Monthly Archives: May 2012

They’ve got forts all over the place in Virginia

The Confederates built Fort Pocahontas atop the site of the 1607 Jamestown fort, so now they’re excavating the former to get at the latter.

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Filed under Civil War, Colonial America

If I knew you could actually do this

…I’d have done it myself years ago.  An actual news item out of Nebraska:

YORK – What’s in a name? In this case, a few unusual words for one York man who has legally changed his name to Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The term, which in Greek means “tyrant lizard king,” is the name assigned to a large dinosaur. Now, it’s also the title officially adopted by Tyler Gold, 23.

Gold appeared in York County District Court Monday morning, before Judge Alan Gless who heard the unusual request.

Has nothing to do with history, I know, but I couldn’t let that one pass.

By the way, if you got a weird login request while visiting the blog today, it’s because I screwed something up while uploading the images for the post on the National Geographic article.  Sorry about that.  It should be fixed now.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

National Geographic looks at battlefield artists of the Civil War

For me, some of the most compelling images to come out of the Civil War are the sketches produced by battlefield artists such as Alfred Waud.  Since the bulky cameras of the day couldn’t really capture battles in progress, these guys followed the armies in order to draw the action for newspaper illustrations. 

I find the original rough sketches more powerful than the finished illustrations printed in the papers.  These guys were there while it was happening, and their work brings us about as close as we’re ever likely to get to seeing a Civil War battle play out.

The May issue of National Geographic has an article devoted to these battlefield sketch artists and the hardships they endured:

It was a cruel adventure. One special, James R. O’Neill, was killed while being held prisoner by Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of Rebel guerrillas. Two other specials, C. E. F. Hillen and Theodore Davis, were wounded. Frank Vizetelly was nearly killed at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, when a “South Carolinian had a portion of his head carried away, within four yards of myself, by a shell.” Alfred Waud, while documenting the exploits of the Union Army in the summer of 1862, wrote to a friend: “No amount of money can pay a man for going through what we have had to suffer lately.”

The English-born Waud and Theodore Davis were the only specials who remained on assignment without respite, covering the war from the opening salvos in April 1861 through the fall of the Confederacy four years later. Davis later described what it took to be a war artist: “Total disregard for personal safety and comfort; an owl-like propensity to sit up all night and a hawky style of vigilance during the day; capacity for going on short food; willingness to ride any number of miles horseback for just one sketch, which might have to be finished at night by no better light than that of a fire.”

In spite of the remarkable courage these men displayed and the events they witnessed, their stories have gone unnoticed: Virginia native son and Union supporter D. H. Strother’s terrifying assignment sketching the Confederate Army encampments outside Washington, D.C., which got him arrested as a spy; Theodore Davis’s dangerously ill-conceived sojourn into Dixie in the summer of 1861 (he was detained and accused of spying); W. T. Crane’s heroic coverage of Charleston, South Carolina, from within the Rebel city; Alfred Waud’s detention by a company of Virginia cavalry (after he sketched a group portrait, they let him go); Frank Vizetelly’s eyewitness chronicle of Jefferson Davis’s final flight into exile.

You can see some of these sketches in an online gallery at the magazine’s website.  Below is Waud’s sketch of the conflagration at the Mumma Farm:

“BATTLE OF ANTIETAM, MARYLAND, SEPTEMBER 17, 1862; LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Confederates set Samuel Mumma’s farm ablaze to keep it from Union hands. By the time Alfred Waud made this sketch, using Chinese white pigment to depict flames, Union troops were in control of the area.”
From the May edition of National Geographic magazine

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Lifestyles of the deceased and famous

The most popular historic home here in the Appalachian region is probably Biltmore House, the palatial Gilded Age mansion of George Washington Vanderbilt II in Asheville, NC.  Some readers will be surprised that I qualified that statement with the word “probably.”  In terms of visitation, no historic house museum in Appalachia comes close.  In fact, few historic homes in the entire country could compete with Biltmore’s annual numbers, although offhand I’d guess that Mount Vernon and Monticello welcome more visitors.  The reason I hedged is not because its popularity as a destination is in doubt, but because I’m not sure whether I’d consider it Biltmore a “historic house museum.”  It’s difficult for me to associate Biltmore Estate with other historic sites.

Strictly speaking, I realize this seems a little ludicrous.  It’s a house, it’s historic (or old, at least), and it’s a museum.  What’s my problem here?

Biltmore House, as seen from the front

Consider the reasons why people visit Biltmore and what they get out of it.  If we were to speak with guests as they stood in line to buy their tickets, how many of them would tell us that they’re about to shell out money to learn about the past?  I’d say it would be very few indeed.

Or perhaps we might ask them if they came to Biltmore to learn about its first resident, the man responsible for its construction.  Here, too, I think affirmative answers would be few and far between.  People go to Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, and the Lincoln Home because of their former occupants, but I don’t think this is the case with Biltmore.  Quite a few Americans will probably recognize the name “Vanderbilt,” but not George Washington Vanderbilt II in particular.

In fact, I think most Biltmore visitors would be hard pressed to identify any salient facts about Biltmore’s first owner, or to name any notable accomplishments of his other than the fact that he built himself an awesome pad.  An introverted younger sibling, George wasn’t responsible for running the family’s business affairs.  Instead, he spent most of his free time (presumably he had a great deal of it) cultivating his own personal intellectual interests.  A brief bio on Wikipedia notes that he was fluent in a number of foreign languages and managed some family property for a while; other than that, he “inherited $1 million from his grandfather and received another million on his 21st birthday from his father. Upon his father’s death, he inherited $5 million more, as well as the income from a $5 million trust fund.”  Not a bad gig if you can get it, but it won’t lead generations of children to recite your speeches at their second grade recitals.

My point here is not to belittle G.W. Vanderbilt II, but to point out that neither a regard for history nor a familiarity with Biltmore’s original occupant will explain the estate’s astronomical attendance numbers.  Instead, I submit that the overwhelming majority of visitors to Biltmore are exercising the same impulse that makes people watch TV shows where opulent houses are exposed to the cameras and to buy magazines with photographs of lavish interiors.  They go there because want to see how the fabulously rich once lived, to vicariously experience what it must have been like to enjoy untold wealth in an age of elegance and opulence, and to appreciate majesty and beauty.  Having talked to people who enjoy visiting Biltmore, and having visited myself on a number of occasions, I think most people go there just because they want to ooh and aah.

In and of itself, this is no big deal.  Historic sites aren’t necessarily any less historic just because visitors patronize them for reasons that have nothing to do with history.  Lots of folks visit national historical parks for the fresh air, the hiking, and so on.  The difference is this: What I’ve seen of interpretation during my visits to Biltmore, and what I’ve seen of the estate’s promotional material, leads me to believe that oohing and aahing is pretty much all you’re supposed to get out of the experience.

Now, before we rush to denounce this “lifestyles of the rich and famous” approach to historic interpretation, and to ask ourselves whether it constitutes historic interpretation at all, let me pose a consideration about historic house museums in general.

Perhaps historic house sites are inherently deceptive, in that they inadvertently perpetuate a very common and romanticized view of the past that I call the “frilly notion of history.”  When people think about how great it must have been to live in an earlier age, it’s usually because they have a myopic view of what living in that earlier age was actually like.  Many people have spoken to me about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a sort of wistful attitude, longing for the days when well-mannered ladies and gentlemen lived in gorgeous houses, wore frilly dresses, and danced the quadrille.

And yet the world of mansions, frilly gowns, and quadrilles wasn’t necessarily how “people lived back then.”  That was how the affluent lived “back then.”  It reflects only a slice of human experience from the period in question.  In the pre-modern world, most people’s lives were anything but mannered and frilly.

