The historical keynote of the war

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

Charles Francis Adams was one of many Americans who stood in front of the Capitol 150 years ago to hear Lincoln deliver his second inaugural address.  “That railsplitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day,” Adams wrote a few days later.  “Once at Gettysburg and now again on a greater occasion he has shown a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour.”  He believed the speech would be “for all time the historical keynote of this war.”

Lincoln himself expected his speech to “wear as well as —perhaps better than—any thing I have produced,” even though it was “not immediately popular.”

Here are a few links to help you commemorate the sesquicentennial of what historian Ronald C. White has called Lincoln’s greatest speech:

Library of Congress

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Can academic historians get writer’s block?

Not long ago I finished reading Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing for one of my classes.  Silvia is a psychologist, and some of the book is aimed specifically at people working in that discipline, but I’d recommend it to anybody who has trouble cranking out the theses, dissertations, journal articles, and books on which our livelihood supposedly depends.

There is, however, one passage of the book with which I take issue.  It’s the part about writer’s block.  Silvia doesn’t believe in it, at least as far as academic writers are concerned (p. 45):

Academic writers cannot get writer’s block.  Don’t confuse yourself with your friends teaching creative writing in the fine arts department.  You’re not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart.  The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might.  People will not photocopy your reference list and pass it out to friends whom they wish to inspire.  Novelists and poets are the landscape artists and portrait painters; academic writers are the people with big paint sprayers who repaint your basement.

Writer’s block, he says, just means you’re not writing.  All you need to do is start.  It sounds pretty straightforward.  In my experience, alas, that’s not how it works.  I think we’ve all had those occasions where we’re sitting in front of the computer, ready and willing, but the words and ideas just wouldn’t come.

Academic writers have to figure out how to articulate complex ideas and abstract concepts, tie them together, organize them, and present them persuasively.  We write to solve problems and to explain to others how we’ve arrived at our solutions.  You can’t do that without a little inspiration.  You can’t even come up with the problems themselves without inspiration, without a certain spark of creativity and insight that isn’t always forthcoming.

We might not be artists, but successful writers of any sort need something to say, and they need to know how to say it.  That sort of thing isn’t always on tap, even when you’ve got the discipline to sit down at a keyboard.

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The latest in anti-preservation follies and fallacies

Donnie Johnston of Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star has decided to let us all know how sick he is of all this hallowed ground from the Civil War.

Mike Stevens of the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust penned an eloquent and measured response to Johnston’s rant, which you can read at the Emerging Civil War blog.

For my part, I note that Johnston indulges in the anti-preservationist’s favorite logical fallacy: the straw man argument.  Anti-preservationists are seemingly incapable of engaging with actual preservationist arguments.  Instead, they have to reduce things to the most asinine mischaracterizations imaginable:

Everywhere a Union or Confederate soldier set his chamber pot is now declared “hallowed ground.”
You can’t build a store because there may be a Minié ball somewhere in the ground. Housing developments get axed because some farmer once plowed up a rusty bayonet in that field. You can’t construct a road because some soldier once fired a cannon from that spot.
This is all getting absurd.

Yes, that does sound absurd, and the reason it sounds absurd is because it’s a gross caricature of the actual situation.

Why people are so adamant about glorifying war—any war—is beyond me. Ask anybody who ever fought in one and they will tell you that war is indeed hell.
People kill other people in wars. They blow their heads off—literally. They disembowel fathers and sons and brothers with cannons and mortars.
Soldiers lose their arms, their legs, their feet and their hands in wars. You want to glorify that?

No, actually, I don’t want to glorify that.  I do, however, want to make sure the places where it happened remain available for future generations to draw meaning and information from them.  And it’s worth noting that the men who actually experienced those battles led some of the earliest efforts to set aside the sites where they happened.  They didn’t see anything inappropriate about commemorating the war.

The Civil War began because big landowners in the South wanted to keep black people enslaved. You can sugarcoat it all you want, but slavery was what that conflict was all about. You want to glorify slavery?

Certainly not, but I think the war that brought about its end might merit some commemoration.  It was kind of a big deal.

Now we want to save every inch of ground trod upon by every Federal and Confederate. Why? Well, partly so that re-enactors can line up, fire blank shells and show us what the war was like.

Actually, the NPS doesn’t permit reenactments on its battlefields.  But don’t let the facts get in your way.

Enough is enough. We don’t glorify World War I or World War II or even the Revolutionary War, where we won our independence. It is only the Civil War that seems to excite us.

I hate to be the one to break this to you, dude, but they actually do commemorations at World War I, World War II, and Revolutionary War battlefields, too.

The Civil War is over. Let’s move on. The good earth was put here for us to use, not to glorify because one man killed another man at some particular spot.

Preserving historic battlegrounds doesn’t mean we’re “glorifying” war, any more than setting aside Auschwitz as a historic site means we’re glorifying genocide.  There’s a difference between commemoration and glorification, and I just don’t get some people’s inability to make that simple distinction.

But maybe I’m making too much out of a conflict that tore the nation apart, ended slavery, and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.  We could really do something about our national shortage of big-box stores and fast food franchises, if only we could develop some of that prime real estate all those Civil War soldiers were inconsiderate enough to die on.

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The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum’s newest exhibit features a glimpse at Hollywood’s Lincoln

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

The newest exhibit at Lincoln Memorial University’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum opened this week.  “Clouds and Darkness Surround Us”: The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln examines the tragic fate of Lincoln’s widow, and features original costumes from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film alongside additional material from the ALLM collection.  This exhibit runs through November 20, 2015.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is hosting a number of special events, including a screening of Spielberg’s film and presentations on the history of Lincoln in the movies.  For more information about the exhibit and upcoming events, visit the ALLM website.

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$200 for the 200th anniversary of John Sevier’s death

As regular readers of this blog know, I have the honor of serving on the board of the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association.  GJSMA supports the programming and operations at Marble Springs State Historic Site, Sevier’s final home in Knoxville, TN.

This year marks an important anniversary in Tennessee history.  It’s the bicentennial of John Sevier’s death.  To commemorate the occasion, GJSMA is undertaking a special fundraising initiative for 2015, called “$200 for 200.”

We’re asking folks who love history, museums, and Tennessee’s heritage to make a $200 donation to support our programming, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Sevier’s death.  Donors who make this special bicentennial gift will be recognized on our $200 for 200 web page, and will also receive these benefits for one year:

  • Free site tours for two adults and our children
  • Free admission for two adults and four children to our special John Sevier Days event in September
  • 10% off gift shop purchases
  • Discounts for our special workshop events
  • A discount on site rentals

It’s a great way to support a fantastic historic site and do something meaningful in recognition of an important Tennessee anniversary.  If you’d like to join our $200 for 200 effort, you can donate via PayPal at the Marble Springs website or send a check to Marble Springs, P.O. Box 20195, Knoxville, TN 37940.

I know that a lot of you folks who read the blog appreciate Tennessee’s history and its historic places, so I hope you’ll consider a donation.  Thanks!

A gathering at John Sevier’s Alabama gravesite in 1889 before his reinterment in Knoxville. Tennessee State Library and Archives (http://tnsos.org/tsla/imagesearch/citation.php?ImageID=4259)

 

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

Carnegie’s transatlantic dinosaur just got an eviction notice

Here’s a news item that’s gotten plenty of us dinophiles riled up.  After decades of faithful service, Dippy the Diplodocus is moving out of the central hall of the Natural History Museum, London.  A blue whale skeleton will take his place in 2017.

I, Drow male [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The NHM has been reminding everybody that their Diplodocus is a plaster copy of a skeleton at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, whereas the blue whale’s bones are the real deal.  That’s true, but Dippy isn’t just any any other display cast.  This dinosaur has got quite a backstory, one that links a multimillionaire, a monarch, and two continents.

Andrew Carnegie was a man who liked to give away money, and some of that money funded dinosaur collecting.  His philanthropic activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with a period of fierce competition among America’s natural history museums, each institution sending teams of collectors into the great fossil graveyards of the West to find the biggest and most complete specimens for exhibition and trying to woo successful field men away from their rivals.  The three-way rivalry among Carnegie’s Pittsburgh museum, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Field Museum in Chicago was particularly intense.

The biggest game of all were Jurassic sauropods, those massive dinosaurs with long necks, whiplike tails, and legs like Doric columns.  Carnegie wanted something big for Pittsburgh, and he got it in 1899; the Diplodocus his collectors unearthed in southeastern Wyoming that year was the largest dinosaur ever found at the time.  It was an important moment in the Carnegie Museum’s history, establishing it as the premier institution for the collection and exhibition of Jurassic sauropods.

