Monthly Archives: August 2010

A new, independent Gettysburg casino study

…reveals that, yes, it’s not going to be such a great deal after all

The casino’s backers have overestimated the number of job openings, understated the degree to which these jobs will be low-paying and part-time, neglected to factor in the damage that will be done to existing businesses, ignored the data from similar cases, and forgotten to account for the existence of competitive gaming venues in the surrounding region.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  When you’re looking for solid information about some financial undertaking, you’re not likely to get it from the guy that stands to make a buck.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

Secession on display in the Tar Heel State

Here’s an item I just received from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources:

RALEIGH – For North Carolina, the Civil War officially began in the State Capitol. On May 20, 1861, delegates from across the state adopted the Ordinance of Secession in the House of Commons, officially withdrawing the state from the Union. This event followed months of tense debate between Unionists and Secessionists, slavery advocates and abolitionists.

 A new exhibit, Crisis at the Capitol: North Carolina on the Eve of War, explores what the State Capitol was like on the eve of the conflict and introduces visitors to many of the individuals working and living here in a time before secession and before the war. The exhibit opens Sept. 17 and will remain on display through May 13, 2011. Admission is free.

 The exhibit is based on documents left behind by 11 different people, each with a different perspective on the impending crisis. Visitors will learn the stories of John Copeland, a Raleigh native who participated in John Brown’s infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, Va.; Harriet Jacobs, once enslaved in Edenton, who escaped and became active in the abolition movement; and John Thomas Jones, a student at the University of North Carolina who supported secession and enlisted in the army despite of his father’s Unionist views. The viewpoints of President Abraham Lincoln, N.C. Governor John Ellis, and famed abolitionist author and Mocksville native Hinton Rowan Helper are also highlighted.

 The State Capitol’s mission is to preserve and interpret the history, architecture and functions of the 1840 building and Union Square. The State Capitol is at One Edenton Street, Raleigh, NC 27601. Visit www.nchistoricsites.org/capitol/default.htm or call (919) 733-4994 for more information.

Administered by the Division of State Historic Sites, the State Capitol is part of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency with the mission to enrich lives and communities, and the vision to harness the state’s cultural resources to build North Carolina’s social, cultural and economic future. Information is available 24/7 at http://www.ncdcr.gov/.

Looks pretty nifty!

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

I totally called it

So back when McChrystal got sacked for criticizing the administration, the media swarmed to the McClellan analogies like ants at a picnic, and I speculated that they’d eventually be giving Petraeus the Grant treatment.   And BEHOLD!  Petraeus has been reading Grant books, and pundits have taken note.

Here’s another prediction, this time contingent on events at the polls.  If the Democrats suffer in the mid-term elections, and if Obama then manages a public opinion rebound and wins a second term in 2012, then we’ll be treated to yet another round of Lincoln-Obama comparisons, this time invoking ’62 and ’64.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.

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Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Glenn Beck’s Excellent Pseudohistorical Adventure Continues

There was a time when I thought that Glenn Beck’s history lessons couldn’t get any weirder than his invocation of the Washington prophecy.

That was before August 18, when he left the shallows of pseudohistory behind him and plunged headfirst into the deep end.

First, he pointed out that American history didn’t start with Columbus.  Indians had their own civilizations, some of them quite impressive by any contemporary standard.  No argument there, although Beck did his customary routine of arguing that he was imparting some type of arcane, forgotten knowledge.  (Ever read any history books published in the last thirty years, Glenn?)

Then he cited the theory, tossed around in some circles during the colonial and Revolutionary eras, that Indians were descended from prominent Old World civilizations.  That’s when I started to wonder where he was headed.

That’s when things took a sharp turn toward the bizarre.  Beck pointed out some superficial similarities between ancient Native American earthen structures and Egyptian pyramids, and started arguing that Hebrew artifacts have turned up in Native American archaeological sites.  The scholarly community, he claimed, had engaged in a cover-up to hide this from the public.

I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what was coming next, and I was right.  Beck spoke three little words which descended like a credibility-shattering sledgehammer: Bat Creek Stone.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bat Creek Stone, you’re not alone.  It’s a deservedly obscure artifact, an unimpressive slice of rock less than six inches long with an inscription that looks like this:

From Wikimedia Commons

It first turned up during a Smithsonian excavation of some East Tennessee Indian mounds back in 1889.  For about eighty years, nobody gave it a second thought.  Then along came Cyrus Gordon of Brandeis University, who claimed that the inscription was actually an ancient form of Hebrew.

Now, Gordon was hardly an impartial observer when it came to this sort of thing.  He was a firm believer in the notion that there was substantial contact between the Old and New Worlds well before the time of Columbus.  The possibility of an ancient Hebrew inscription in a Tennessee Indian mound offered possible corroboration for his pet theory, the sort of corroboration which is quite scarce indeed.

As you can imagine, archaeologists, linguists, and ethnographers were unconvinced.  Eminent Hebrew paleographers have dismissed the inscription, arguing that most of the characters could not possibly correspond to Paleo-Hebrew letters of the period in question and bear only a superficial similarity to ancient Hebrew script.  Frauds of this sort were common in nineteenth-century America, and in fact the Bat Creek Stone’s inscription is similar to a speculative reconstruction of some ancient Hebrew writing that appared in a late nineteenth-century Masonic publication.  Two of the stone’s critics have made a case that the leader of the Smithsonian’s original excavation may have forged the stone and planted it in an attempt to boost his troubled career.  (You can read their analysis here.)  It’s worth noting that the stone’s most prominent modern-day proponent is actually an economist, who lacks any professional qualifications in paleography, archaeology, or ethnology.

