Monthly Archives: December 2012

“I guess I have come to die”

Today is the 101st anniversary of the Cross Mountain Mine Disaster, a coal mine explosion in the Coal Creek Valley of Anderson County, TN. Despite a rescue effort mounted by the new U.S. Bureau of Mines, eighty-four of the eighty-nine men who were in the mine at the time of the explosion lost their lives.

The last two bodies recovered were those of Eugene Ault and Alonzo Wood, both of whom managed to leave farewell messages for their families before suffocating. Ault’s last statement is inscribed on his monument at the cemetery of Briceville Community Church:

Dear Father, Mother, Brothers, and Sisters, I guess I have come to die. Well I started out and I came back to side track, and Lonzo Wood is with me.. Air is not much now. Will be good, and I aim to pray for God to save me. All of you tell Clarence to wear my clothes out. Give him my trunk. I guess I will never be with you any more. Give Bessie Robbins a stick pin of mine. Tell her goodbye, so goodbye. Give them all my love.

E. Ault

Nine years before the Cross Creek disaster, this same church hosted a memorial for miners killed in an even deadlier explosion at the Fraterville Mine which killed 216 men, making it the costliest mining accident in Tennessee history. And a decade before that incident, it served as a temporary jail for miners involved in the Coal Creek War, an uprising prompted by the use of convict laborers to break a coal strike.

You can learn more about the turbulent mining history of the Coal Creek area by clicking here.

Eugene Ault’s grave marker in the Briceville Community Church Cemetery. The message he left for his family is inscribed on the base. By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Taking Hollywood to task

When I wrote my own review of Lincoln, I said this: “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.”

Based on some of the responses to the movie that have hit the Interwebs since then, I might need to revise that statement.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was the main draw for me, but at least some viewers apparently had different expectations.

I have a tendency to judge all Lincoln-related movies by how convincingly they depict him.  If a film can sell me on its Lincoln, I can overlook any number of other flaws.  Conversely, if I don’t buy the Lincoln, then it’s hard for me to appreciate other strengths a movie might have.  I’ve enjoyed quite a few good Lincoln portrayals over the years, performances that have captured particular aspects of the genuine article—Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, and Sam Waterston are favorites of mine—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody inhabit the role as completely as Day-Lewis.  I didn’t love everything about Spielberg’s film, but what I really wanted to see was Lincoln himself, and I left the theater satisfied.

Some historians have noted the movie’s inaccuracies, which is a perfectly proper thing for historians to be doing.  Other commentators, though, seem less interested in what the filmmakers did wrong as much as they’re interested in what they didn’t do at all.

Over at The Atlantic, for example, Tony Horwitz writes, “I enjoyed Lincoln and agree that it strips away the nostalgic moss that has draped so much Civil War cinema and remembrance. But here’s my criticism. The movie obscures the distance Lincoln traveled in his views on race and slavery. Probing this journey would have made for better history and a finer, more complex film.”  Sure, but it also would’ve made for a completely different film.  Spielberg and Kushner made a conscious decision to focus on the last months of Lincoln’s life.  Including his transformation from a fairly conservative Whig into the man who embraced the Thirteenth Amendment and made public references to limited black enfranchisement would have required not a longer movie, but another one.

Historian Kate Masur, meanwhile, complains that “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.…Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.…[I]t reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”  But this isn’t a movie “devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery.”  It’s a movie about the twilight of Lincoln’s presidency.  Any examination of the men who stood at the pinnacle of the American government in the 1860′s is inevitably going to spend most of its time on white men.

William Harris wrote a book about the last months of Lincoln’s second term; I don’t think anyone who would criticize that book for failing to analyze the evolution of Lincoln’s views on race from 1858 to 1865 would get much of a hearing.  Similarly, I think most of us would be quite surprised if a reviewer referred to a novel about Lincoln as “an opportunity squandered” because the book didn’t deal with African-American life in nineteenth-century Washington.

Yet Masur ultimately concludes that the move is “an opportunity squandered.”  That sort of reaction is legitimate when it comes to major museum exhibits or interpretation at an important historic site, since those are educational institutions which can and should try to tell definitive stories about their subjects.  Movies shouldn’t have to be so authoritative.

We seem to hold filmmakers to a lower standard when it comes to getting the facts straight, but a higher one when it comes to deciding what to include and what not to include.  The reason, I think, is because movies reach so many people and leave such an impression.  We envy filmmakers their audience and their influence, and since we know how many stories about the past need telling, we want filmmakers to use the tremendous resources at their disposal to tell the ones that matter to us, as well as to tell their own stories well.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

“Welsh of Tennessee” lecture this Friday

Here’s an interesting event for all you folks in Knoxville:

“The Welsh of Tennessee” is the subject of a Brown Bag Lecture and book signing at the East Tennessee History Center at noon on Friday, December 7. Dr. Eirug Davies, associate member of Harvard University’s Celtic Department, will discuss his new book and the remarkable story of how the Welsh helped develop East Tennessee’s fledgling iron and coal industries after the Civil War.

The Welsh presence in East Tennessee goes back to the very beginning of white settlement in this neck of the woods. One of the region’s most prominent early settlers was Evan Shelby, an immigrant from Wales who moved from Maryland to Sapling Grove (present-day Bristol) in the early 1770′s. He served in Dunmore’s War and in a number of other campaigns against the Indians, and his son Isaac was a soldier and statesman who’s appeared on this blog before.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

AMC has a Rev War show in the works

Check it out:

AMC has also put into development Revolutionary War drama ‘Turn,’ based on Alexander Rose book ‘Washington’s Spies.’ Written by show-runner Craig Silverstein (‘Nikita’) and executive produced by ‘Bones’ Barry Josephson, ‘Turn’s 1778 narrative follows New York farmer Abe Woodhull as he “bands together with a group of childhood friends to form The Culper Ring, an unlikely group of spies who turn the tide in America’s fight for independence.”

Sounds pretty cool.

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