Monthly Archives: December 2010

Nice blog! Which way to the weird Glenn Beck rock?

“I have always found revisiting my novels painful work,” wrote Larry McMurtry in the Foreword to a collection of his essays, “and the novels, after all, are the marriages and great loves of one’s imagination.  In comparison, the columns and articles which follow are quick tricks and one-night stands, the offspring of opportunity rather than passion.”

If an essay is a one-night stand, then a blog post must be something quite ephemeral and tawdry indeed.  Perhaps it’s a drunken French kiss in a back alley, if we were to extend McMurtry’s metaphor.

Such an insubstantial format probably doesn’t merit much of importance, which is why it seems fitting that my most-visited post of 2010 wasn’t one of my lengthy meditations on the nature of historical memory, nor one of my carefully composed site reviews, nor one of my periodic reflections on the historiographical state of a given subject.

No, the post that got the most traffic (by far) in 2010 was an irritable rant on Glenn Beck and the Bat Creek Stone.  In fact, I continue to get irate comments on that post from readers who take my skepticism toward an obscure Tennessee artifact very, very personally.

Oh, well.  I suppose that if you’re going to go Googling for historical information, it’s best that you do it for something like spurious archaeological finds rather than more substantial topics like the origins of the American Revolution.  For the latter, you’re better off reading a book, anyway.

I wish all my readers, both frequent and occasional, a happy and prosperous 2011.  I hope you’ll continue to make this blog one of your regular online stops, no matter what brings you here, and whether you agree with these unsolicited observations about history or not.

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Collections with legs

Why is the New York Times taking notice of a dispute between a library director and trustees in the small hamlet of Little Falls, NY?  Perhaps the library’s surprisingly mobile collection has something to do with it:

“A 13-star flag and an invitation toAbraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball should never have been put up for auction, argued the director, Marietta Phillips.”

Most institutions have to cull their collections from time to time, but said flag may have adorned Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh.  Might’ve been a good idea to hang onto that one.

“And she was also bothered, she said, that trustees sometimes took artifacts home, for good reason, perhaps, but without anyone’s bothering to note it on her sign-out sheet at the circulation desk.”

Oh my.

The notion of trustees carting items off without so much as initialing a form is, to put it mildly, distressing.  This isn’t a field where you’re encouraged to take your work home with you.

Maybe the fact that these folks were shedding themselves of some of their more significant holdings isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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Historic sites going wireless

The always-stimulating Mysteries and Conundrums blog has a post that’s well worth reading for anybody interested in historic site interpretation.  John Hennessy looks into the near future at what wireless devices might bring to public history.

Some NPS sites are already taking advantage of the ubiquity of cell phones to incorporate them into their educational efforts, as I’ve noted here before.  It’s a handy, unobtrusive way to do an audio tour.  Now that wireless devices capable of handling images and video are becoming almost as common as basic phones, visitors can also access pictures, maps, movies, GPS, and any number of other types of information, all while standing on a battlefield.

Hennessy notes one implication of all this that I hadn’t considered.  As people find that there are opportunities to generate such material for visitors to access (sometimes for a profit), the NPS and other preservation/interpretation agencies “will be in the position of having to compete for our visitors’ attention, even when they are physically within spaces we manage.”

Imagine ten or twenty visitors standing at a tour stop, each one with a wireless device, accessing completely different types of information from independent sources.  Some of these sources won’t be as reliable as others, of course, which is cause for some concern.  But the possibilities of a scenario like this are still pretty exciting.

Visitors bring their own needs to a site—some people need basic orientation, while others will want more in-depth coverage.  If each visitor has access to whatever information they want while they are at the site, then they can tailor their own interpretation to their level of knowledge and interest.

Personally, one of the things that excites me the most is the possibility of mixing GPS with visual and audio data.  If you had a handheld device capable of both taking a GPS reading and pulling up images, text, or audio information keyed to particular locations, then you could have as many tour stops as you wanted, each one packed with reams of information, and the device could access all this automatically.  You could even orient it to the direction the visitor was facing.  And it wouldn’t require any intrusion into the landscape of the site at all, since the information would be transmitted invisibly through the air and into a visitor’s iPhone, iPad, or whatever.