Diplodocus bones had been found before, but this specimen was remarkably complete and the holotype of a new species, which John Bell Hatcher named D. carnegii in honor of the man who signed the checks.  Carnegie was so proud of his namesake dinosaur that when Hatcher published a reconstruction of its skeleton in 1901, the steel magnate had the image framed on the wall of Skibo Castle, his Scotland retreat.  In 1902 King Edward VII paid Carnegie a visit at Skibo, spotted the picture, and decided that the British Museum needed a Diplodocus of its own.

Carnegie was happy to oblige.  His technicians cast the dinosaur’s bones in plaster, along with pieces from other sauropod specimens to fill in what was missing from the 1899 find.  The Diplodocus made its British Museum debut in the Gallery of Reptiles on May 12, 1905.  Carnegie’s remarks for the occasion pitched the dinosaur as a transatlantic link between two countries, emphasizing the connection between the up-and-coming science museums of America and the more established institutions in Britain:

It is doubly pleasing that this should come from the youngest of our museums on the other side to yours, the parent institution of all, for certainly all those in America may be justly considered in one sense your offspring; we have followed you, inspired by your example.…Thus you, Trustees of the old museum, and we, Trustees of the new, are jointly weaving a tie, another link binding in closer embrace the mother and child lands, which never should have been estranged, and which, as I see with the eye of faith which knows no doubt, are some day—some day—again to be reunited.

The skeleton was a sensation, and it wasn’t long before other museums wanted their own Diplodocus copies.  Plaster sauropods became something of a cottage industry in Pittsburgh.  Within a few years, duplicates of Carnegie’s dinosaur stood in Paris, Berlin, Bologna, Vienna, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and the museums of other great cities.  (For more on the backstory of Carnegie’s dinosaur, check out Tom Rea’s fascinating account, from which I pulled the above quote.)

The original specimen went on display back in Pittsburgh, while the London copy moved a couple of times before taking up its current quarters in the central hall in 1979.  That’s where it was in the late eighties, when I saw it as a kid on my first trip overseas.  My parents both taught high school, and used to take their students on field trips to Europe during the summer.  Maybe they decided this would be a good opportunity to give me a learning experience, or maybe they couldn’t find a babysitter willing to put up with me while they went galavanting off to England for ten days.  Either way, I managed to get a trip to the natural history museum out of the deal.  Young dinosaur nut that I was, I got a bigger kick out of Carnegie’s plaster Diplodocus than I did out of the Tower of London or any of the other things I saw.

In fact, there’s quite a bit of irony in my personal connection to Dippy.  After dinosaurs, whales were my second biggest obsession as a young kid.  Along with the Diplodocus, one of my most vivid memories from that trip to England is seeing the whale exhibit in the Large Mammals Hall, including the blue whale skeleton that’s taking Dippy’s place in 2017.  Normally I’d be thrilled to see a new whale mount going up in a museum, but when the whale is knocking a dinosaur off its pedestal I can’t help but be a little miffed.

According to statements released by the NHM, the blue whale will remind visitors of the fragility of life on earth, since even this huge creature is vulnerable to extinction.  I can understand that, but my sentiments are still with those who want to leave Dippy in place.  One of the reasons the dinosaur’s pending relocation has stirred up such strong feelings is the fact that we all have such strong emotional attachments to those places where our earliest moments of discovery happened.

The NHM is thinking about creating a new cast of Dippy for the museum’s grounds, or taking the skeleton on tour.  Those aren’t bad ideas, but I can’t imagine anything more fitting to be the centerpiece of the main hall than a dinosaur.  I’m extremely partial to dinosaurs—as partial as they come—but you don’t have to be a hardcore dino aficionado to realize that there’s just something uniquely transcendent about them.  As paleontologist Robert Bakker has said, dinosaurs “take your mind and they stop it.”  The only response to one of those massive skeletons, whether it’s a plaster cast or not, is to just stop and stare up in awe with our mouths agape and our eyes wide, everything giving way to simple, unfeigned, unmixed, undeniable awe at the notion that such things were real, that they walked the same planet we do now.  For centuries, we’d been telling ourselves stories about dragons and monsters, and then when mankind had finally outgrown these stories, when we’d begun to master time and space and assumed that we’d peeked in all the world’s dark corners and reassured ourselves that there were no dragons lurking there, we started digging in the ground and found out that the dragons had always been there after all, waiting for us.

