Monthly Archives: June 2012

Was Washington a military genius?

Gen. David Palmer thinks so:

Changes in technology over the centuries, as well as differences in geography and resources, make comparisons seem apples and oranges.  However, it is feasible to measure how well a general did with what he had to work with and considering the opponents he faced.  In that regard, Washington was an absolutely superb strategist, the best the United States has produced, ever.

Personally, I wouldn’t go that far; in fact, I think one of Washington’s own subordinates, Nathanael Greene, was a superior strategist.  But I would agree that Washington was a gifted strategical thinker, able to balance purely military factors with larger political considerations.

Palmer makes his case in a book published last month.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

A couple of updates on the Museum of the American Revolution

Here and here.  Personally, I’m more interested in the collections and the interpretation than the exterior.  I’m hoping they don’t slight the campaigns in the South.

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From a house in New Orleans to southeastern Kentucky

For a supposedly isolated region, Appalachia has a history that pops up in surprising places.

Last Sunday we had a guest singer at our church who performed a great rendition of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”  I’d never heard anyone combine these two songs before, but it was hauntingly effective.  The only version of “House of the Rising Sun” I’d ever heard was the one performed by the Animals.

Music buffs have driven themselves nuts while trying to determine whether the song refers to an actual place in New Orleans, whether a brothel or a prison.  Of more immediate interest to us here is not the identity of the House of the Rising Sun, but the provenance of the song itself.  Long before the Animals popularized their version—and before Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Woodie Guthrie recorded theirs—the tune was circulating in the mountains of Appalachia, and thereby hangs an unexpected tale.

In 1937, folklorist Alan Lomax visited the southeastern Kentucky town of Middlesboro on the state’s border with Tennessee and Virginia.  Lomax and his wife were collecting traditional songs for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture.  While in Middlesboro, he captured the voice of sixteen-year-old Georgia Turner, daughter of a local coal miner, singing a song called “Rising Sun Blues.”  Here’s the recording:

Lomax recorded a couple of other versions of the same song on that collecting expedition, but Georgia Turner’s was the one that made an impression.  He credited Turner as the song’s writer when he included it in a 1941 compilation, even though a few folk recordings of it were already floating around.  Once Georgia Turner’s version appeared in Lomax’s collection, the song took on a life of its own, with various performers continuing to tweak it and add their own variations over the years.  The Animals’ 1964 version is the canonical one, of course, but until Lomax came along and picked it up in Middlesboro, it was just another obscure folk tune.

The reason I think this is so cool is because Middlesboro, KY is only about twelve miles from my hometown, so I’ve spent a lot of time there.  In fact, the church of which I’m a member—the same church where I heard “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of the song Georgia Turner helped make famous—is in Middlesboro.  I knew none of this until Sunday, when hearing it in the morning service prompted me to go poking around online.  I’d always assumed “House of the Rising Sun” originated with the Animals.

Back in 2000 the AP ran a story on the song’s complicated history and the young Kentucky girl who played such a large role in it:

“Georgie, she’s the first one I ever heard sing it,” says Ed Hunter, who played harmonica at that 1937 session in Middlesboro. Still sure-footed at 78, he has outlived her by three decades and lives 200 yards from where her family’s home once stood. “Where she got it, I don’t know,” he says. “There weren’t many visitors, and she didn’t go nowhere.”

Middlesboro then was even more isolated than today, nearly 50 miles of winding roads from the nearest interstate highway. Tucked into rugged mountains just west of the Cumberland Gap, where thousands came west in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was laid out by English iron-ore speculators. But even before that, mountaineers of English, Scots and Irish stock, including some Turners, built lives in the hills and, in their isolation, preserved a rich tradition of music and balladry.

Out of this, it seems, “Rising Sun Blues” – aka “House in New Orleans” or even “Rising Sun Dance Hall” – bubbled up.

So next time you hear this hit made famous by a British band, you can thank a teenage miner’s daughter from a small town in Appalachia for doing her part.


Filed under Appalachian History

Assassins in America

If you’re into video games, you’ve probably heard that the third installment of the wildly popular Assassin’s Creed series is set during the American Revolution.  I’m not sure what a member of an eleventh-century Islamic order is doing in eighteenth-century Boston, but the folks behind the game apparently did their homework.

The first time I heard anything about this sect was in a college class on the medieval Middle East, when my professor assigned Bernard Lewis’s The Assassins.  Now every kid with a video game console is familiar with them; it’s the Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect at work, I suppose.  How many questions about the Assassins do you think the guides at Colonial Williamsburg will be getting because of this?


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Princeton Battlefield is back in the news

It had the unenviable distinction of making the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the eleven most endangered sites in the country.  Here’s an article out of Philadelphia about the ongoing tussle over proposed housing on the battlefield.

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What’s left of Knoxville’s Civil War?

Jack Neely goes looking for the fortifications that once defended the city in an article for Metro Pulse.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Tennessee History

Maxwell and Shaara are back in the Civil War business, just not with each other

Did you know that Ron Maxwell is directing another Civil War movie, titled Copperhead?  Neither did I, but leading man Jason Patric just got sacked in favor of Billy Campbell for “refusing to take instructions” from Maxwell.  Take this beard and shove it/I ain’t workin’ here no more.

On a related note, Jeff Shaara’s got a new Shiloh novel out.


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Alexander Hamilton is the man of the moment

Women want him.  Men want to be him.

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“The memory of unutterable things”

A few months ago I decided to sample some H.P. Lovecraft and ended up tearing through two volumes of his short stories.  A sense of place figures prominently in his work, much of which is set in old towns along New England’s fictional Miskatonic River—places like Innsmouth, Arkham, and Dunwich.  Horror aficionados call this semi-imaginary region “Lovecraft Country.”

Wikimedia Commons

What particularly struck me in reading his fiction was not the just the sense of place, but specifically the sense of historical landscape.  Time and again, Lovecraft used the remnants of New England’s past to evoke a palpable sense of menace and dread.  The narrator of “The Picture in the House” explains this connection between horror and historic landscape in the story’s opening paragraphs:

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock. Two hundred years and more they have leaned or squatted there, while the vines have crawled and the trees have swelled and spread. They are almost hidden now in lawless luxuriances of green and guardian shrouds of shadow; but the small-paned windows still stare shockingly, as if blinking through a lethal stupor which wards off madness by dulling the memory of unutterable things.

Interestingly, the protagonist of “The Picture in the House” is engaged in historical research when he stumbles across something horrific.  He recounts traveling near the Miskatonic “in quest of certain genealogical data,” and the awful discovery he makes in an aging house involves an illustration in an old book.  This is another historical thread running through Lovecraft’s fiction.  Those who go rummaging around in the past often stumble across long-dormant terrors.  His protagonists are heritage tourists and history buffs; crumbling books, manuscripts, and artifacts are the keys to unlock terrible secrets.  The titular character of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” discovers a sinister legacy of necromancy while investigating his family history and restoring old heirlooms.  Similarly, the narrator of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” remembers “celebrating my coming of age by a tour of New England – sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical” when he arrived at a decaying seaside town occupied by inhuman beings.  Lovecraft even deployed the language of the past to creepy effect, using archaic words like “shewed” in place of “showed.”  For Lovecraft, history was a haunted house.

This notion of a “creepy past” is, of course, very common in fiction and film.  We associate decay with death, so old buildings and artifacts are natural settings for horror stories.  This is harder to accomplish when it comes to places without a visible past.  They lack an atmosphere of dread because they lack an atmosphere, period.  As Gertrude Stein put it, there’s no “there” there.  If you’re going to use setting to evoke a mood, that setting needs to have some character, and places with a backstory tend to have more character than others.

To take a personal example, I recently watched part of Paranormal Activity, a movie about a malevolent force terrorizing a couple in a modern, suburban tract home.  It didn’t frighten me in the least.  It didn’t even engage me.  A modern tract home simply isn’t a scary environment, at least not for me.  A place needs to have some sort of patina before it can be really frightening.  Even horror films set in the future will often “age” the setting in which they take place to evoke that vibe of menacing antiquity.  Imagine watching a version of Alien where the Nostromo is a brand-new ship with a fresh coat of paint.

We use the past to meet all sorts of collective psychological needs, and one of those needs is the occasional desire to scare ourselves half to death.

Old Burial Ground in Manchester, MA. By John Phelan (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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