Check out the Civil War Augmented Reality Project to see some of what might be possible.

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A coded message from the siege of Vicksburg

…has just been discovered and cracked.  It didn’t get through to Pemberton, and wouldn’t have made any difference if it had, but it’s still a pretty cool story.

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Everything I need to know about American history, I learned from anti-Catholic conspiracy theories

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE TRUTH AT LAST!

Tobias Lear, personal secretary to George Washington, was an assassin in the employ of the nefarious Jesuit Order who poisoned the Father of our Country, and Thomas Jefferson was probably in on it!

As President, Jefferson used his office to promote Jesuit infiltration of the United States!

George III was a Jesuit puppet, and his invasion of the colonies to suppress the rebellion was in reality the result of a scheme to eradicate Protestantism!

Those countless hours I spent as a grad student, trying to learn what made the Revolution tick…and it was all for naught.  All for naught.

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If you thought Civil War interpretation and preservation was a headache

…then thank your lucky stars you’re not trying to run an Indian wars site.  Observe the numerous obstacles faced by the folks at Little Bighorn, where politics of both the conventional and cultural varieties collide with the usual challenges of historic site management to create a perfect storm of frustration.

Hat tip to Larry Cebula for this one.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Whose mountain is it, anyway?

Here’s a minor but nevertheless troubling dilemma for those of us interested in the Battle of King’s Mountain.  To apostrophe or not to apostrophe?  There seems to be no formal consensus on whether it’s “King’s Mountain” or “Kings Mountain.”

The slopes of King's Mountain, SC. Photo by yours truly

I had always used “King’s” without giving it too much thought until a reviewer for a piece I’d submitted suggested that “Kings” was in fact the proper usage.  After looking over some early accounts, I found enough apostrophes to convince me that “King’s” was legit, so I just left it in.  Maybe it was the wrong call.

A lot of primary sources leave the apostrophe in, but not all of them do.  Whig veteran James Collins called the battle “King’s Mountain” in an autobiography published many years later.  So did Banastre Tarleton in his book on the campaigns in the South.  Some veterans’ pension accounts include the apostrophe, but others omit it.  Likewise for contemporary manuscripts found in private correspondence.

Early historians and antiquarians seemed to prefer “King’s” to “Kings.”  The most detailed study of the battle is Lyman Draper’s King’s Mountain and its Heroes, published in 1881.  Draper employed the apostrophe throughout, as did his friend J. G. M. Ramsey in Annals of Tennessee.

As far as more recent authorities go, it seems to be a toss-up.  John Pancake and John Buchanan both use “King’s,” but NPS literature doesn’t.  Robert Dunkerly, who was the ranger in charge of the site, used “Kings” for his published collection of eyewitness accounts.

Adding to the confusion, the ridge on which the battle took place isn’t the only mountain in the area to bear the name.  A much larger prominence within Crowders Mountain State Park, to the northwest of the battleground, is called “King’s Pinnacle.”  It’s part of a mountain range, of which the battlefield ridge itself is a small spur.

Draper evidently considered the whole range to be one big geographical feature, and claimed that both it and nearby King’s Creek got their names from a settler named King.

King's Pinnacle, NC. From the website of Friends of Crowders Mountain

Since Draper was notoriously indefatigable in tracking down local traditions, this is probably what the folks who were living in the area during the late nineteenth century believed to be the name’s true origin, but that’s not to say that their opinion was the correct one.  Other sources claim that “King’s Pinnacle” got its name from a rock formation, so it’s possible (though very unlikely) that the big mountain’s name is unrelated to the name of the battlefield ridge and creek.

It gets even more confusing.  While searching for an online map, I ran across references to King’s Pinnacle as “Kings Pinnacle” and King’s Creek as “Kings Creek.”  This could very well initiate my long-anticipated descent into madness.