In short, the Bat Creek Stone probably belongs in the realm of Bigfoot and the Mothman, not serious scholarly inquiry.

I was only aware of the stone because for several years it’s been residing at one of my favorite haunts.  It’s on indefinite loan to the University of Tennessee’s fantastic McClung Museum, where its display label quite rightly explains why it’s a dubious artifact.

Beck, by contrast, never mentioned that anyone doubted the Hebrew inscription at all, let alone that it’s pretty universally discounted by experts in every relevant field.  He simply stated that the inscription was in Hebrew.  Case closed.

It took me, an ordinary schmuck with no expertise in this sort of thing, a few seconds to find a slew of evidence debunking the Bat Creek Stone with a simple search engine.  Just typing its name into Google is sufficient to demonstrate that it’s a troubled artifact.  Yet Beck never gave any indication whatsoever that its status was in any doubt.  This omission bothers me much more than his belief in the inscription’s authenticity.

I don’t expect Glenn Beck to be an expert in early American ethnography, archaeology, or paleography.  I do, however, expect him to employ the most basic kind of fact-checking before he assumes the responsibility of educating millions of Americans in history.

Did anybody from Beck’s show even bother to Google the darn thing?  Who in the world is he paying to be his fact-checker, and does he have any inkling how badly he needs to fire them?

Maybe the notion of an ancient Hebrew inscription in America excited him because of his own religious convictions.  That’s fine, but since the scholarly community discounts the inscription, he has the responsibility to at least acknowledge that a controversy exists.  He didn’t, and his presentation was therefore inaccurate and misleading.

Beck omitted critical information, whether out of simple ignorance that it existed or a dishonest attempt to cover it up.  Neither possibility is reassuring, and I think the American people would be much better off if he would stop trying to educate them about their own history.  Physician, heal thyself.

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Filed under Archaeology, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Take a Civil War prison camp

…have it hastily abandoned as Sherman’s army approaches, let it get grown over, and then build a fish hatchery on the site to keep out artifact pilferers, and what you end up with is an archaeological gold mine.  Check it out.

(Tip of the hat to my good friend Dustin for pointing this one out.)

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Good news for reenactors

…who are worried about getting their butternut trousers sued off.  The Living History Association is now offering a liability insurance program.

‘Cause even if you have insurance, you could always use a little more.  Am I right or am I right or am I right?  Right?  Right?  Right?

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Filed under Reenacting, Uncategorized

Promises, promises

This item from Eric Wittenberg’s blog offers some food for thought in the current Gettysburg casino controversy.  When one of these operations opened in Pittsburgh, the owners predicted the place would rake in over $420 million in the first year.  Well, it’s been a year, and the actual revenue has been about half that.  But, hey, they were only off by 50%.

From Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a tip, folks.  When you’re trying to decide whether something is a good idea, the most objective source of information is generally not the guy who stands to profit from it. 

This seems like such an obvious point.  You’d never buy a used car just because the salesman assured you it was a great deal, would you?

Then why in the world, when a development project threatens some historic resource, would you simply assume that the project’s backers are telling you the gospel truth when they promise that you’ll be wading up to your armpits in milk and honey?

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Inexorable laws at work

During the time I spent doing curatorial work at a Lincoln museum, I dealt with a lot of people who contacted us regarding items in their possession they wanted identified or verified.  They ran the gamut from old lithographs to leg irons supposedly used at Andersonville, from countless printed facsimiles of the Gettysburg Address to a petrified tree trunk.

One class of item stood out, because of how difficult it always was to convince the owner that they didn’t have what they thought they had, and that was historic photographs.  My experiences led me to formulate what I call “Lynch’s Inexorable Law of Amateur Photograph Collecting.”  It goes like this:

Any inexperienced person who comes into possession of an antique photograph of a tall or lanky man will be convinced that he or she has an image of Abraham Lincoln, and no amount of effort will persuade him or her otherwise.

The Abraham Lincoln Observer has just noted an example of Lynch’s Inexorable Law in action.  It’s an old photo, the guy is really skinny, ergo it’s Abe Lincoln, despite the fact that he’s wearing what looks like 1880′s apparel and looks more like Paul from The Wonder Years.

As an aside, I once got a call from a lady who’d bought what she believed was a photo of Mary Todd Lincoln at a flea market.  She told me that she was positive it was her because the woman in the photo had “sad eyes.”  She e-mailed me a copy of it, and as you might imagine, there wasn’t even the slightest resemblance.  When I informed her that she almost certainly didn’t have a picture of Mary Todd Lincoln, she insisted that she was correct.  I referred her on to someone else, who no doubt told her the same thing.  I would imagine that this cycle continued to repeat itself, and that today she’s still as convinced as ever.

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Confederate submarines aren’t a bad investment

The AP has a progress report on the ongoing Hunley conservation project, which is about to finish its tenth year.  It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long to me, but come to think of it, I guess I was in high school when I heard Glenn McConnell (the SC state senator who’s helped push the effort) give a presentation to promote raising it from the bottom.

Note that although the project has cost $22 million (with about half of that funded by state and federal taxpayers) so far, it’s already helped generate much more than that for the Palmetto State. 

That baby is paying off, as good historic preservation generally does.

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