Monthly Archives: November 2012

His Excellency, now with added excellentness

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November 30, 2012 · 7:59 pm

Tennessee’s original constitution is going on display for the first time

I might just have to take a drive over to Nashville next weekend.

If you don’t get a chance to see the document, you can console yourself by visiting the spot where the state’s first constitutional convention hammered the thing out back in 1796.  It’s a parking lot at the corner of Gay St. and Church Ave in downtown Knoxville.  That’s what I’ve read, anyway.  Somebody really needs to put up a marker or something.

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Want to help reclaim the Franklin battlefield?

The Civil War Trust is trying to raise $339,000 to close on three important parcels.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

Two new American Revolution books

In his new book, Kevin Phillips argues that 1775, rather than ’76, was the decisive year of the American Revolution.  (Personally, I’d go for 1781, but that’s just me.)  Based on a quick appraisal while standing in the bookstore, this looks like a wide-ranging and meaty volume that’s well worth a read.

Jon Meacham also has a new biography of Thomas Jefferson out that’s gotten enthusiastic blurbs from some heavy hitters in American Revolution studies.

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Lincoln’s Ethan Allen story

Lincoln as a candidate for the presidency, as depicted in a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier from a painting by Thomas Hicks. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

My favorite scene in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln takes place in the War Department’s telegraph office, as Lincoln and Stanton are waiting for news from Wilmington, NC. Lincoln decides to tell the assembled staff a vulgar story about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen. Stanton, already on the verge of bursting with the tension, can’t handle another of his boss’s rambling yarns and goes scurrying off. As the room erupts in laughter, the camera cuts to a portrait of Washington hanging overhead. The first president’s stern face gazes down impassively on one of his unlikeliest successors—an awkward, unpolished frontier lawyer—who’s cracking up at his own off-color joke, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s sitting at the nerve center of a vast war machine.

As it happens, the anecdote in question is one the historical Lincoln actually told on at least a couple of occasions.

Abner Ellis was one of many Lincoln acquaintances who shared their recollections about the slain president with William H. Herndon. Here’s how Ellis recorded the Ethan Allen story in a written statement from 1866, which you can find in the collection of Herndon’s research material edited by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis:

It appears that Shortly after we had pease with England Mr Allen had occasion to visit England, and while their the English took Great pleasure in teasing him, and trying to Make fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington, and hung it up the Back House whare Mr Allen Could see it

and they finally asked Mr A if he saw that picture of his freind in the Back House.

Mr Allen said no. but said he thought that it was a very appropriate for an Englishman to Keep it Why they asked, for said Mr Allen their is Nothing that Will Make an Englishman S**t So quick as the Sight of Genl Washington And after that they let Mr Allens Washington alone

(The asterisks aren’t in the original, but you never know who’s reading your blog.)

Ellis wasn’t the only one of Herndon’s sources who remembered Lincoln’s fondness for the Ethan Allen story. On the day the Republican National Convention nominated him for the presidency in Chicago, Lincoln was back in Springfield, playing ball and chewing the fat with some friends. One of them was Christopher C. Brown, who recalled that Lincoln was “nervous, fidgety” that day and that he passed the time telling anecdotes, including the one about “Washingtons picture in a necessary.”

Abner Ellis claimed that he never heard the Allen story from anyone but Lincoln, so one wonders where he got it. I don’t think Ethan Allen went to England after the war, so if the incident with the privy actually happened, it probably wasn’t exactly as Lincoln told it. Allen was imprisoned in England for a while following his capture at Longue-Pointe, so it’s possible that something along the lines of Lincoln’s story could have happened then.

Oddly enough, in the film Lincoln tells the War Department staff that Allen and the Green Mountain Boys captured Ft. Ticonderoga in 1776. The fort actually fell in May of 1775, just a few weeks after the war started. I’m guessing this was a slip on the part of the screenwriter; Lincoln himself had done his share of reading about the Revolution as a kid.

Anyway, it makes for a great scene.

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Bid your way into the Monitor’s turret

The Mariners’ Museum in Virginia, custodian of the USS Monitor‘s turret, is auctioning off the chance to stand inside the structure on the 150th anniversary of its sinking.

There’s something a little morbid about this.  Two of the crew’s bodies were inside the turret when it was raised from the sea; the men who evacuated the sinking vessel got out through the turret, so these two sailors were probably making a last-ditch attempt to save their lives.

On the other hand, the museum is incorporating a memorial service for the Monitor‘s sixteen lost crew members into the turret experience, and the money raised in the auction will help defray the enormous cost of conserving its artifacts, which runs to thousands of dollars per day.  What do you guys think?

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What your grandparents learned about the Kentucky frontier

This short classroom film about pioneer life in eighteenth-century Kentucky was produced in 1941, and it makes for an interesting historical artifact in its own right.  The frontiersmen are optimistic and hardy, the community in the fort is pleasant and sociable, the food is plentiful, the family slave is faithful, all the Indians are offscreen, and there will “always be freedom out there.”  Oh, and the candles are ready in plenty of time for the big hoedown.

How would today’s frontier historians tell this story differently?  For that matter, how would the pioneers themselves tell it?

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner resurrect Lincoln

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

First things first.  You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink.  Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.  In fact, between the two of them, star Daniel Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner have almost worked a miracle of resurrection.

It’s not just that Day-Lewis disappears into the role.  It’s that his Lincoln is so complete.  We’ve had excellent movie Lincolns before, but I don’t think anyone has captured so many aspects of his personality in one performance.  You get the gregarious raconteur as well as the melancholy brooder, the profound thinker as well as the unpolished product of the frontier, the pragmatic political operator as well as the man of principle.  He amuses the War Department staff with off-color jokes in one scene, then ruminates on Euclid and the Constitution in another.  It’s the closest you’re going to get to the real thing this side of a time machine, a distillation of all the recollections and anecdotes from Herndon, Welles, and the other contemporaries into one remarkable character study.

And it’s primarily as a character study that the movie stands out, for there is much about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that is unremarkable.  Not bad, mind you, but unremarkable.  The film takes as its story the effort to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, and at times it’s too much a run-of-the-mill political procedural.  The Thirteenth Amendment was undeniably one of the Civil War’s most important outcomes; it formally ended a divisive institution which had existed in America for more than two centuries and contributed to a fundamental shift in the relationship between U.S. citizens and their government.  But it seems—to me, anyway—like an odd method of approach if one is trying to convey all the drama and significance of Lincoln’s presidency in a couple of hours.  Why not the Emancipation Proclamation or the ups and downs of the Union’s military fortunes, instead of an issue dependent on so much wheeling, dealing, cajoling, speech-making, and roll-calling?  Telling the story of the amendment’s fate makes this a movie that’s as much about democracy as it is about Lincoln himself, and that’s fine, but Day-Lewis and Kushner have given us such an interesting central character that the rest of the film seems unexpectedly average by comparison.

Even Spielberg’s directorial trademarks—his tendency toward sentimentality and his flair as a visual stylist—are surprisingly kept in the background.  This movie doesn’t have the signature Spielberg “moments”—no little girl dressed in a crowd of black and white, no thundering footfalls from some unseen menace causing ominous vibrations in the water, no kids on flying bicycles silhouetted against the moon.  One scene between Lincoln and Mary does have a distinctively “Spielbergian” sense of light and shadow, but other than that, the director’s fingerprints are not really apparent.  It’s a very restrained, straightforward effort.

Perhaps that’s as it should be, because ultimately this show belongs to the screenwriter and the cast.  Like Lincoln himself, Kushner has a flair for language, and the dialogue is some of his best work.  Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn give some of the finest performances of their careers, and Jackie Earle Haley looks more like Alexander Stephens than Alexander Stephens himself did.

Ultimately, though, when this movie soars it’s because it makes one of the most compelling figures in American history seem to live again.  When I was in the museum business, we used to bring in Lincoln impersonators to do presentations for groups of schoolchildren.  These events were always a lot of fun, but the most memorable moments for me happened offstage, when “Lincoln” would relax on a couch in the office, out of character.  At those times you could catch a glimpse of him, sitting there in a black suit with his stovepipe hat on the table beside him, one long leg folded over the other while he chatted and joked with the staff.  It was downright surreal.  This, I would think to myself, is what it must have been like to sit in the telegraph office at the War Department or in a parlor at the Executive Mansion, watching Lincoln just being himself.  I had the same thought the first time Spielberg’s Lincoln appeared on the screen, and that was more than worth the price of a movie ticket.

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Legitimizing carnage

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Recent years have seen a number of solid historical books on the scope of war’s destructiveness and the forces that either escalate it or rein it in.  Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War was one of the seminal works in this scholarly conversation; other contributors have included Mark Neely and Wayne Lee.  John Fabian Witt is the latest historian to examine Americans’ attempts to regulate and legitimize warfare in Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History.  His portrayal of the history of rules to govern nations and individuals at war leaves the reader with the distinct impression that such rules have exacerbated warfare’s violence as often as they have reined it in.

The regulation of war has been an important force in American history from its very beginnings.  The American Revolutionaries prided themselves on adherence to the mores of restrained, civilized war that were fashionable during the Enlightenment, and with independence won, the country’s leaders expended considerable effort upholding the right of neutral shipping as a component of the law of nations.

War raised legal questions involving the behavior of individual soldiers and civilians as well as countries.  When American troops campaigning in Mexico found themselves subject to attack by guerrillas, and as U.S. reprisals against Mexicans threatened to escalate this conflict to frightening levels, the novel situation of dealing with military transgressions overseas led American commanders to develop important innovations, particularly the use of military commissions to try enemy personnel.

But it was the Civil War which proved to be especially fertile ground for the growth of military law.  In Witt’s portrayal, Lincoln and his advisers emerge as consummate pragmatists, shifting from one set of standards for conducting war to the other depending on the Union’s particular needs at any given time.  This flexibility led to some thorny contradictions; subjecting the Confederacy to a blockade was a convenient means of employing commonly recognized principles of the law of nations, but also made it difficult to prosecute blockade runners as illegitimate pirates. 

A thorough and systematic presentation of the rules governing Union armies emerged out of the messy nature of this war that was both a contest between parties claiming the status of sovereign nations and a rebellion by one section against the rest of the country.  The man responsible for crafting it was Francis Leiber, a Prussian immigrant to the U.S. and military philosopher whose notions of the boundaries of proper behavior in war differed markedly from those of most eighteenth-century thinkers.  Whereas Enlightenment thinkers believed that an army gained its legitimacy from its conduct rather than the cause for which it fought, Leieber argued that proper ends could legitimate extreme means.  Lieber was also a proponent of the idea that sharp wars were ultimately more humane because their severity convinced a foe to yield quickly and thus saved lives, a stance shared by some of the Union’s most prominent leaders (including hard war practitioner William T. Sherman).  When the Confederacy began incorporating partisan guerrillas into its regular forces, the Union government tapped Lieber to create guidelines for determining the status of prisoners.  In Dec. 1862, Union authorities turned to him again, this time to craft a more comprehensive code of regulations to govern the behavior of armies in the field.  The result became General Order No. 100, which turned Lieber’s notions of aggressive, pragmatic warfare into official Union policy.

This aggressive turn to the Union war effort developed alongside Lincoln’s policy of emancipation.  War had been a corrosive agent against slavery since the time of the Revolution and the War of 1812, but to Americans of the time, the loss of their slaves ran counter to contemporary notions of the sanctity of civilian property in war.  But the exigencies of the Civil War allowed Lincoln to take the extraordinary measure of freeing slaves in rebellious territory.  This extreme act, which prompted howls of outrage from earlier Americans who saw their slaves abscond with British armies, became justifiable within the framework of an aggressive war effort because it served a laudable end.  Emancipation thus conformed to Lieber’s concept of aggressive war measures legitimized by the goal in sight.

The same notion of aggressive war was practiced by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who upheld Lincoln’s use of war powers and the use of military commissions to try those accused of transgressing the laws of war.  Most of these commissions tried guerrillas and non-combatants instead of Union soldiers, and for a wide variety of offenses.  The pragmatic philosophy of aggressive war out of military necessity also lay behind Sherman’s destructive march to the Georgia coast and then into South Carolina.

Lieber’s Code outlasted the war it was created to regulate.  The expansion of the scope of military authority shaped post-war policies regarding the treatment of Lincoln’s assassins, prominent ex-Confederates, and the former Confederate states as a whole.  The U.S. also found an aggressive military code useful in dealing with Indians.  Whereas earlier American armies used the notion of Indians as outside the customs of civilized war to justify harsh measures against them, after the Civil War the use of military commissions legitimized the use of the death penalty against these enemies whose exact status was open to question.  Thus the code gave official backing to the killing of captured foes, an act that earlier armies had handled in an extralegal manner.  Similarly, American troops in the Philippines invoked the standards contained in Lieber’s code to justify an aggressive imperial war in that island nation, even as some of them transgressed that code with the use of torture, which Lieber himself had refused to include in his range of permissible behaviors.  And it was not only Americans who found in the laws of war a pretext for harshness, as European statesmen used the Lieber Code as the basis for a new body of international military laws.  Leaders of the strong, modern nations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries balked at the notion of circumscribing their armies with strict standards of behavior, but were open to Lieber’s more aggressive approach.

Witt thus puts the evolution of war-making during the Civil War within a broad historical context, both backward into the Enlightenment and forward into the modern era.  Lincoln’s Code demonstrates how the use of emancipation, military courts, the Anaconda Plan, and Sherman’s “hard war” developed out of questions that arose early in American history, and how consequential the Civil War proved to be on several different political, legal, and moral fronts.

Some of the most prominent recent scholarship on the destructive nature of the Civil War has emphasized that destruction’s limits rather than its scale; the “hard war” was an escalation, but it was neither wanton nor unrestrained.  Witt’s emphasis is more on what the aggressive code of war allowed than on what it prohibited.  Time and again, he explains how politicians and commanders found that laws of war actually magnified their power and the power of the armies under their authority.  Laws and regulations were ambiguous in their effects; they drew lines which armies are not allowed to cross, but the very act of drawing lines legitimized behaviors on the other side of them.

The law of war, as Witt presents it, has therefore served to give official sanction to the escalation of violence as well as condemn it.  In this age when American leaders are once again grappling with issues relating to soldiers, enemy combatants, and civilian populations, scholarly attention to the problem of regulating a government’s power to wage war is especially timely.  Lincoln’s Code is a comprehensive, readable, and incisive examination of this problem’s historical dimensions.

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Two exhibits on the Civil War in Tennessee

They’re both coming to the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville. One of them tells the stories associated with some Civil War tombstones; the other is a traveling exhibit from the Tennessee State Museum.

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