I say we have a referendum of Rev War buffs and local residents to settle this once and for all, because my head hurts.  I’ll be lobbying for “King’s,” just because if I start thinking about all those possibly-superfluous apostrophes in my master’s thesis, it’ll bug the living daylights out of me.

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Looks like Stonewall Jackson’s house will be under new management

The organization that runs Stonewall Jackson’s house as a Lexington, VA museum is in the process of turning it over to Virginia Military Institute, according to the Post. As you might have guessed, this lousy economy has a lot to do with it:

In May, the foundation approached VMI about acquiring the historic house as a way to protect the building and its collections, which the foundation purchased in 1994. Foundation executive director Michael Lynn said the Jackson House, as well as other small museums, are facing difficult times with the downturn in the economy and fewer visitors.

“This is the best possible solution for the long-term viability of the museum,” she said. “Surveys always show a high level of visitor satisfaction with the museum but there just are not enough of them coming.”

I’d imagine this is a difficult decision, but it’s also a sensible one.  I’ve worked at two museums which were parts of much larger entities, a university in one case and a county government in the other.  For all the frustrations that can come with operating a museum as a department of a bigger entity, it has definite advantages.

I’ve always compared it to the difference between living on your own and being a younger child in a big family.  If you’ve got your own place, you don’t have to wait in line for the bathroom and you can crank the TV up as loud as you please…but you also have to keep yourself in the black, or you’ll be out on the street.  The third child in a big family has to learn to play nice with his siblings, but he’s pretty sure there will be food on the table tomorrow.

Since this economic mess has so many independent museums closing their doors, entity-within-an-entity museums can sometimes have a sort of relative security that free-standing museums don’t.  I emphasize relative, of course, because plenty of entity-with-an-entity museums are facing an uncertain feature these days, too.

I hate to learn that the Stonewall Jackson Foundation is in a bind, since they’ve done a fantastic job of interpreting the site, but it’s good to know that VMI is willing to step in.  The house is a wonderful place to see.  Here’s a review that I posted last summer, in case you’re interested.

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Feeling right, wrong, and right again

Sometimes historical research can take you on an emotional rollercoaster. Here’s a personal example.

For my master’s thesis, I looked at evolving interpretations of the Battle of King’s Mountain from the time of the war itself through the late nineteenth century (the late nineteenth century being the time, I argued, when most of the popular perceptions about the battle took shape).  In the last chapter I examined the conceptions about Appalachia that emerged after the Civil War and the role these notions played in shaping the way Americans remembered the Patriots who fought in the battle.

One of my contentions was that over the course of the late 1800′s, East Tennessee basically claimed the Battle of King’s Mountain as its own.  This was partly inevitable; many of the men who fought came from what is now East Tennessee, the two officers who were most active in organizing the expedition led contingents from that area, and the battle was the (future) Volunteer State’s most significant contribution to American victory in the Revolution.

But there were other reasons why the legacy of King’s Mountain fell to East Tennessee.  Other states involved in the battle didn’t emphasize it as heavily as Tennessee did.  The largest contingent of troops at King’s Mountain was a group of Virginians serving under Col. William Campbell, and it was Campbell who served as honorary commander of the expedition.  Campbell and his Virginians, however, didn’t figure prominently in traditional histories of the Revolution written by Virginians.  I argued that Virginia chroniclers neglected the battle because they had bigger fish to fry.  If you want to portray the Revolution as a great day for the Old Dominion, you can always point to Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Yorktown.  King’s Mountain had to take a backseat.

More surprising to me was what I found when I examined nineteenth-century accounts of the war written by South Carolinians.  The battleground is in the Palmetto State, and South Carolina militia fought on both sides in the battle, some of them not far from their own homes.  Yet South Carolina historians of the 1800′s weren’t as gung-ho about King’s Mountain as the Tennesseans were, either.  There were some impressively lengthy accounts in some period books, but King’s Mountain didn’t seem as central to South Carolina’s memory of the war as it did to Tennessee’s, at least not to me.  I figured the reason was similar to that for the Virginia accounts.  There were so many engagements fought in South Carolina (including pivotal battles like the bombardment of Ft. Moultrie and Cowpens) that King’s Mountain was one turning point among several.  For Tennesseans, it was the pinnacle of the war effort.