A whale skeleton might indeed remind NHM visitors that the world needs good stewardship, but if you want an invitation to wonder and curiosity, to the sort of attitude that museums work so hard to cultivate, you just can’t top a dinosaur.  Carnegie and Edward VII knew that, and I hope the folks at the NHM keep it in mind.

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Why the dramatic license in ‘Sons of Liberty’ is a problem

Most people realize, when they’re watching a dramatic work based on some historical event, that they’re not getting a history lesson.  And by this point, I think it’s dawned on most viewers of The History Channel that their chances of seeing historically edifying programming on that network are comparable to their chances of seeing a beluga whale while vacationing in Montana.  Why, then, is the total disregard for accuracy in Sons of Liberty such a big deal?

It’s a big deal because a heck of a lot of people who watched Sons of Liberty while under the impression that they were having an educational experience.  This is not my assumption.  This is a fact.  I know this is the case because I was scrolling along on Twitter while I watched the miniseries, looking at tweets with the #SonsOfLiberty hashtag.  I saw a lot of tweets decrying the show’s misrepresentations, but I saw as many if not more tweets from people who were totally psyched about how much they were “learning,” about how they wished schools would screen the whole thing for students, about how they were getting more information out of the miniseries than they ever did in their history classes, and so on.

Actually, when I first wrote this post, I’d embedded a few dozen of these tweets to prove how pervasive this sense of the series as an educational experience really was.  Since it occurred to me that your average Twitter user probably doesn’t want some blogger to cite him as an example of somebody who mistakes entertainment for edification, however, I decided to leave them out.  So if you want to get a sense of what I’m talking about, just search Twitter for #SonsOfLiberty and the word “learning” or “school” and you’ll find plenty of examples.

It’s worth taking another look at the disclaimer on the series website:

SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please read the Historian’s View section on history.com/sons.

I’m glad for the statement the series is “historical fiction,” but the rest of the disclaimer’s language obscures more than it clarifies.  The series doesn’t “capture the spirit of the time” when it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of British authority in the period leading up to the war.  It doesn’t “convey the personalities of the main characters” when it depicts Hancock as a reluctant dweeb, Gage as a sadistic tyrant, and Sam Adams as a brooding young heartthrob.  And it certainly doesn’t “focus on real events that have shaped our past” when the sequences portraying these iconic events—the destruction of Hutchinson’s house, the Boston Tea Party, Revere’s ride, the firefight at Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill—bear little relation to what actually happened.

In fact, of all the iconic “high points” that figure in the series, I can’t think of a single one depicted accurately enough to be suitable for use even as a visual aid in a classroom.  Some historical films take liberties with chronology and characters, but at least have the virtue of providing a compelling and reasonably useful enactment of particular events.  I’m thinking of the siege of Ft. William Henry in Last of the Mohicans, the O.K. Corral shootout in Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, and the final attack sequence in Glory.  But what point would there be in showing your students Sons of Liberty‘s take on Lexington Green when the whole thing seemingly takes place in a field in the middle of nowhere, with British officers torturing and executing wounded minutemen?  Or screening Paul Revere’s capture when he takes on a whole group of redcoats who have him at gunpoint, like Chuck Norris in a tricorn hat?  Or the Boston Tea Party scene, with Whigs decked out in Lord-of-the-Rings-style orc war paint?

If anything, the short notices aired during commercial breaks, in which The History Channel reminded viewers to log on to the show’s website for the facts behind the story, might have made the whole thing worse.  Viewers who visited the site might have gotten some useful information, but for the many who didn’t, the mini-commercials for the website only lent the whole thing an air of credibility it didn’t have.  Hey, if there’s a companion website with commentary from historical pundits, the show must be pretty legit, right?

Perhaps the liberties taken with the material wouldn’t trouble me so much if the show ran with a disclaimer at the top of every hour, reminding viewers that what they were seeing was fictionalized and only loosely based on real events and people.

In any case, the fact that so many Twitter users took the show as a learning experience indicates that The History Channel still carries an air of authority and authenticity, whether the network’s brass want it or not.  Since that’s the case, they really need to approach their (increasingly rare) historical programming more seriously.  If you want to be nothing but another TV network, fine.  But don’t pretend to be anything else.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory