Doing history with lock, stock, and barrel

Having read about and researched backcountry Rev War battles for years, it seemed high time I loaded and fired a flintlock rifle for myself.  I got the chance a couple of days ago, thanks to some of our living history volunteers at Marble Springs.

I’m not that familiar with modern guns, so on the rare occasions when I fire them, somebody usually has to walk me through it.  (“Here, pull that thing back.  No, not that one.  Wait, the safety’s still on.”)  The weird thing about preparing to fire the flintlock was that I pretty well knew what to do at each step, since a lot of the books I’d read described the whole process from start to finish.  It felt a bit like doing something you’d done many times before but hadn’t done for a long while.

The biggest surprise was the recoil—or rather the lack of it. Compared to the modern weapons I’ve fired, the flintlock was very easy on the shoulder. It was more like a firm nudge than a kick.

It did take quite a bit more effort to ram the round than I expected.  Of course, I’d read enough about eighteenth-century weapons to know that you needed a fair amount of elbow grease to load a firelock with a rifled barrel.  But the experience of actually doing it for myself drove the lesson home, just as my brief stint as a Rev War artilleryman a few years ago gave me a more visceral appreciation of statements I’d read in veterans’ accounts.  I think that visceral sort of knowledge is useful, even if you won’t always be able to convey it in your research and writing.

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Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting

A septet of early American links

This hasn’t been America’s finest week.

FWIW, I did run across some interesting items relating to early America over the past few days, some of which I’d planned on posting earlier.  Other than that, I’ve got nothing, other than to commend some wisdom from a long time ago:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor. 13:1-3, 13 (ESV)

Here are the links.

  • Archaeologists have identified the site of the 1779 Battle of Beaufort/Port Royal in South Carolina.  There’s some good news.
  • The National Park Service has acquired the site of Werowocomoco, where Powhatan held court in the seventeenth century.
  • Looks like the Continental soldier look is back in.
  • If you were going to pick seven sites every American history buff should visit, which would they be?  Here’s one list.
  • Historians of religion are weighing in on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  Metaxas claims that colonial America was a haven of religious freedom.  As John Fea explains, that was only true for certain colonies.  Proselytizing for the wrong church in Massachusetts or Virginia could’ve gotten you flogged…or worse.
  • Meanwhile, Robert Tracy McKenzie finds Metaxas guilty of misreading John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” remark.  Like a lot of people, Metaxas takes the quote as a statement of proto-Amrerican exceptionalism.  It was actually a warning, reminding the Puritans that if their “errand into the wilderness” failed, the whole world would see their downfall.  “Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission,” McKenzie writes, “Winthrop intended his allusion to ‘a city upon a hill’ to send a chill down their spines.”
  • A Thomas Jefferson letter dating from the end of the War of 1812 turned up in an attic.  It can be yours for $325,000.

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Filed under American Revolution, Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Hey Knoxville! Come have dinner and vote for Marble Springs!

If you’re a Marble Springs fan or a Tennessee history buff, let me encourage you to come to the South Knoxville Alliance’s Knoxville SOUP dinner on July 7th.

For a donation of five bucks, you get a meal, and four organizations will give short presentations on projects they’d like to undertake.  Then, all the attendees vote on the best proposal, and the winning organization gets the take from the door.  Marble Springs is competing to support our Farmers Market, one of our programs that offers something really cool to folks in our community.  The more of our supporters who attend and vote for us, the likelier we are to win.

Hope to see some of you this Thursday at the South Knoxville Community Center, 522 Maryville Pike, Knoxville, TN 37920.  The doors open at 6:00 p.m.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Reconstructing ‘Free State of Jones’

The reaction to Free State of Jones among movie critics has been pretty lackluster, but most of the historians I’ve heard from seem to have liked it.  (I liked it, too, for whatever that’s worth.)  I suspect this has to do with the fact that the film’s narrative structure doesn’t adopt many of the conventions of storytelling.

Critics have taken the film to task because the plot meanders, because it seems to lack focus, because it tries to do too much, and because the story just sort of tapers off—it “fizzles out long before it ends,” as one critic put it.  From a filmmaking standpoint, these criticisms make sense.  Narratives aren’t supposed to meander and then fizzle out.  Storytellers are supposed to keep things rolling along until events reach a dramatic crescendo and a full resolution.  In Jaws, when Chief Brody detonates that air tank and sends chunks of great white shark into the stratosphere, you know the movie’s over.

Some historical stories conform to these conventions of dramatic narrative.  Gettysburg establishes a few important characters at its outset, then adds in more and more narrative threads, intensifies, and finally reaches a grand climax of resolution.  That happens to be the way the battle played out, so in that case the filmmakers could follow dramatic convention and be faithful to the events they were portraying.

But that’s generally not the way history works.  One of the writers of the musical 1776 once quoted someone as saying, “God writes lousy drama.”

Free State of Jones hits its crescendo near the middle, as Newt Knight’s struggle against the Confederacy becomes an outright war.  After this comes a long, dispiriting declension, in which much of Knight’s work is undone by the retreat from Reconstruction and the return to power of the same people he fought against during the war.  The movie doesn’t end with an exclamation point or a period, but an ellipsis followed by a question mark.

Having read a lot of reviews of the film, I think critics would have reacted more positively if it had been a more straightforward Civil War film, a story of an insurgency culminating in the Confederate flag coming down in front of the Jones County Courthouse and the Stars and Stripes going up.  True, that narrative would’ve been less choppy and rushed, and it wouldn’t have “fizzled out.”  But Gary Ross made a deliberate decision to take a longer view of the Civil War era, one that includes the reversals of Reconstruction. Regardless of whatever liberties Free State of Jones takes with specific incidents or characters, that decision took guts.

And that, I think, is one reason why historians have reacted to the film more positively than movie critics and audiences.  When you’re dealing with history, you don’t always get a story that conforms to narrative convention.  With history, the story sometimes meanders.  It moves in fits and starts, it doubles back on itself, and it tapers off into uncertainty.  That’s exactly what happened in the case of Reconstruction.  If you consider Appomattox to be the end of the Civil War, then the story makes good narrative sense.  It all gets wrapped up in a neat package, with the various narrative threads resolved, the slaves freed, and the Union back together.  But when you take the long view of the Civil War era—as historians often do and as Free State of Jones does—it’s a story of reversals, marked by lulls in the action.  And it’s a story that does indeed fizzle out, just as the nation’s commitment to the war’s gains fizzled out in the 1870s.

Maybe that story isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the ones people are used to hearing about the Civil War.  But I’m glad we got a movie that told it, even if it hasn’t caught on with critics and audiences.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Still life at Sycamore Shoals

I finally got to see the updated visitor center exhibit at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.  The exhibit narrative offers a pretty good crash course in the history of Tennessee’s Revolutionary frontier, using some lovely murals, audio, artifacts, and a few tableaux with life-sized figures.

You can stand eye to eye with Dragging Canoe while listening to an audio dramatization of his speech denouncing the Transylvania Purchase.  He delivered these remarks in March 1775, just a short distance from where the exhibit gallery now stands.

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When Cherokee warriors launched an assault on the settlements in July 1776, one prong of the assault struck Fort Watauga.  Here’s Ann Robertson employing a little frontier ingenuity, using scalding water against a warrior intent on setting fire to the fort’s wall.

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Of course, another important moment in the history of Sycamore Shoals came in late September 1780, when the Overmountain Men mustered there for the march that took them to King’s Mountain.

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In terms of original artifacts, the highlight is this pair of kettles from Mary Patton’s gunpowder mill.  Born in England, Patton lived in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Watauga region with her husband.  The Pattons’ mill supplied five hundred pounds of gunpowder for the King’s Mountain expedition.  I think these material links to East Tennessee’s Rev War years are pretty darn special.

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If you wanted to identify one site as ground zero for Tennessee’s frontier era, Sycamore Shoals would be as good a spot as any.  It’s nice to see the place get the sort of modern exhibit it deserves.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

The Los Angeles Police Museum: just the facts

This…

…is the city.  Los Angeles, California.

It’s a big city—with the second highest population of any metropolitan area in the nation.  Nearly four million people call this place home.  With that many people, you can support a lot of museums.

Some of those museums exhibit historical artifacts.  When they do, I go to work.  I carry an audio tour device.  Or whatever you call these things:

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It was Monday, June 20.  It was hot in Los Angeles.  We were working the day watch out of the sightseeing division.  My former classmate and longtime friend is Dustin.  My name’s Michael.

We’d decided to check out the Los Angeles Police Museum located in the old Highland Park Police Station, the oldest station building in the city.  Constructed in the 1920s, it’s currently on the National Register of Historic Places.

We arrived at 9:42 a.m.  The door was locked.  The museum didn’t open until 10:00.  Without a warrant, we couldn’t barge in and search the place.  We headed across York Boulevard for breakfast at a Coco’s Bakery.  The service was slow, but the eggs weren’t bad.

10:38 a.m.  We walked back across the street and paid admission.  A small hallway by the front desk featured images from the LAPD’s early history and informative signage, along with numbered guideposts for the audio tour.  The museum boasted an extensive collection of historic police armaments and other paraphernalia relating to law enforcement.  The first exhibit case was full of old billy clubs.  Since the weapons were under glass, we were unable to check for prints.

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10:47 a.m.  The Highland Park station’s misdemeanor holding cells were still in place.  The doors were open, and from the look of things, the inmates had used the opportunity to make their escape.  We determined to keep a look out for any suspicious characters.

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10:52 a.m.  In the enclosed yard behind the building we found an assemblage of law enforcement vehicles ranging from armored transports…

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…to older model police cars and a helicopter.

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The exhibit also included two vehicles involved in the 1997 North Hollywood shootout.  The bank robbers’ getaway car had sustained damage from gunfire and a broken windshield.  Driving with a damaged windshield is a violation of Section 26710 of the California Vehicle Code.  We left a citation on the dash.

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11:26 a.m.  We headed upstairs.  Vintage LAPD uniforms dating back to the late nineteenth century were on display on the museum’s second floor.

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IMG_1696The second floor also featured an extensive exhibit on the history of the Symbionese Liberation Army, one of the more notable incidents in the history of California law enforcement…

IMG_1698  …and another on the North Hollywood robbery.  We attempted to interview the two perpetrators.  Being mannequins, they were uncooperative.

IMG_169912:14 p.m.  We took the elevator downstairs to the gift shop, where I picked up a copy of the authorized biography of Jack Webb.  We concluded that the Los Angeles Police Museum is one of city’s more interesting historical attractions, and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Footnoting ‘Free State of Jones’

The movie’s not out yet, but one thing’s for sure: Gary Ross, the writer and director of Free State of Jones, is a guy who takes history seriously.

In advance of the film’s release, on June 24, Mr. Ross, whose credits include “Seabiscuit” and the first installment of “The Hunger Games,” is posting an elaborate website annotating some three dozen topics and scenes from the movie, allowing audiences to click through and evaluate for themselves his historical sources, including many primary documents.

“I stopped my life to read and study for two years before I even started writing a script,” Mr. Ross said during a recent interview in his office in Manhattan. “If people want to pick apart this history, they can. But they should know that this wasn’t the glib work of a screenwriter who was inventing things.”

The website’s pretty impressive.  It’s not just an assemblage of short essays on various aspects of the movie’s historical background, but a scene-by-scene breakdown complete with citations to scholarly sources—I mean actual, honest-to-goodness, Chicago Manual of Style footnotes.

I was already interested in seeing this movie, but now I’m really, really interested in seeing it.

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Filed under Civil War