Monthly Archives: August 2011

Another article on Ed Bearss

…this time a lengthier piece on how he got into the battlefield business.  The man is eighty-eight, but his idea of “retirement” from the National Park Service is to work 225 days a year, leading tours of historic sites.  May he live to be 150.

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Filed under History and Memory

Repatriating the Civil War

Kevin Levin recently noted the case of three captured Confederate flags that are going to be sent back home to North Carolina.  I think it’s a fine gesture.

Coincidentally, there’s another story about repatriating Civil War artifacts in the news right now.  In 1861, the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers decided to make the most of their time in Harpers Ferry by picking up a souvenir—the bell from the firehouse where John Brown made his last stand.  They passed it along to a Maryland woman, and it remained in her possession until 1892, when some of the veterans from the 13th Massachusetts retrieved it and took it back to their home state.  It’s still there, hanging in a tower in the town of Marlborough.  Now West Virginia real estate broker Howard Swint thinks it belongs back home, and he’s going to court to try to make it happen.

According to the article, “Swint thinks the bell is a national treasure that should be returned to Harpers Ferry where visitors can see it.”  Fair enough.  It’s certainly a part of Harpers Ferry’s history.  The National Park Service manages Harpers Ferry’s historic sites, and an exhibit featuring the bell and the story of its journey from West Virginia to Massachusetts and back would give the NPS a pretty neat opportunity to teach visitors about the way the Civil War has been remembered down through the years.

Still, the bell has been in Marlborough for so long that it’s become a part of that town’s history, too.  Like all artifacts, the bell has acquired its particular importance from the events that have happened to it.  Artifacts, I think, are subject to Lamarckian biology; the events they undergo become permanently wired into their DNA.  That, after all, is why we cherish some objects above others.

Some of the comments left on the web article indicated that Swint has stirred up controversy before, so I Googled him and came up with an editorial written by someone with that name just a few months ago, arguing for the removal of a Stonewall Jackson monument on the grounds of the West Virginia capitol.  In this piece, Swint (assuming, of course, it’s the same Howard Swint of West Virginia) claims that a Confederate monument at the capitol is inappropriate, given all the Confederacy’s unsavory aspects.

Here, too, I think it’s easy to oversimplify matters.  I tend to be dismissive of efforts to put up new monuments, but when it comes to the ones that have been around for a century or more, my preservationist instincts kick in.  Yes, slavery and racism are inextricably intertwined with the history of the Confederacy, and yes, Confederate symbols continued to be employed for racist purposes well into modern times.  But there comes a point at which things like old monuments or works of art are artifacts in themselves.  They tell us something about the way we used to be (or wanted to be, or wanted to think we were), so I say leave them be.

Just as the bell’s long stay in Massachusetts has become an intrinsic part of its history, so the idealized legacy of the most famous West Virginian to fight in the war has become an intrinsic part of the state’s history.  Tearing down an old monument seems sort of like getting a tattoo of your ex-wife’s name removed—you won’t have to look at it anymore, but all the baggage goes a lot deeper than the ink in your skin, so you might as well acknowledge it and try to develop some perspective and become better for it.

As for the bell, I don’t know how I’d make that call.  Since it’s not my call to make, I guess that doesn’t matter.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

So you want to enrich your child’s education. . .

I just ran across this bit of advice for concerned parents:

I’m going to tell you a little secret. Shhhh, come close ….the school curriculum is available, grade by grade, on the district’s website. (Here they are for District 102 and District 96.) And now I’m going to tell you why you care. By reading it, you will not only have a full and detailed preview of what your child is expected to learn over the course of the school year, but, it will give you valuable knowledge on how to prepare your child for the school year as well.

No, it won’t say “your child will be learning about the Revolutionary War so take a trip to Gettysburg,” but it will say that in fifth grade your child will need to explain the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War. So now that you know that, you can help your child build priceless background knowledge.

Forget Gettysburg, they don’t concentrate on the battles in fifth grade. Heading east?  Do the Freedom Walk in Boston. Staying close to home?  Watch the Liberty Kids cartoon series or the HBO mini-series John Adams (great for the aftermath of the war).

A good idea, that.  People who drive all the way to Gettysburg to learn about the Revolutionary War are indeed in for a disappointment.

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A colonial romance movie

…is shooting this fall in Virginia.  It’s based on Mary Johnston’s 1900 novel To Have and to Hold, about a Jamestown settler who marries a girl pledged to a nobleman.  The book was wildly popular when it was first published, and was the basis for two silent films. You can read it online for free, if you’re so inclined.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

Ed Bearss’s favorite Civil War books

Ed Bearss is a living legend when it comes to the history of the Civil War, so it was about time somebody asked him to name his favorite books on the subject.  I think his choices were pretty good.  Check it out.

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Filed under Civil War, Historiography

Another historic site desecration here in East Tennessee

This time it’s a Revolutionary War veteran’s grave in Johnson City.  As a teenager, Darling Jones served under Isaac Shelby in South Carolina and participated in John Sevier’s Cherokee campaigns.  Now people are using his final resting place as a trash dump.

There’s a tradition that Jones fired the shot that killed Patrick Ferguson at King’s Mountain, but he didn’t mention being present at the battle in his pension application, and Bobby Moss doesn’t include him in his annotated list of King’s Mountain vets as either a documented or possible participant.  I suspect the Ferguson story is a bit of accrued tradition, since it seems that Jones wasn’t there. King’s Mountain was The Big One as far as most Tennesseans have been concerned, so it makes sense that local Rev War vets would get lumped in with the guys who fought there.  (Most traditional accounts credit another Tennessee militiaman named Robert Young with the fatal shot, although Ferguson’s body was apparently so riddled with holes that one wonders whether any single individual can be said to have “killed” him.)

Whether the tradition that Jones was at King’s Mountain is true or not, his gravesite is no place to leave garbage.

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Filed under American Revolution, Tennessee History

Have a fashionable lunch with Lincoln

There’s something kind of inappropriate about the fact that a luxury vehicle is named after one of the most unpretentious men to ever occupy the White House.

There’s something equally inappropriate about the fact that a painfully hip, upscale eatery in Washington, D.C. is named after him.

Wikimedia Commons

“The lunch menu focuses on traditionally sized entrees, such as broiled golden mac ‘n’ cheese sassed up with smoked ham ($12) and the juicy Lincoln burger served on a slightly sweet brioche bun and topped with creamy goat cheese, a homemade tomato jam and a speckling of watercress shoots ($14). At dinnertime, the menu switches to small plates, with more than 30 selections. Enjoy a French twist on a seaside sensation with the lobster beignets ($12), or get a kick out of the coffee-rubbed duck breast accompanied by a plum, walnut and farro grain salad ($14).”

According to the proprietor, Lincoln’s era “evokes the simplicity of food itself.” That’s probably what people thought back in that age of the Market Revolution. “This evokes the simplicity of food itself,” they must have said to each other, as they sent their manufactured products and commercial crops along all those canals and railways they were building.

Speaking of simplicity, they serve the lemonade in a mason jar.  You can sit there and sip your lemonade out of a jar and feel all folksy, while you gaze at the Pop Art images on the walls and await your fourteen-dollar “Lincoln burger” on a brioche bun.

Can you imagine Lincoln ambling into a place like this, with his hair characteristically unkempt and his pants too short, and folding his angular frame into a booth?  “Well, I reckon I’ll have the coffee-rubbed duck breast with the plum, walnut and farro grain salad.”

The whole thing reminds me of Cornelius Van Santvoord’s story about a petitioner who came to the White House asking for a presidential endorsement to help promote a business scheme.  Lincoln told him, “I’ll have nothing to do with this business, nor with any man who comes to me with such degrading propositions.…You have come to the wrong place, and for you and everyone who comes for such purposes, there is the door!”

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory