Monthly Archives: March 2012

Sumner burial monument at Guilford gets smashed

A driver passing through Guilford Courthouse National Military Park this past weekend reportedly swerved to avoid hitting a deer and ended up crashing into the monument marking the final resting place of Gen. Jethro Sumner, whose remains were moved to the battlefield in 1891.

The motorist also knocked over a barrier and hit two trees, all while going only 30 mph.  Was this a car or an Abrams tank?

The marker may be damaged beyond all repair, and the NPS might end up relocating Sumner’s grave to a safer location, which would, of course, require an exhumation.  So this is kind of a big deal.

Oh, by the way—today is the anniversary of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, so this happened just in time for the park’s annual commemoration this weekend.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

John Carter of Mars and the American frontier

Anybody who thinks the history of early America doesn’t continue to cast a long, dark shadow over modern culture should consider the pressing matter of Confederates on Mars.

Wikimedia Commons

I’m referring, of course, to the new movie John Carter, and to its source material, the century-old story A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Both the book and the film relate the adventures of an Army of Northern Virginia veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to the Red Planet, referred to by its inhabitants as “Barsoom.”  This fictional Mars is populated by tall, green-skinned, six-limbed aliens called Tharks, as well as a race of humans (or humanoids, I suppose) with copper-red skin whose cities are perpetually at war with each other.  Carter is taken captive by the Tharks, gets mixed up in Barsoomian politics, and falls in love with a scantily-clad humanoid princess named Dejah Thoris.

It would be hard to overstate the influence of A Princess of Mars and its sequels on science fiction.  I decided to read it for myself before seeing the film, and was surprised at how many of the scenarios, characters, and themes from later movies and books were right there in embryonic form within the pages of Burroughs’ story.  What also struck me was a remarkable degree of similarity between this seemingly outlandish tale of extraterrestrial swashbuckling and some very real accounts from the early American frontier.

Because Carter finds himself in a dangerous environment populated by “primitive” races, you could interpret A Princess of Mars as a frontier story, and many people have done so.  In particular, let me discuss a number of intriguing parallels between Carter’s fictional experiences and historical accounts left behind by Anglo-American colonists and settlers.

Take clothing, for example—or rather, the lack thereof.  One of the things colonists found most striking about Indians was their “nakedness,” interpreting their exposed bodies as signs of barbarity.  The inhabitants of Barsoom, both the Tharks and the red humanoids, also go largely unclothed, wearing only elaborate metal ornamentation, jewels, and the straps holding their weapons.  Carter describes a Thark leader as “heavily loaded with metal ornaments, gay-colored feathers and beautifully wrought leather trappings ingeniously set with precious stones.”  The metal ornamentation is an apparently ubiquitous feature of Barsoomian dress which the text mentions again and again, and it brings to mind the European gorgets and trade bracelets worn by Indians of the Eastern Woodlands.

A prominent Cherokee is depicted wearing a European gorget and other ornamental trappings in this eighteenth-century portrait. Wikimedia Commons

Thark weaponry also seems reminiscent of Native American weaponry of the colonial and Revolutionary frontier.  The green Martians carry rifles which fire bullets equipped with explosive “radium,” and they employ these firearms at long distances to deadly effect.  For close-quarters combat, they wield edged weapons.

Carter’s opinion of the Tharks reflects Anglo-Americans’ paradoxical attitudes toward their aboriginal neighbors.  On one hand, colonists considered the Indians barbaric.  On the other, they sometimes idealized the Native Americans as exemplars of primitive virtue, a notion summed up in the phrase “noble savage.”  In the same way, Carter finds the Tharks to be cruel and warlike, raising their children communally with no pity for the weak.  Like some historic Native American tribes, Tharks find a kind of collective catharsis in making a violent spectacle of their prisoners.  Whereas the Iroquois and other Indian societies vented tribal anger through the communal torture of captives, the Tharks punish troublesome prisoners by forcing them to do battle with monstrous creatures in a gladiatorial arena.  But Carter also notes the Tharks’ admirable qualities.  They possess what might be called a savage code of honor, and their leaders maintain their status by their prowess in combat.

This regard for prowess is how John Carter earns the respect and even admiration of the Tharks.  Martian gravity being distinct from that of his home planet, the former Confederate is capable of tremendous physical feats on Barsoom, turning him into a virtual superman.  In time, he becomes a member of Thark society.

Burroughs’ book is thus not merely a story of an encounter between cultures, but a story about an individual from one culture who finds himself immersed in a culture that is not his own.  For that reason, I think we can be more precise about its historical antecedents than calling it a “Western” or a frontier story.  I suggest that it’s a particular type of frontier story, one that really predates the “Western” as most of us are used to thinking about that term.  As one of the first great science fiction epics, A Princess of Mars is an early example of a relatively new genre, but it’s also a comparatively recent example of a very old genre, perhaps the oldest genuinely American genre there is—the captivity narrative.

Captivity narratives are accounts of people who fall into the hands of another culture, a culture which the captive considers less civilized than his or her own.  There are very early examples from Europe, but the genre really took off in the New World, where the proximity of aboriginal societies and the frequency of cross-cultural warfare increased the likelihood of cross-cultural captivity.  The most notable example is probably Mary Rowlandson’s account of her capture during King Philip’s War, one of the first American “best-sellers.”  Like the captivity memoirs of Rowlandson, Jonathan Dickinson, and other whites who were held by Indians for some period of time, A Princess of Mars takes an autobiographical form, since Burroughs employs the device of a “false document,” a manuscript written by Carter and left in the care of a relative, to tell the story from the protagonist’s own perspective.  The book thus takes the same form as non-fiction firsthand accounts of cross-cultural imprisonment, except that it’s a work of the imagination rather than memory.

Consider the relationship in these accounts between imprisonment and adoption.  While living among the Tharks, Carter earns the right to wear the metal and bear the prestige of the warriors he defeats in battle. When he dons their ornaments and straps, he becomes a full-fledged member of their society and even a prominent figure within it.  In the same way, Indian tribes in eastern North America adopted captives taken in war; indeed, the taking of captives to “replace” dead relatives was one of the purposes for which Native Americans engaged in warfare.

The relationship between Carter and the Thark chieftan Tars Tarkas is especially worth noting.  Tarkas is the first of the green aliens to appreciate Carter’s remarkable physical abilities.  The two become close, even though Tars Tarkas is the Earth man’s captor.  Their relationship is not unlike that between Daniel Boone and the Shawnee leader Blackfish, who seems to have adopted the frontiersman during Boone’s imprisonment at Chillicothe in 1778.

One important difference between Boone’s experience and Carter’s is the fact that Boone seized the first opportunity to escape, whereas Carter comes to embrace his newfound status.  A decisive factor in his transformation from John Carter of Virginia to John Carter of Mars is his immediate attraction to Dejah Thoris, the red princess of Helium, a character vividly described by Burroughs:

Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

She is sufficiently alien to be exotic and alluring, but unlike the Tharks, she is someone in whom Carter can recognize a common humanity.  Here is an example of the impulse to fantasize about the frontier as a venue for cross-cultural romantic escape, perhaps the same impulse that might have led John Smith to invent, exaggerate, or misinterpret the occasion on which Pocahontas reportedly intervened to save his life.

The first time Carter lays eyes on Dejah Thoris, she is a fellow captive of the Tharks, and the Virginia gentleman takes it upon himself to protect her.  Later, when she falls into the hands of a rival society, Carter undertakes a dramatic rescue.  By this point in the book, Carter is no longer a prisoner, but a Martian warrior engaged in rescuing a vulnerable female from danger, just as Daniel Boone led a raid to rescue his daughter from Indian captivity in a famous 1776 incident.  The native of Earth has transformed from a captive into a master of his dangerous new world, just as Boone became the archetype of the white man at home in the treacherous environment of the frontier.

The rescue of Jemima Boone and her fellow captives, by Millet via Wikimedia Commons

Carter’s decision to pledge his heart and his sword to Dejah Thoris marks a point at which his story and the early American captivity narratives part ways.  For Anglo-American captives who wrote down their stories for colonial audiences, an important theme was “redemption,” the experience of coming out of captivity.  John Carter, by contrast, is one of those captives who chooses to stay among his adoptive people and take up a new identity.  Unlike Mary Rowlandson, these “converted” captives did not leave behind such influential accounts of their passages across the cultural boundary.  They remained on the far side of that boundary, never again at home in the society in which they were born.  John Carter finds on Barsoom an escape from all the unpleasant aspects of American civilization; his frontier, like that of many Americans who wrote about their own, is a source of renewal.  Having fought as a soldier for a lost cause on Earth, and having gone west in search of fortune, he unexpectedly becomes a hero on another world.  Rather than looking for redemption from captivity and exile, he finds that his captivity and exile redeem him.

In introducing Carter’s “memoir,” Burroughs writes that after the hero of Mars returned to his home planet, he would stand outside at night, “with his arms stretched out to the heavens as though in appeal.”  Maybe the reason Burroughs could create a popular hero who dreamed of returning to the far side of the cultural frontier is because the actual, historical frontier of America was no longer a threat close at hand.  To early Anglo-American colonists, the Indians were nearby, numerous, and threatening.  But Burroughs wrote his story more than two decades after the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed and the Native Americans’ last great act of military resistance to white encroachment came to an end.  The real frontier had become a distant object of nostalgia, almost as distant as Mars must have seemed to John Carter when he was back on Earth, gazing at the night sky toward the faraway home of his Martian princess.

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What a dumb place to put a city

Here’s the site of the Battle of Long Island—the largest battle of the Revolutionary War and the first battle waged by an army of the independent United States of America.

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Mississippi’s elected officials engage in a remarkable waste of time

From the Associated Press, with a tip of the hat to Way of Improvement Leads Home:

JACKSON, Miss. — Some House members want to ban Mississippi school history courses from promoting “any partisan agenda or philosophy.”

Sponsored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, the measure is supposed to keep history teachers or textbooks from indoctrinating students according to a particular partisan viewpoint.

“We’re trying to protect the history of our nation in its purest form,” said House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon.

Great.  Now who’s going to determine what constitutes the promotion of a “partisan agenda or philosophy,” and how do they go about enforcing it?  What would be the penalty for indoctrinating students—a fine, prison time, community service, a stint in a re-education camp?

The measure says in part that “public school history courses may not promote any partisan agenda or philosophy and may not be revised for the purpose of significantly changing generally accepted history to create a bias toward an ideological position.” The bill moves forward to the full House after being approved Monday by the House Education Committee on a 10-5 vote.

How does a teacher “significantly change generally accepted history to create a bias toward an intellectual position,” I wonder?  By informing students that the Soviet Union won the Cold War, or that the Constitution mandates a belief in God for all elected officials?

Oh, and get this.  The guy who’s sponsoring the legislation

said it’s a reaction to Texas disputes over what should be included in textbooks that climaxed in 2010. He said he’s not aware of any similar problem that currently exists in Mississippi.

If it’s not a problem, then why in the name of all the deities on Olympus is the legislature fooling with it?

Let me suggest that for a state consistently ranked at or near the very bottom in national assessments of education, biased history teachers should be the least of your worries.

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Happy Battle of Hampton Roads Day

Believe it or not, there’s a link between the first ironclad showdown and the mountains of East Tennessee.  The papers of John Worden, who commanded the Monitor during that clash 150 years ago today, are now in a vault at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate.

The day it first occurred to me that I’d scored a really cool internship was when I got to hold the speaking trumpet Worden used in the battle and the Monitor‘s signal lantern.  Am I doing some shameless history buff gloating?  Why, yes I am!

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Lee in Appalachia?

Wikimedia Commons

I ran across an interesting tidbit while reading Brian McKnight’s Contested Borderland, a book I heartily recommend.  In the fall of 1861, there was apparently a rumor floating around in some of the newspapers that Felix Zollicoffer, then in charge of the Confederate defense of eastern Tennessee, might be replaced with Robert E. Lee.

I’m not too familiar with this period of the war, and I don’t know if the rumors were simply that, or if there was some basis to them.  If I’m not mistaken, this was around the same time Lee took charge of the Georgia and South Carolina coastal defenses.  Was anybody in Richmond really thinking of sending Lee off to handle the situation near the Tennessee-Kentucky-Virginia border instead?

Even if the whole notion was just so much journalistic hogwash, it’s fun to ponder how things might have played out in the mountains of central Appalachia with Lee in command, especially since Confederate affairs here in this neck of the woods were about to take a turn for the worse.

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Here be dragons

I’m going to indulge in a little reminiscing about historic sites, summer vacations, dinosaurs, and gunfighters.  Normally these subjects wouldn’t be sharing the same space, but in my case they share a complicated autobiographical conjunction.  If that sounds bizarre, well, that’s life for you.

For most people who love history, geography evokes the past.  Visiting a region or looking at a map will cause your historical mind to kick in and make associations with past people, events, cultures, and so on.  The deeper your historical knowledge of a particular place or region, the more richly detailed the mental historical map that you can impose on the actual one.  When I look at a map of South Carolina, I see the Revolutionary War playing out.  When I drive across Virginia, I see Union and Confederate armies.  You probably have your own historical associations that you impose on particular places or regions.

For me, having this tendency is a comparatively recent development.  My passionate childhood encounters with history were pretty few and far between.  I didn’t turn into a full-fledged history nut until I was old enough to vote.  Dinosaurs took up all the neurons I could spare.  Most young dino fanatics start to cool in their enthusiasm when they become teenagers, but that was the age range in which my dino-fever intensified.  Hollywood had a lot to do with it.  The first two Jurassic Park films bracketed my high school years; the first movie opened the summer before I became a freshman, the sequel on the weekend I graduated.

In 1993, the same year that Jurassic Park whipped my dino-fixation into a fever pitch, my mom decided to start writing about gunfighters in the Old West.  For the next few years, our family vacations coincided with her research trips to the western U.S., a part of the country where none of us had spent much time before.  Since the West is also home to some of the greatest dinosaur graveyards in the world and scores of natural history museums, I’d have the chance to indulge my dinosaur obsession along the way.  Furthermore, my dad was a history teacher, so we also planned to hit some battlefields and other sites.  Something for everybody.

Thus was born a venerable Lynch family tradition, the Great Summer Western Circuits of the 1990’s.  My parents and I would stockpile books, snacks, and maps into a minivan, generally with one or two other bystanders in tow, and head across the Mississippi to spend two or three weeks at a time on the trail of gunslingers.  We usually went southwestward through Arkansas and Texas and then into Arizona and New Mexico, and then made a loop north toward the Canadian border before turning eastward and heading back home, by which point we were all ready to strangle each other from days of close confinement.

We paid homage at the usual tourist Meccas—the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore (which was overrated, I thought), the Alamo—but given Mom’s interests, most of the places we visited were gunfighter locales like Tombstone, Dodge City, Deadwood, Coffeyville, Northfield, and Fort Sumner.  We saw more restored saloons, dance halls, penitentiaries, and courthouses than I could count if I tried, and paid our respects at every outlaw’s last resting place between Montana and Arizona.

Now that I’ve had time to look back on it, these were my first sustained experiences with historical travel.  I had visited historic sites as a kid, but never so many of them in so short a period of time as I did on these vacations.  The thing is—and I didn’t realize this until recently—these early ventures as a heritage tourist were very unconventional.  Sure, I got to see some “mainstream” historic sites, mostly battlefields along with a smattering of forts and writers’ homes. (Mom is a former English teacher, so Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder were on the itinerary.)  But most of our destinations involved the West that you see in the movies, the one populated by gamblers, lawmen, train robbers, and all those other figures who cast such a long shadow across the American imagination.

Just as these characters straddle the boundary between history and myth, so the historic sites where people came to walk in their footsteps were hard to categorize.  These gunfighter attractions tended to be small, offbeat operations, lying somewhere on the spectrum between legit historic site and outright tourist trap and often much closer to the latter.  They had the kind of charming roadside aesthetic you don’t get at a place like Mount Vernon or Antietam.  The interpretation was heavy on folklore and melodrama, and collections policies were practically non-existent.  In New Mexico, we visited a Billy the Kid museum that boasted a stuffed and mounted two-headed calf as one of its artifacts. The small courthouse on the plaza in Mesilla where the Kid was (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) sentenced to hang, and where the Gadsden Purchase was signed, had become a souvenir shop; I bought an acrylic paperweight with a dead scorpion encased inside of it there, and kept it on my dresser for years afterward.  The old Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, AZ had become a quirky museum, crowded with every kind of antiquarian bric-a-brac you could imagine—an 188o’s barber chair, old medical instruments, racy photos of Victorian-era prostitutes, and (most bizarre of all) a Fiji mermaid, that staple of nineteenth-century sideshows.

Tombstone was always on the itinerary.  What Gettysburg is to the Civil War, Tombstone is to the Old West—a great tourist Mecca where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some historic attraction or gift shop.  The main attraction was the O.K. Corral.  The proprietors had walled in the vacant lot behind the stables where the gunfight actually took place, so you had to pay admission and walk through the corral gate to get to it.  Garish mannequins representing the participants marked the spot, and a recorded spiel with sound effects played at the push of a button.  A small fee got you into Boot Hill, where a map handout guided you to all the notable graves.  You could drink a Coke in some of the old saloons, or take a stagecoach tour through the streets.  You could buy a different Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday t-shirt for every day of the month.  One of the souvenir apparel shops was in a former pool hall where Earp’s younger brother took a fatal bullet in the back.

Allen Street in Tombstone, AZ. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The historic West I saw as a teenager was the semi-mythical West, but at the time, I didn’t really distinguish between the conventional historic sites and the kitschy tourist attractions.  It was all just filler between the dinosaur stops.  I didn’t care too much about cowboys, Indians, and vast herds of buffalo; I wanted vast herds of Triceratops.  The only history that really excited me was the history of fossil hunting.  Indifferent to Mt. Rushmore and the Truman Library, I flipped out when we drove past Como Bluff, WY, one of the nineteenth century’s most famous dinosaur burial grounds.

Como Bluff, WY. Some of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries of the 1800's were made here during the famous "fossil feud" between rival paleontologists O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

My mental map of the West was very sketchy, my appreciation of its history negligible.  It was similar to those old maps that have vast expanses of terra incognita populated by monsters.  The difference is that the dragons on my mental map had once been very much alive.  I had been to these blank spaces, but they remained blank anyway because the dragons were all I really noticed at the time.

Detail from a 1570 map. Image from The Old Map & Clock Company, http://www.old-map.com

When I looked over the atlases that my dad used to navigate our western trips, and when I watched the landscape zip past the window, I associated places with the dinosaurs that once lived there: sauropods and stegosaurs in Utah, tyrannosaurs in Montana.  If geography evoked human history at all, it was only the history of paleontology, as at Como Bluff.  What seems funny to me now is how much my frame of reference has changed since then.  These days, when I look at a map or drive across a landscape, I see associations with the 1700’s and 1800’s. The ways I make sense of the world have evolved.

So although I got to travel throughout much of the West, I knew almost nothing of its rich history while I was seeing it.  Indeed, the history of the West remained a hazy subject for me even after I finished my master’s degree.  When I got assigned to teach a survey course on the post-Civil War U.S., I had to do a lot of boning up on the settlement of the trans-Mississippi before I could put a decent lecture together.

My mental map of American history doesn’t have quite as many blank spaces now as it did when I was a teenager.  I can look at an atlas of the United States or drive through a region and make connections with important people and events; the landscapes I see around me are filled with the bones of people as well as the bones of dragons.  Old habits die hard, though, and the dragons are still lurking around.  As a history major I had to take a methodology course and complete a major research project, so I wrote my paper on a feud between two nineteenth-century paleontologists, a feud in which the dinosaur graveyard of Como Bluff figured prominently.

I’m a little sorry that, when I had the chance to appreciate the historic West firsthand, I was so obsessed with the prehistoric one that I didn’t pay very close attention to anything else.  I’d like to spend some more time out there now that I’m armed with some sort of historical sensibility, and pay the dinosaurs a visit while I’m at it.  The map isn’t blank anymore, but I think there’s still enough space for the monsters.

Allosaurus takes on Diplodocus at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, from Wikimedia Commons

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Crossing site gets a makeover

Washington Crossing Historic Park is getting a new visitor center, and I think it’ll be money well spent.

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Breaking up is hard to do

Robert Massie has a new piece on how biographers cope with coming to the end of their books.

You don’t want the subject to die; you don’t want to lose the friend you have made, the companion you are accustomed to, and perhaps you also don’t want to see the whole cast of supporting characters, and the historical and cultural environment in which they all lived, vanish with them.

Nevertheless, the end must come. When that happens, how does a biographer feel? Exhausted? Relieved? Euphoric? At long last, a person of leisure? Or something different. Wistful, sad, bereaved? You were with the subject every day. Now this companion has departed and left you behind. He or she has concluded the time shared with you. That part of your life is over.

So many biographers develop an affinity for the subjects of their investigation that I used to be a little suspicious of the genre.  But lately I’m inclined to think that this affinity is part of the special insight the biographer has acquired during the course of his or her research.  Rather than the biographer losing objectivity and becoming blind to a subject’s faults, maybe it’s the reader who stands to benefit from the biographer’s appreciation of the subject’s finer qualities.

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Lincoln’s desk magically reappears!

Ta-daaa!

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