Monthly Archives: September 2011

We’ll do it live! I’LL WRITE IT AND WE’LL DO IT LIVE!

Renowned commentator Bill O’Reilly talked to Peter Boyer about his upcoming book on the Lincoln assassination.

“In this time when we’re struggling for leadership—and whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you know that we are struggling with leadership in America—we need to go back to a guy like Abraham Lincoln and understand what made him great,” O’Reilly says.

If you’re going to understand what made Lincoln great, the assassination is the place to start.  Something about the way he slumped forward in that chair was eminently statesmanlike.

O’Reilly, now 62, says Americans are ill equipped to make wise decisions (“History in the public-school system now? Forget it”) in choosing their leaders, and that a dose of Lincoln—“the gold standard of leadership”—may help. But he has not gone suddenly egghead. Killing Lincoln is not a work of original scholarship or of breakthrough insight; it is meant to be a page-turner, modeled after the thrillers of John Grisham. “That’s the kind of books I like,” he says.

Good.  The last things I want in a history book are original scholarship and breakthrough insight.  If I want to learn something, I can always watch Ancient Aliens.

He mostly succeeds in that regard, in the sense that if Grisham wrote a novel about April 1865—a tiny span densely packed with history, from Appomattox to the Lincoln assassination and the hunting down of John Wilkes Booth—it might well read like Killing Lincoln. O’Reilly and Dugard collaborated on the project via email and telephone and wrote it in six months. If it sells, O’Reilly says, he plans a series of such books.

I’d say six months sounds like an adequate amount of time to write a book on the Lincoln assassination.   All my previous concerns about this book have melted away, like marshmallow Peeps in the noonday sun.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln

Bringing the background to the foreground

So, as I was saying, I was driving around in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park the other day when I spotted a wayside marker I’d never seen before.

I’ve driven by this spot several times, so I think this sign is a recent addition, but maybe I just need to be paying closer attention.  Anyway, this marker is worth a closer look, because it scratches an itch that I noted earlier this year.

Back in March I was griping about our tendency to get so caught up in the dramatic and exceptional events that happened in historic areas that we ignore what happened in between them.  The Gap is notable mainly for those people who were (often quite literally) just passing through.  Its story is one of long hunters, pioneers, Civil War garrisons, and industrialists who came and went.  The people who lived in the area had their own history—a long and interesting one—but it’s a history that’s invisible to many observers.  Their story forms a hazy and indistinct background to the procession of pioneers, soldiers, and boosters that passed by on their way to whatever it is they were after.

In some cases, the local story vanishes altogether.  CGNHP isn’t a battlefield or a building; it’s acres and acres of beautiful green space.  A lot of visitors come for the views and the hiking trails instead of the history.  It’s so easy to find the “wilderness” along this famous segment of the Wilderness Road that you can forget about the people who once lived nearby.  Who were these folks, and how did they live?

These are the questions I was asking back in March, and they’re exactly the questions the NPS answers in this wayside exhibit.  It affixes an actual, flesh-and-blood past to the rural Appalachian communities that so many Americans misunderstand or ignore.  Here’s a close-up of the text:

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


I have a long break between classes this semester, so I’ve developed the habit of making short little excursions into Cumberland Gap National Historical Park after grabbing lunch.  CGNHP is the largest historical park in the NPS system, with 24,000 acres and eighty-five miles of trails, so you can easily spend months or even years poking around in its nooks and crannies and still not manage to take it all in.

I was driving around near the Sugar Run trailhead today and passed by some interpretive signage I’d never noticed before.  When I stepped out of the car and walked over to have a look, I encountered this.

That’s dog poo, and it’s sitting right in the middle of the sidewalk, which is a most inconvenient resting place for fresh fecal matter. Dogs are permitted in CGNHP, of course, provided they’re on a leash, and I certainly don’t begrudge them the occasional bowel movement.  It happens to the best of us.  But consider the location of this particular specimen.

The sidewalk runs alongside a grassy strip, which in turn borders one of the wooded areas that are quite plentiful within the bounds of CGNHP.  It would seem to be a simple matter, if one’s dog was in the process of assuming a posture conducive to defecation, to persuade the animal to take two or three steps off the sidewalk and relieve him or herself in the grass.  Failing that, one might dispose of the excrement in one of the many conveniently located trash receptacles provided by the NPS.

Indeed, one such receptacle was readily available, as documented in the photograph below.

The small lump in the foreground is the offending bit of canine waste; the brown metal object behind it is for trash disposal.  About ten feet separate the one from the other.  Note also that the dog crap is almost directly in the center of the sidewalk.

Don’t mind us, you inconsiderate puke.  Make yourself right at home.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Mountain Meadows upgraded to National Historic Landmark

…as of this past Sunday.  The Mountain Meadows Massacre was the subject of the movie September Dawn, which ranks just behind The Last Legion as the second most bizarre film I saw in 2007.

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

The Confederate States Air Force

Harry Turtledove, eat your heart out.

While Rebel and Union soldiers still fought it out with bayonets and cannons, a Confederate designer had the foresight to imagine flying machines attacking Northern armies. He couldn’t implement his vision during the war, and the plans disappeared into history, until resurfacing at a rare book dealer’s shop 150 years later.

Now those rediscovered designs have found their way to the auction block, providing a glimpse at how Victorian-eratechnology could have beaten the Wright Brothers to the punch.

The papers of R. Finley Hunt, a dentist with a passion for flight, describe scenarios where flying machines bombed Federal troops across Civil War battlefields. Hunt’s papers are set to go up for sale at the Space and Aviation Artifacts auction during the week of Sept. 15-22, giving one lucky collector a chance to own a piece of an alternate technological history that never came to pass.

Anyone who runs is a Yankee.  Anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined Yankee.

Here’s the whole story, along with images of some of the documents.

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Filed under Civil War


I spent a year after college working as a curatorial assistant in the same Lincoln/Civil War museum where I was an undergraduate intern.  We had a small staff, with one part-time guest relations employee.  On days she didn’t work, the rest of us had to keep one eye on whatever we were usually doing and another eye on the front desk to check visitors in.  A row of floor-to-ceiling glass windows separated the office area from the lobby and gift shop.

One Tuesday I spotted an elderly couple walk through the door from the atrium, so I ran over to the front counter to take their admission fee.  Before I had a chance to do the usual little spiel—temporary exhibit gallery upstairs, restrooms behind you and to the left, no flash pictures—the wife said, “We just heard on the radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”

I visualized something like a small prop plane jammed into the side of a more or less structurally intact building.  “Gee, that’s odd,” I said, and went back to what I assumed would be a mundane Tuesday.  It wasn’t.

We didn’t have a TV in the building, and the news websites couldn’t keep up with all the traffic, so we spent several hours huddled around a radio.  I didn’t see the images that riveted most of the world until I got home.  Instead, I heard radio announcers trying to make sense of what was happening and sort out all the rumors that were flying around—a missile into the Pentagon, a car bomb at the State Department, explosions at the White House and FBI headquarters.  In the same way that the creature in a horror movie is scarier before the director lets you get a good look at him, what happened that day seemed especially frightening when you couldn’t see it unfold on TV.

One of the things I learned about public history back in those days between college and grad school was that good interpretation is as much as about quantity as quality.  Sometimes objects require you to slather on the interpretation and tell visitors why they matter and what we can learn from them.  Other objects speak for themselves, and the public historian just needs to get out of the way. Artifacts like that do your work for you, because they’re more eloquent than any exhibit copy.  A simple identification label will suffice.

So here are two such artifacts, separated by exactly 224 years—to the very day—of American history.

Revolutionary militiamen carried this flag at the Battle of Brandywine, PA on Sept. 11, 1777 (from

Recovery workers found this one in the rubble of the World Trade Center (from the NMAH).

click to enlarge


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Comment glitches

Ladies and gents, we seem to be experiencing some technical difficulties.  Some comments are getting kicked into the spam bin, despite the fact that they’re obviously not spam.  Others are getting put in the approval queue even though they’re from folks who have already commented in the past.  Once you leave a comment on this blog, all additional comments from your e-mail address are supposed to be approved automatically and appear as soon as you submit them, but some comments from frequent fliers have ended up in the queue anyway.  Weird.

I don’t know what the problem is, but rest assured that if you’ve tried to comment on a post and it’s been kicked into a queue, it wasn’t intentional.  I’ll try to figure out what’s going on, but given my lack of technical competence, it’ll mostly involve staring at the computer in slack-jawed ignorance.  Until then, continue to comment away; I’ll keep checking in as often as I can to see if anything has been wrongly held in blog limbo.

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Should Washington’s letter to a Newport synagogue be on display?

An editorial in the New York Daily News makes a case that it should be, since the document is among “the seminal American endorsements of religious freedom.”

Some six decades ago, businessman Morris Morgenstern purchased the letter and later gave title to a personal charity, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation.

The foundation, in turn, loaned the document to B’nai B’rith International for display in a museum that closed about 10 years ago.

Since then, Washington’s words have been in storage and the foundation has declined to cooperate with efforts by the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American Jewish History and others to return this letter to wonderful public display.

While the foundation’s ownership of the document is unimpeachable, his inspirational words on paper are part of the American patrimony.

You can read Washington’s letter in its entirety here.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

I can has history?

I found a website that lets you write captions for image macros, so I decided it was high time us history junkies jumped on the Internet meme bandwagon.  

If you’ve never heard of such phenomena as Ceiling Cat or Philosoraptor, then you probably won’t get any of this.  Serves you right for not wasting enough time online.



Filed under History on the Web

Would any of you good people happen to know

…where the heck the monument at Admiral David Farragut’s birthplace went?

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Filed under Civil War, Tennessee History