Watch a new Civil War documentary at the East Tennessee History Center

On March 2 at 2:00 P.M., the East Tennessee Historical Society will host a screening of the documentary Civil War: The Untold Story, followed by a discussion with the film’s director and NPS historian James Ogden.  Admission is free.

If you can’t make the screening, the film will be airing on public television this year, so keep an eye on your local listings.

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Harold Ramis, 1944-2014

One of my best friends summed it up with this text message: “It’s a little less cool in the world today.”

Groundhog Day has a permanent place on my list of all-time favorite films.  It’s notable that folks of every religious persuasion, from Catholics to Buddhists, have embraced that movie; I think it’s because it taps into some  elemental truths about the human condition.  Not many movies can do that while being so darn funny.

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How much privacy do we owe to Civil War soldiers?

This story out of Connecticut is more than a little bizarre.

The state mental health commissioner is fighting efforts by freedom of information advocates to undo a law — which they say passed under last-minute, “murky circumstances” in 2011 — that blocks historians’ research into Civil War soldiers afflicted with what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, the state FOI Commission and the Connecticut State Library all gave legislative testimony this past week in favor of H.B. 5124, a bill that would change the law so that medical and mental-health records could be released 50 years after the death of the person involved.

History professor Matthew Warshauer of Central Connecticut State University also testified and said that the state’s position is frustrating valuable historical research into the treatment of veterans a century before the term PTSD was invented to describe the lingering results of wartime trauma.

Warshauer and his students have fought in recent years for access to state mental hospital records of Civil War veterans. They prevailed in a 2010 case at the FOI Commission, which ordered release of the records. But the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) fought back in a different way, persuading legislative leaders to tuck the current prohibition into a 98-section public health bill in the 2011 end-of-legislative-session rush.

Why the sensitivity about Civil War-era medical records, you ask?

Rehmer said in her testimony: “Though the individuals … are deceased, it is our firm belief that records of this nature are very sensitive and that family members of those who have been in state hospitals would not want that information disclosed.”

…Deron Drumm, executive director of Advocacy Unlimited Inc., said, “While historical accounts of what treatment entailed fifty years ago would be valuable to the public — releasing the names of individuals involved with psychiatric services will result in discrimination against their relatives.”

Historians shouldn’t be allowed to access the mental health records of Civil War soldiers because it will result in discrimination against their relatives? Can anybody out there actually imagine a scenario where that would be possible?  Is somebody going to get turned down on a job application because his great-great-grandfather developed PTSD after the Overland Campaign?

Look, I think we can all agree that people’s health records should be kept private for a good, long while after their death. But in this case we’re talking about a span of multiple generations.  Indeed, many Americans do not even know the names of their Civil War ancestors, let alone harbor any sensitivity over those ancestors’ mental state.

Is fifty years after someone’s death too soon to open their private records to the public? Maybe, maybe not. But I dare say that a century is quite enough water under the bridge.  Amend the legislation accordingly and open those files.

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Kim Murphy on rape in the Civil War

Murphy talked to The Atlantic about her new book I Had Rather Die, and explained how the deck was stacked against women who accused soldiers of sexual assault.  It’s an interesting interview.

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Neat Rev War exhibit opens in New Jersey this month

It’ll be at the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts in Madison starting Feb. 25, and it’s about the war’s impact on NJ civilians.  Too bad I’m not within driving distance; I’d really like to see it.

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I will now drop everything to address a tragically common misconception

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this one.

This time it’s Cracked.com that’s accusing Steven Spielberg of making a steep drop appear out of nowhere during the T. rex attack.

There’s clearly nowhere for them to go. If they stay on the road, they’ll be eaten. If they run into the jungle, they’ll probably catch some kind of awful tropical parasite. And then be eaten.

Cut To …

Oh, wait, no: They can climb down this sheer cliff face, which just appeared out of absolutely nowhere.

And we say “appeared” because it literally appeared there during the edit between those two scenes. The tyrannosaur breaks through the fence, then the heroes crawl through the broken fence the dinosaur just burst through, only to find the concrete wall….

Oh, you think the greatest scene ever committed to film has a glaring mistake, do you? Well, I’ve got some news for you.

If you’re standing in the spot where the kids’ car is stopped and facing the fence, the goat tether would be directly in front of you, and that steep drop would be slightly to the left, along the edge of the paddock that’s perpendicular to the road.  After the T. rex overturns the car, she nudges it to the left, past the spot where the goat was tethered, and then pushes it into the drop.  Okay?

There.  I’ve done my good deed for the day.

And don’t get me started on people who can’t figure out how the T. rex got into the Visitor Center when there’s obviously a ginormous opening in the wall.

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The planter and the railsplitter

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

Washington and Lincoln usually rank among the more admired presidents, but most people don’t consider them in light of each other.  Presidents’ Day seems like an appropriate occasion to compare and contrast these two men who had little in common except the office and above-average height.

Interestingly, recent years have witnessed renewed historical attention to both Lincoln and Washington as leaders of men.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller on Lincoln and his cabinet turned the phrase “team of rivals” into a catchphrase, while John Ferling has argued that Washington was a much more deft political operator than other biographies have indicated.  Both men displayed an ability to handle opposition, but they approached interpersonal conflict in different ways.

Ferling has written that during the Revolutionary War, Washington felt especially vulnerable to criticism.  He was particularly sensitive when he thought critics were comparing him to powerful rivals, as he believed to be the case after the fall of Philadelphia, fearing a plot to oust him from command was in the works among his detractors in both Congress and the army.  Lincoln faced his fair share of criticism, too, but his skin was thicker than Washington’s.  If Lincoln and his rivals never constituted a true “team”—dissensions and divisions plagued the cabinet, and several of its members didn’t last the duration of Lincoln’s first term—he was nevertheless more adept at keeping discordant elements in check than the sensitive Washington.

“Abraham Lincoln, the Martyr, Victorious,” by John Sartain. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-pga-03258).

The two men also differed in their strengths and weaknesses when it came to the art of persuasion.  Washington wasn’t known for his rhetorical gifts; his most well-regarded work of prose, the Farewell Address, was partly the work of Madison in its first draft form and Hamilton in a later one.  But Washington was physically imposing and formidable, and he knew how to magnify his physical qualities with a little stagecraft.  When he arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, he was decked out in military uniform, prepared to make a striking impression.

And he knew how to play on an audience’s emotions by letting his formidable exterior slip a little, as he did during the unrest in the Continental Army at Newburgh in 1783.  Amid reports that disgruntled officers wanted to use the army to pressure Congress over a lack of pay, Washington addressed the men at a meeting on March 15.  Fumbling over a letter from a member of Congress that he intended to read to them, he donned a pair of glasses, stating, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”  The officers were deeply moved by this rare show of weakness from a man noted for his vigor and powers of endurance.

Gangly and awkward, Lincoln could never command a room simply by walking into it, as Washington could.  What he lacked in imposing presence, he made up for with his ability to craft compelling arguments and lyrical prose.  When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860, one member of the audience found him “so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.”  Eventually, though, the clarity of Lincoln’s ideas and the power of his words overcame the awful first impression and won his audience over. “I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities,” the eyewitness remembered.  “Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.”  At Newburgh, Washington used his physical presence to make up for what his prepared remarks lacked.  At Cooper Union, by contrast, it was only Lincoln’s ability as a public speaker that overcame his ungainly appearance.

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