Monthly Archives: July 2013

A few thoughts from the end of the Freedom Trail

Walked the Freedom Trail yesterday, and got back to the hotel exhausted but euphoric. The density of Revolution-related sites in Boston is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Usually, when I take a Rev War road trip, I’ll have two or three things I really want to see, I’ll have to drive quite a few miles to get from one to the other, and I try to read every wayside marker and exhibit label I can find.

Doing Boston is different. Here you can walk a couple of miles and hit more than a dozen sites, and each one of them is a headliner. There’s no way you can thoroughly cover it all. It’s like visiting a buffet where you want to eat everything, so you just pile your plate with as much as it’ll hold and start cramming your face until you’re stuffed.

Another thing that strikes me is the antiquity of what you can see. In my neck of the woods, seeing a building from the early nineteenth century is a treat, and getting to see one from the late eighteenth is worth a two-hour drive. Here, though, running across a material remnant of the seventeenth century isn’t unheard of. Yesterday I saw tombstones that had been sitting there a century before Tennessee became a state.

It’s historic sightseeing of a totally different order. And that’ll have to do it for now; I’m off to Lexington and Concord.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

Minutemen, waterfalls, dinosaurs, and so on

Hey, remember when I said I’ve got a bunch of Massachusetts historic sites on my bucket list because I’ve never been to New England? Well, a friend of mine has to drive up to Boston for a conference, and I’m tagging along because that’s the kind of shameless moocher I am. So barring some unforeseen disaster, I’m finally going to see the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, Old North Church, Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord…all those places every American Revolution buff should visit before they die.

I’m actually on the road already. We saw Niagara Falls today, and we’ll hit New York and Philly on the way back. And New York means the American Museum of Natural History, which means dinosaurs. Whole herds of ‘em.

Dinosaur skeletons and Rev War sites. It’s like a perfect storm of awesomeness.

Anyway, I’ll post some stuff whenever I get the chance. Now, everybody sing…

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Lincoln and his bodyguard

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

If you didn’t get a chance to see Saving Lincoln in theaters, it’s available on DVD now.  Using actual period photographs for its settings, the movie explores the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon, the Virginia-born attorney who went from lawyer to presidential bodyguard.  Lamon isn’t as well-known as some of Lincoln’s other associates, but the two men had a remarkable and longstanding relationship.

They met in Illinois, where Lamon was admitted to the bar in 1851.  Although he was born a Southerner, Lamon joined the young Republican Party and played an instrumental role in securing Lincoln’s nomination in 1860, packing the convention hall with his friend’s supporters by printing up extra tickets.  

It was during Lincoln’s inaugural train trip that Lamon’s stint as a self-appointed bodyguard began.  After detective Allan Pinkerton brought Lincoln word of a possible plot to assassinate the president-elect in Baltimore, an armed Lamon accompanied Lincoln as he passed through the city secretly by night.  Neither Pinkerton nor Lamon thought much of the other’s abilities; Pinkerton dismissed Lamon as a “brainless, egotistical fool,” while Lamon later claimed that the purported assassination plot was a sham.  (He reversed this opinion in some of his postwar writings.)

Lamon wanted a diplomatic post, but spent Lincoln’s presidential years as a U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia.  In this position he managed to offend some powerful people, with some senators eventually demanding that he be fired.  Lincoln entrusted him with a number of delicate missions, including a controversial trip to Ft. Sumter before that installation fell to the Confederates.  Despite Lincoln’s wish to hold the fort, Lamon gave Southern authorities the impression that the Union was prepared to abandon it.  But if Lincoln was angry at Lamon’s handling of the Charleston trip—and some sources indicate that he was—it didn’t stop him from allowing his old friend to take responsibility for presidential security.  The burly Virginian often patrolled the White House grounds at night—armed to the teeth with a pistol, knife, and a set of brass knuckles—sometimes sleeping on the floor right outside Lincoln’s bedroom.

Perhaps one reason Lamon was so conscientious when it came to presidential security was the fact that Lincoln himself seemed so cavalier about it.  An exasperated Lamon wrote to him in 1864, “I regret that you do not appreciate what I have repeatedly said to you in regard to the proper police arrangements connected with your household and your own personal safety.…To-night, as you have done on several previous occasions, you went unattended to the theatre. When I say unattended, I mean that you went alone with Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city.”  Lincoln’s lifelong tendency toward fatalism probably contributed to his seeming indifference toward his safety.  He told associates that if someone wanted to take his life badly enough, there would be little anyone could do to stop it.  Lamon wasn’t on hand on the night one of Lincoln’s enemies finally got the chance to strike a fatal blow, having been sent on a mission to Richmond.

He returned to his legal practice after the war, setting his name to a poorly-received ghostwritten biography of Lincoln.  After Lamon died in 1893, his daughter assembled some of his material into a second book, published in 1895.  Some of his personal effects—his watch, marshal’s badge, and ashtray—are highlights of the collection of LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

As its title implies, Saving Lincoln focuses on Lamon’s role as bodyguard, but it nicely balances the public and private aspects of Lincoln’s life in the White House.  Tom Amandes effectively conveys Lincoln’s affable side in a performance reminiscent of Sam Waterston’s portrayal in the TV adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.  (History buffs may recall that Amandes spent two seasons playing Eliot Ness in The Untouchables.)  Lea Coco, Penelope Ann Miller, and Bruce Davison all give convincing turns as Lamon, Mary Todd Lincoln, and William Seward, respectively.  The film includes a few incidents that don’t usually make it into Lincoln movies, such as the controversy over Lamon’s performance of a traditional song during Lincoln’s visit to Antietam.  I’m glad to see it available in DVD format; anyone interested in history will find it well worth watching.

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Tearing down a 1756 structure in Pennsylvania

It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, but that hotel and CVS have to go up somewhere.

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Filed under Colonial America, Historic Preservation

Tennessee’s newest state park has a John Sevier connection

The Tennessean reports that “the state park at Rocky Fork will showcase the frontier battle in which John Sevier, the future governor of Tennessee, led his troops against a large band of Cherokee Indians.”

A little more precision would be helpful here, since “the frontier battle in which John Sevier, the future governor of Tennessee, led his troops against a large band of Cherokee Indians” is about as specific as “that time Lindsay Lohan ran into trouble with the law.”  I’m assuming it’s the Battle of Flint Creek (Jan. 1789), but I could be mistaken.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

I’ll take “Slightly Anachronistic Phrases” for $400, Alex

Well, it’s official.  “War Between the States” is a legitimate name for the Civil War, at least as far as the judges on Jeopardy! are concerned.

I don’t really care what people call it, but the term “War Between the States” wasn’t all that common during the war itself.  It didn’t really come into common use among Southerners until after the whole thing was over.  If “Civil War” was good enough for Davis, Lee, and Forrest, you’d think it would be good enough for the UDC.

In some European countries, the common name is “War of Secession” (Guerra de Secesión, as the Spanish put it).  Maybe we should start using it here in America; I think everybody could agree that “War of Secession” is pretty accurate.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

You have Abe’s permission to die

“I will tell you an amusing story I heard when I was a lawyer in Illinois.  Then…I will break you.”

Image by SixPixeldesign via Deviantart. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

And yes, you can get this picture on a t-shirt.

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