pulling the trigger.  Even in a mock battle in which no one’s life was in serious danger, it was easy to see how the uproar of things could get the better of you.

I’ve long believed that living history is a fantastic instructional tool when it comes to the general public, but now I’m more convinced than ever of its value for the researcher.  I didn’t “learn” anything about the eighteenth century in the sense of increasing my store of knowledge.  Instead, the information that I already had became deeper and more visceral.  I already knew that common soldiers experienced battle as a disjointed series of impressions, that their perspective of time changed, and that they often did things (or failed to do things) for which they couldn’t account afterward.  I knew all that, but I knew it in only the abstract.  Now I know it with a kind of visceral certainty, and from participating in only one event.  So to any researchers who wonder if reenacting will be of any benefit to their work, let me assure you that it will.  And the fact that it’s just plain fun doesn’t hurt, either.

3 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting