Monthly Archives: April 2012

The ultimate compliment

From the Daily Mail:

American revolutionary leader George Washington has been voted the greatest enemy commander to face Britain, lauded for his spirit of endurance against the odds and the enormous impact of his victory.

In a contest organised by Britain’s National Army Museum, the first President of the U.S triumphed over Irish independence hero Michael Collins, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Making the case for Washington, historian Stephen Brumwell said the American War of Independence (1775-83) was ‘the worst defeat for the British Empire ever.’

More formidable than Napoleon!  Not bad for a guy who spent the latter months of ’76 retreating across New York and New Jersey.

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You may be shocked to hear this, but

…David Barton managed to get a lot of things wrong in his new Thomas Jefferson book.

My favorite quote: “But to claim, as Mr. Barton does, that Jefferson was ‘unpretentious, living and acting as the common person for whom he had sacrificed so much’ lays it on a little thick.”  That’s a masterpiece of understatement.  When it came to matters of personal expenditures, Jefferson’s profligacy knew no bounds.

And then there’s the whole religion thing:

Jefferson’s religious beliefs are central to Mr. Barton’s thesis, in the service of which straw men are consumed in bonfires. No Jefferson scholar to my knowledge has ever concluded that Jefferson was an “atheist,” as Mr. Barton suggests. That Jefferson might have been what we would think of as a deist or even a Unitarian, as many historians believe, Mr. Barton also disputes. Jefferson was “pro-Christian and pro-Jesus,” he says, although he concedes that the president did have a few qualms about “specific Christian doctrines.” The doctrines Jefferson rejected—the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Trinity—are what place him in the camp of the deists and Unitarians in the first place. It was Jefferson’s difficulty with these doctrines that persuaded his close friends Benjamin Rush and Joseph Priestley that Jefferson’s skepticism went beyond anything even these latitudinarian believers could endorse.

In other words, the “specific Christian doctrines” Jefferson doubted were the very doctrines that were specifically Christian.

Hat tip: American Creation.

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A jaunt through Jonesborough

If you want to see a stellar example of what happens when a community embraces historic preservation, you should visit Jonesborough, TN.  It’s the oldest town in the state (founded in 1779, when eastern Tennessee was still part of North Carolina) and a history lover’s paradise.  My cousin and I paid a visit the other day, after our tour of Carter’s Mansion in nearby Elizabethton.

The first thing you’ll want to do is stop by the visitor center to pick up a walking guide.  These brochures are only $1.00, and they point out all the important historic structures and locations, most of them within easy walking distance.  The visitor center also has a nice little exhibit on various aspects of Jonesborough’s past, including some nifty antique fire pumps.

Jonesborough has, at various times, been the seat of Washington Co., created by North Carolina out of some of the western districts across the mountains; a capital of the abortive State of Franklin, which ceased to exist in 1788; a government and economic center for the Southwest Territory, when North Carolina ceded her western lands to the federal government; and finally, a county seat for Tennessee.  A monument in front of the current courthouse building marks the approximate spot where a log courthouse sat over two centuries ago.

One of the oldest structures you’ll see in Jonesborough (one of the oldest structures you’ll see in the whole state, actually) is the log home of Christopher Taylor, built in 1788.  A young backwoods lawyer named Andrew Jackson lived there for a short time before moving on to Nashville and national fame.

Later, after his election to the presidency, Jackson was a guest at the Chester Inn.  Built in the late 1790’s, this building has also hosted Presidents Polk and Johnson, along with various other historic luminaries.  Now it’s the home of the National Storytelling Festival.  Check out the exhibit on the first floor; it offers a fine overview of the town’s history, and includes some pretty neat artifacts.

Next to the Taylor cabin is the site where Elihu Embree published two anti-slavery newspapers, The Manumission Intelligencer and The Emancipator.  The latter was the first newspaper in the country devoted solely to promoting the eventual eradication of slavery.  The son of Pennsylvania Quakers, Embree was actually a slaveowner himself until age thirty, joining a Tennessee manumission organization in 1815.  The Emancipator circulated as far as Boston, but its run ended when Embree died at a young age in 1820.

Our last stop was the town’s old cemetery, which sits on a hill near the historic district.  Noticing a couple of small Confederate flags on one monument, I walked over to have a closer look.  Turned out to be the grave of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson, who served as a quartermaster and paymaster before spending much of the rest of the war engaged in the small-scale actions that often flared up in the mountains of Appalachia.  Jackson was quite unpopular among other Confederate officers; subordinates in Thomas’ Legion (which constituted part of his brigade) considered him “morally and physically unfit” for command and asked Jefferson Davis to give him the boot.  The end of the war found this formerly prosperous businessman farming rented land in southwestern Virginia.  He was eventually able to recover some of his antebellum prosperity and died in Jonesborough in 1889.

There are plenty of other stories and buildings to check out in Jonesborough, along with quite a few historic inns and small restaurants.  The town is just a short drive from some of Tennessee’s best parks and historic sites—Sycamore Shoals, Rocky Mount, Andrew Johnson’s home, and Tipton-Haynes Historic Site, to name a few—so if you’re looking for a place to spend a history-soaked weekend, it’s hard to beat.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Keeping up with the Carters

Yesterday I finally took care of a nagging bit of unfinished business.  Being an aficionado of the Rev War and the Tennessee frontier, I’ve always had a soft spot for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, but I’d never visited Carter Mansion, the historic house museum just a few miles away operated by the park as a satellite site.

Built sometime around the Revolution, either by John Carter (one of the first settlers in what would become Tennessee and leader of the Watauga Association) or his son Landon (a veteran of the War for Independence and an important political figure on the frontier), the house is one of the oldest and most important structures in the region.

I’d wanted to see it for a long time, but it had been closed every time I’d visited the park, so when I found out about a living history event at the house this weekend, I jumped at the chance to make a special trip.  I took my cousin along; he’s a fellow history enthusiast who accompanied me on my last visit to the park.

If this doesn’t fit your idea of a “mansion,” bear in mind that most houses of that time and place were simple cabins; painted siding and brick chimneys weren’t the sort of architectural features you saw every day.

Where the house really knocks your socks off, though, is its elaborate interior.  The carved panels, crown molding, chair rails, and fluted columns of the first-floor walls put this home in a different class altogether from the rough dwellings typical of the eighteenth-century frontier.  Incredibly, some of the walls still have the original stain, visible above this fireplace in the parlor.

I’ve seen more than my share of historic house museums from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, and this is one of the most beautifully restored and furnished of the whole lot.

Some members of the Carter family are buried on the grounds…

…although I could’ve sworn I saw John Carter himself treating some of the local militia to a patriotic libation.

A gang of Tories broke up the party by showing up uninvited, more than a little irate that their property had been confiscated.  The negotiations didn’t turn out well.

A good time was had by all—except for the Tories, I suppose—and I can finally scratch Carter Mansion off my bucket list.  Totally worth the wait.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting, Tennessee History

Pilgrims, iPods, and everything between

A new exhibit at the National Museum of American History covers pretty much everything from the first English colonies to the present day.

Highlights include Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick and a genuine Kermit the Frog puppet.  Anyone who wields both items simultaneously cannot be killed in battle, save by the hand of the Archangel Gabriel.

You can read more about the exhibition at the Smithsonian’s website.

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Two posts from my neck of the woods

Appalachian History just posted two stories in a row that are both pretty close to home, at least for me—one about a bloody labor incident here in my home county, the other about Middlesboro, KY, which is just over the state line.

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Walking in Knox’s footsteps

Two guys from the magazine Patriots of the American Revolution are walking the entire 300-mile route along which Henry Knox hauled captured artillery from Ft. Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights.  I’d never be able to pull off something like this.  If I do a day hike at Cumberland Gap, I feel like I should get a medal afterwards.

National Archives

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