Monthly Archives: August 2008

Battlefield Webcams

Yes, now you can visit Little Bighorn and Gettysburg without leaving the comfort and safety of your home or office.  As much as I love this stuff, these webcams didn’t hold my attention for too long.  Now, if they’d had these cameras up during the fighting. . .

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Filed under Civil War, History on the Web

Shelby Foote: The Writer as Historian

Last night Book TV re-aired a three-hour interview with the late Shelby Foote, filmed in the study of his Memphis home.  (It’s available online here.)  I’d already seen it and didn’t intend to watch it again, but after a few minutes I was hooked.  Of course, Foote made his living by hooking people with his stories, but I found the viewers who called in as interesting as Foote himself.

To me, “writer” and “author” have different connotations.  The term “writer” connotes an artist whose medium is language, while “author” connotes an expert, an “authority.”  Most of the callers approached Foote as the latter. A great many addressed him as “Dr. Foote,” and there were a lot of the big questions that professional historians tackle: What happened to the soldiers after 1865?  How would you assess Hood’s generalship? 

Many professional historians, of course, have criticized Foote heavily; historians are as jealous of their guild as any other professionals.  I believe their anger is misplaced.  Foote never pretended to be anything but what he was: a writer who happened to write about the Civil War, in which he had an intense interest and about which he knew a great deal.  By titling his three-volume work The Civil War: A Narrative, he deflected the charges of pretension that so many have leveled at him.  One caller, in fact, noted that Foote was more properly a storyteller in the Homeric mold than a scholar, and Foote thanked him for the compliment.

I remarked that Foote fielded a lot of big questions during the program.  What was really remarkable, though, was the fact that no question was too small to be asked.  A surprisingly large number of callers wanted to know where to find information about ancestors who served in the war.  Some asked about connections between the war and their communities.  People considered Foote an authority, but an approachable one.  His success as a historian wasn’t in spite of his status as a writer, but because of it.

Today there are few historians who have both the authority’s expertise and the writer’s talent.  David Hackett Fischer is one of them; James McPherson is another.  Until there are more, the people who have the most impact on the public’s understanding of history will be the storytellers of the page and the screen who can connect with hearts and minds.  Foote did it better than most, and I think his standing as both authority and writer was well-deserved.

(The photo is from the Mississippi Writers Page of the University of Mississippi’s English Department, a great source of information about Foote.)


Filed under Civil War, Historiography

Wal-Mart Threatens Wilderness Battlefield

What’s the only thing worse than a new chain store in a rural area?  A new chain store in a rural area that’s also the site of a significant battlefield.  Wal-Mart has the Wilderness in their sights.  John Maass has some of the details.  Luckily, the Civil War Preservation Trust is gearing up for the fight.  Visit their website and find out how you can help.

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Traces of Jamestown

The AP has just released a story about some significant finds at Jamestown, including a rare contemporary depiction of a Powhatan Indian.  Check out this Virginia news site for details and a slide show.


Filed under Colonial America

The Revolutionary War on film

I’ve been looking up early American course syllabi recently to see if I’m on track with my ideas for teaching a colonial course this fall.  Not long ago I ran across a website with teaching resources, including a list of films dealing with early American history. 

For reasons I’ve never understood, the Revolution hasn’t fared well on the silver screen.  There are a few period films that I enjoy watching.  1776 remains a personal favorite of mine, because it helps restore some of the suspense and urgency that two and a half centuries have worn away from the debate over independence.  I’ve also got to confess that I’m a fan of The Patriot.  It’s a compelling story told well, and it focuses on the critical war in the South, even if it plays fast and loose with the facts.  A&E’s made-for-TV films The Crossing and Benedict Arnold: A Queston of Honor also deserve an honorable mention.  I haven’t seen HBO’s Adams miniseries yet, but I’ve heard some great feedback.  Still, the Revolutionary War can’t match the Civil War or WWII in terms of number and quality of film adaptations.

This hasn’t always been the case.  As the filmography at the above website shows, the Revolutionary War was a pretty popular subject during the infancy of moving pictures.  From the early 1900’s to the 1920’s, filmmakers were turning out Revolutionary War stories at a surprisingly high rate.  Similar projects often appeared close to the same time: Paul Revere and Nathan Hale were both popular subjects in the 1910’s, and Francis Marion got his own film in 1911 and again in 1914. 

It’s clear that moviemakers were interested in the Revolution from the first days of putting stories on film.  It’s also clear that interest in making Revolutionary War films didn’t keep up with this initial burst of enthusiasm.

There are a lot of stories from the War of Independence I’d like to see on the screen, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon. lists quite a few WWII movies in the works, but I couldn’t find any Revolutionary War-related projects in any genre.  Maybe the current Founding Fathers craze will bring more filmmakers around.


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

A Rev War blog casualty

John Maass has decided to discontinue his blog, A Student of History.  Since Dr. Maass has done some interesting work on the Revolution in the South, I followed his blog with interest and I’m sorry to see it go.  One of his projects was a study of the Battle of Camden, and oddly enough, the 228th anniversary is tomorrow.

(Tip of the hat to Wikimedia for the Camden engraving.)

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Filed under American Revolution, History on the Web

The Park Service Strikes Back

Gettysburg National Military Park Superintendent John Latschar isn’t taking all the uproar over the new Museum and Visitor Center lying down.  Check out his thoughtful response to the critics, to which Kevin Levin refers over at his Civil War Memory blog.

Latschar’s remarks underscore the importance of audience and aims.  A visitor center at a major site like Gettysburg can’t cater solely to hardcore experts.  To do so would be a dereliction of duty.  I think it’s perfectly valid to question whether or not the NPS achieved its goal of educating the average visitor, but to question whether that goal itself its valid misses the point of museum exhibits and of historic sites in general.


Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

More joys of public history

Let’s assume you’re a convicted mail-bomber who’s currently enjoying the hospitality of the federal government.  Imagine your surprise when you open the Washington Post and find that Washington, D.C.’s Newseum has a special exhibit (“G-Men and Journalists”) about the evolving relationship between the media and the FBI–and the centerpiece is the cabin in which you lived.

So what do you do?  Well, if you’re Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, you send a letter of protest to a federal court.  According to this news story, Kaczynski thinks the exhibit violates his victims’ wishes to avoid undue publicity.  How thoughtful.

Besides the Unabomber cabin, “G-Men and Journalists” includes Hoover’s desk, Dillinger’s death mask, and the electric chair that killed Bruno Hauptmann.  Controversies aside, this looks like a fascinating exhibition for anybody interested in the history of American law enforcement.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Ah, the joys of public history

Kevin Levin has been following the story about the SCV’s proposal for a Jefferson Davis monument at Tredegar’s American Civil War Center.  According to his latest update, the museum’s board will be juggling this hot potato in a few days.

Whatever the final decision, it’s guaranteed to upset somebody.  Either the SCV will condemn the museum for being revisionist, or their opponents will rake them over the coals for bowing to pressure.  I pity the poor museum employee who’ll be charged with soothing all the offended parties.  Now you know why I’m glad to be spending the next two semesters in the classroom.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Sad news from Gettysburg

A locust tree on Cemetery Hill, one of the few remaining trees that stood on the field in 1863, toppled over during a nasty storm a few days ago.  This brief news story has a few details.

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