Historic house museums, I think, can unwittingly perpetuate this notion of a comfy, genteel past, although it happens through no fault at all of the people who manage and interpret these sites.  It’s simply a by-product of the differential vagaries of time.  The houses that last 150 or 200 years and transform into museums are generally the homes of the wealthy or notable.  Places where ordinary schmoes lived are harder to come by; they get torn down, renovated beyond recognition, or cannibalized for building materials to make the homes of later ordinary schmoes.  Thus when you visit some historic house, it was probably the home of someone who was comparatively well off.

Lest you think I’m knocking historic house museums, let me note that I spent a year of my life running one.  It was pretty small as far as historic house museums go—just three rooms, a garret, and a kitchen joined to the main residence by a dogtrot—but it was pretty nice for the time and place of its construction.  The occupant had been an officer in the militia, a statesman, and one of the largest slaveholders in his county.  When visitors remarked that the house seemed awfully small, I reminded them that contemporaries of its original owner would have found it quite comfortable.

At the really big house museums, the discrepancy between what visitors see and how most people of the period lived is even greater.  Most Revolutionary Virginians didn’t live at places like Monticello, just as most Tennesseans of the Jacksonian era couldn’t dream of living at a mansion like the Hermitage.  We cherish these places because we’re lucky that they’ve lasted to the present day and because of the remarkable men who inhabited them.  They’re worthy of our appreciation not because they’re typical residences of typical people, but precisely because they and their owners were very special indeed.

So this brings us back to the question of whether visitors to historic house museums are getting a skewed view of the past. I suppose they are, but that’s also true of visitors to any public history institution.  No site can ever hope to encompass an entire era or place.  People who restrict their heritage tourism to one type of site or field of interest—battlefields, for instance—will invariably miss out on many other aspects of historical interpretation.  Perhaps people who visit Biltmore in order to vicariously experience the life of a Gilded Age millionaire are not so different from those who visit battlegrounds to vicariously live the experiences of common men and boys who left their mark on history with bombs and bullets rather than bricks.

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Joseph Ellis on competing narratives of historical memory

He claims that conservatives can legitimately claim to be the heirs of Jefferson and the ideals of 1776, but liberals “have the arc of American history on their side” due to the general trajectory of an increasing role for government over the past couple of centuries.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Colonial America was the place to live

…if you were looking for economic equality and a high standard of living.  Assuming you were white, of course.

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Crossing the Delaware. . .in Zodiacs

Check this out:

The sun was still trying to punch its way through a thick fog Friday morning when 22 U.S. Army infantrymen climbed board two inflatable Zodiac assault boats and started paddling across the Delaware River at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Upper Makefield.

It was the same spot where George Washington and his men made their famous crossing more than 200 years ago — and that was the point. Friday’s trip across the river by members of the 4th Battalion, 3rd United States Infantry Regiment was part of an informal exercise called a “staff ride,” during which service members simulate famous battles or campaigns in American military history at the sites where they happened.

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Filed under American Revolution

Brief change of topic

I’m going to go a little outside the bounds of my usual shenanigans here, but I ran across something on one of the non-historical blogs I read, and being a sucker for little kids, I had to share it with you.  I think it’ll be well worth your attention.

This is Harper.  She’s almost five, and she lives in Eastern Europe.

She has some extremely serious (as in potentially life-threatening) health issues, and she doesn’t have a family of her own, at least not yet.

I say “not yet,” because there’s an American family that’s been trying to adopt a child from her neck of the woods for quite some time, and they were thrilled to find out that she was available.  The thing is, international adoption isn’t cheap.

That’s where we come in.  A 501c3 organization called Reece’s Rainbow provides grants for families adopting special needs kids from overseas.  They’ve set up an account to help this family with the costs of bringing their little girl home.  It’s tax deductible, and you can donate via PayPal or by sending a check.

Oh, and once you donate, you can also enter to win some great books and other stuff thanks to a giveaway being organized by the Ironic Catholic blog (details here.)

So if you’ve got a little money to spare, even if it’s just ten or twenty bucks, click on the Reece’s Rainbow link to send a check or make a PayPal donation.  There are plenty of other kids listed on the site, too, and I encourage you to check them out and pitch in wherever you can.

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