Since East Tennessee claimed the battle, writers of the late 1800′s interpreted it through the lens of the Appalachian stereotypes that were emerging at that very time.  The battle’s memory therefore became regionalized.  It became a victory won by mountaineers from Appalachian Tennessee.  That, at least, was my argument.  I revised that thesis chapter for an article which Tennessee Historical Quarterly was kind enough to publish, and seeing it in printed form was very gratifying.

After the article came out a few things occurred to me that caused me to wonder whether I had overstated my argument.  Specifically, I started to get nervous that I had underestimated the degree to which South Carolina had tried to claim the battle, too.

First, one of the oldest monuments on any Revolutionary War battlefield sits by the side of the ridge.  Erected in 1815, it commemorates the death of Maj. William Chronicle and some of his fellow South Carolinians, shot while charging up the slope.  This monument pre-dates the period when Tennesseans laid claim to King’s Mountain, but it indicates that South Carolinians had made King’s Mountain an early priority.

The Chronicle marker on the left, with a modern replacement on the right

More troubling to my case was the dedication of the U.S. Monument, a gorgeous obelisk erected on top of the ridge in 1909.  While the monument was, as its name implies, a national project, the dedication ceremony for it was a predominantly local show, since it was mostly folks from the surrounding area who showed up.  Here was more evidence of South Carolina staking a claim to the battleground, and this time at the very end of the era when I’d argued that Tennessee was picking up the ball and running with it.

The U.S. Monument

Since I’d just published an article arguing that, in the decades immediately preceding the dedication, Tennessee had claimed the battle as her own and other states had allowed her to do so, you can understand why I was feeling uneasy.

Then something occurred to me that made me feel a lot better.  In fact, I felt it actually bolstered my case.  The Chronicle marker wasn’t just a monument to South Carolinians.  It was a monument to local heroes.  Chronicle and his men came from the northwestern backcountry part of the state, the same region where the battle took place.  Furthermore, the turnout at the U.S. Monument dedication wasn’t just from South Carolina, but specifically local.  These two examples of commemoration revealed local historical pride, rather than state historical pride.

All this suggested that it was mostly those South Carolinians who had the battlefield in their own backyards who were concerned about commemorating it, not the state as a whole.  South Carolinians in general certainly didn’t ignore the battle, but neither did they emphasize it to the same extent that nineteenth-century Tennesseans did, except for those who lived in the vicinity of where it took place.  The Chronicle marker and the local interest in the U.S. Monument were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Of course, if it had turned out that I was completely wrong about the commemoration of a particular Revolutionary War battle, it wouldn’t exactly have meant the end of civilization as we know it.  But finding some new material that vindicated my research still made me feel a lot better.  I had applied some new information to a case I’d tried to make previously, and it still seemed to stack up, which was a pretty good feeling.

Now the only thing that bugs me is that I didn’t bring this up when I made the argument to begin with…

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Lloyd Branson’s lost King’s Mountain painting

The good news is that—as you may have noticed—I managed to restore my nifty header image of the overmountain men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, which kicked off the events leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I’ve discussed this painting and why I like it before, so I’m glad to have a segment of it gracing the top of the blog again.

Here’s the bad news.  Lloyd Branson, the East Tennessee artist who produced this beautiful piece, also painted a scene of the actual battle, which decorated the lobby of Knoxville’s swanky Hotel Imperial.  (An early travel booklet described the Imperial as “beautifully furnished,” and noted that the food was particularly good.)  During WWI the hotel went up in flames and took Branson’s King’s Mountain painting with it.  The loss of the Imperial inspired three Knoxvillians to build a brand-new hotel which opened shortly thereafter, but of course nobody could replace Branson’s canvas.

I’ve been unable to find a picture or description of it.  It’s a shame we don’t have the other “bookend” of Branson’s visual depiction of the King’s Mountain expedition, especially since the muster painting is one of Tennessee’s definitive historical artworks.

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