Category Archives: History and Memory

Various items worthy of note

  • I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN.  The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain.  It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
  • While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself.  Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more.  Memberships start at just $25.
  • Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season.  If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia.  On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle.  They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
  • Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs.  What.  Were.  They.  Thinking?
  • Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
  • Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
  • A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
  • Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Teaching History, Tennessee History

The sequester and slavery in the City of Brotherly Love

We’re in the home stretch of posts about my trip to the Northeast, with two more cities to go.  It’s taken me as long to write all this stuff up as it did to see it.

I must’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere in New York, because by the time we got to Philadelphia the symptoms were on me in full force.  We hit the trail anyway.  I’m a first-rate wuss, but it takes more than a runny nose and a sore throat to keep me from historical sightseeing.

Something like the sequester, for example.

To explain how the folks in Washington put a real damper on this leg of the trip, I need to back up and give you a brief history of my previous visits to the City of Brotherly Love.  I was still in high school the first time I went there, accompanying my mom on a research trip.  We were only in town for one day, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.  I got to pick one destination to visit, and it came down to either Independence Hall or the Academy of Natural Sciences.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer for a Rev War buff, but at that time my history buffdom was still in its embryonic stage.  Like our tiny mammalian ancestors, it scurried around in the underbrush, unable to compete for resources with the ginormous reptiles who took up all the good habitat space.  In this case, the ginormous reptile was a hadrosaur, the first major dinosaur find ever made in the U.S. and one of the star attractions of the Academy of Natural Science’s collections.  So I picked the ANS and vowed that if I ever made it back to Philly I’d see Independence National Historical Park.

Many years later, I had to fly up to Philadelphia on a trip for the Lincoln museum.  With a couple of hours to myself, I managed to hit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the buildings where Congress and the Supreme Court sat.  I’d really wanted to see the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the New Hall Military Museum, and the gallery of Charles Wilson Peale’s portraits, but there just wasn’t enough time.  Once again I left Philadelphia with unfinished business, promising myself that someday I’d be back to fill in the blanks.

So here I was again in 2013, ready to take another crack at seeing everything INHP had to offer.  You can imagine my reaction when when we found the Declaration House, the military museum, and the Peale gallery closed.  If you’re familiar with that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the Griswolds finally make it to Walley World, and they run giddily up to the entrance only to encounter a statue of Marty Moose with a recorded message announcing that the park is shut down for renovation, well…

Image via news.moviefone.com

…it was sort of like that.

Missing the Peale gallery was just plain bad luck; it’s only open on certain days of the week, and we happened to be there on one of the other ones.  But I couldn’t figure out why the Declaration House and the military museum were off limits.  The park’s website gave no information.  I wondered if the sequester might have had something to do with it, and apparently that was the case.

On the off chance you ever read this, members of Congress and President Obama—thanks for nothing.

Still, an incomplete visit to INHP is better than a full visit to most places.  It’s an awesome park.  We did manage to see the reconstructed Declaration House from the outside.  The original was demolished in 1883.

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And Independence Hall makes any trip to INHP well worth it, even if some of the other buildings are closed.

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People have been paying their respects here for a long time.

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The line to see the Liberty Bell was much longer than on my last visit, wrapping all the way around the outside of the building.  I wondered if this was due to the fact that so many of the other buildings were closed.  There’s a great exhibit in the building that houses the bell, covering everything from its manufacture to its evolution as a symbol of freedom and protest down to the present day.  It’s a fascinating look at the development of historical memory.

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I didn’t get to visit Carpenters Hall on my last trip, so I was glad to see it this time.  The interior is much smaller than I’d expected.

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We also walked through Christ Church Burial Ground.  Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are at rest here, including Benjamin Franklin.

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One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet.  It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800.  A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.

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It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.

Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there.  As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.

There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here.  Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.

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Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter.  By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free.  The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges.  Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.

Washington never came under legal scrutiny for these shenanigans, but his slaves still proved harder to hold onto in the capital city than he anticipated.  As he prepared to leave Philadelphia and return to Virginia, a young woman named Oney Judge (one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves) fled the household.  Knowing that escape would be extremely difficult back in the Old Dominion, she used her connections among Philadelphia’s black community to make a bid for freedom and made it to New Hampshire, where she married a sailor and had three children.  Washington’s efforts to recover her ended in failure, and she died a free woman—in practice if not by law—in 1848.

It’s one heck of a story, and I’m glad the exhibit is telling it.  At the same time, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were juggling two different topics, and not entirely successfully.  The origins of the presidency and the role of slavery in the Washington household are both immensely important and very complicated subjects, requiring as much space and ingenuity as possible.  The President’s House exhibit conveys the slaves’ story much more effectively than the story of the executive branch’s early development.  This is a problem, because there aren’t many historical topics more consequential than the presidencies of Washington and Adams.  Every decision, every measure, every bit of protocol established precedents that would shape American government for more than two centuries, and in some cases determined whether the U.S. would maintain its precarious existence or be caught up in the torrent of European war.

I would’ve preferred the exhibit take its time and tell either one of these stories fully, either the bottom-up story of Washington’s slaves or the top-down story of the first two men to take the oath of office.  To me, the limited space devoted to the top-down story only called attention to the fact that the coverage was so basic and limited, like an afterthought tacked on because there happened to be room for a few more exhibit panels.  It was as if the interpreters were trying to cram in enough to please everybody, with the result that nothing got covered as thoroughly as it should have.

I realize that I’ve devoted more verbiage to my critique of the President’s House exhibit than any other aspect of INHP.  I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my overall assessment of the park is negative.  Far from it; the only reason I haven’t discussed the park as a whole in the same detail is because the President’s House exhibit was new to me, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we interpret historic sites.  I consider the park as whole to be one of the crown jewels of the entire national park system.  I’ve had two guided tours of Independence Hall and the buildings alongside it over the years, and both were among the best historic building tours I’ve ever taken.  The rangers here are extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging, the buildings are beautifully restored and maintained, and in terms of historical significance it might just outrank every other historic site in the country.  If you’re making a list of historic places to see in the U.S., this one should be at the very top.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

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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Libertarians and the Civil War

WaPo examines the different ways libertarians interpret the Civil War, from those who embrace neo-Confederate ideology to those who are embarrassed by it.

My main complaint with neo-Confederate libertarians who vent their rage on the Lincoln administration is their failure to follow through on their arguments.  Sure, the Union government became more centralized and invasive in order to fight the war, but so did the Confederate government.  Governments usually become more centralized and invasive in wartime as a matter of course, simply because a war requires nations to marshal their resources and suppress dissent more effectively than in peacetime.  That was the case for the Union, and it was certainly the case for the Confederacy.

And if you’ve got philosophical problems with the Union’s attempt to block secession, shouldn’t you support independence for Unionist majorities in East Tennessee who tried to stay out of the Confederacy?

I’m uncomfortable with any attempts to moralize history by trying to identify who was on its right side and wrong side, but if you’re going to go down that road, at least be consistent about it.

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Glenn Beck presents a history exhibit

Glenn Beck hosted an exhibit of historical artifacts called the “Independence Through History Museum” at the Grand American Hotel in Salt Lake City over the July 4th weekend.  The museum was only one part of Beck’s “Man in the Moon” event, which included conferences, lectures, and a live performance that (as far as I can determine) was an attempt to combine historical pageantry with Cirque du Soleil.

More info here and here.  Note that the exhibit featured Arnold Friberg’s painting of Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge.  Since it’s doubtful the incident in the painting ever happened, it’s highly fitting that David Barton helped select the items to be displayed.

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“We’ve had vicious kings, and we’ve had idiot kings…”

As we recover from all the Gettysburg and Vicksburg festivities, The Connectivist gives us something else to argue about with a list of the TV characters who most closely resemble figures from the American Revolution.

They’ve matched George III up with Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones, which seems…well, pretty darned unfair to George III, when you get right down to it.

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The big one

Several years ago, when I was in the museum business, we decided to do a temporary exhibit on the Gettysburg Address. I e-mailed the NPS to see about borrowing a few artifacts, and they graciously obliged us with some fantastic material. Somebody had to drive up to Pennsylvania to pick it up.

I had never been to Gettysburg, and I was always looking for an excuse to get out of the office anyway, so I booked a rental van to haul the artifacts and got a good friend of mine to tag along, and off we went.  Both of us had been on a Civil War quiz bowl team in high school, and everybody on the team had talked vaguely about making a collective trip to Gettysburg over the years, but it had never worked out so that all of us could go at the same time.

Some history road trips get added value from the landscape along the way, and this was one of them.  It was a beautiful drive northward through the Shenandoah Valley along I-81.  The background music, unfortunately, was ill-suited to the occasion.  This was the year that Nelly Furtado’s song “Promiscuous” was released, and for some reason it seemed to be playing incessantly on every single radio station during the drive up.  To this day, I associate that song with Gettysburg.  (Weird, I know, but your brain is gonna do what your brain is gonna do.)

We got there just after sunset, with just enough daylight left to make out some monuments and wayside markers.  There are football towns and college towns and music towns; Gettysburg was a history town.  The restaurants were named after generals, the stores sold Confederate t-shirts, and our hotel had Troiani prints in the lobby.  It seemed like there was a museum or attraction on every corner.  The place had this irresistible mixture of historic architecture and landscape alongside examples of tourist kitsch, a combination I’ve never encountered in the same way anywhere else.  It sounds jarring, but it worked; it had an appeal all its own.

The old visitor center was still open then, but many of the artifacts had been moved out in preparation for the opening of the new building. We watched the electric map show and checked out the exhibits, case after case after case full of rifles, swords, and bullet-riddled doors.  Then it was out onto the battlefield itself.

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We did the “must-see” highlights, the high-water mark and Little Round Top and all the rest of them.  All those places mentioned in books and labeled on maps were really there, not as ink on paper but as soil and rock and vegetation.  It was like meeting a celebrity and realizing that behind the magazine covers, movie posters, and TV appearances is a real live human being who is standing right in front of you.  Right there was the stone wall, and over there was the copse of trees, and there was that hill, all of them instantly recognizable and looking like they hadn’t aged a day since Gardner had taken his photographs.

Like a lot of historic sites, this one had a personality all its own, with its open fields framed by hills and mountains.  It looked the way Gettysburg should look, an appropriate arena for a great contest, as if the landscape had known that two armies would be meeting there and had been arranging itself for the occasion.  Maybe not for the war’s most decisive battle, but certainly its definitive one.

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