Monthly Archives: October 2008

Raid on Deerfield: Online history done right

There are many things about the internet which I dislike intensely.  For one thing, it discourages disciplined, linear thought; it’s detrimental to the kind of careful, disciplined reading that’s critical to understanding something.

Still, this flexibility offers tremendous potential.  If you can harness the non-linear, layered, undirected nature of web browsing, then there’s an opportunity to create an in-depth learning experience that would be impossible in traditional media. 

If you want to see a fascinating example of online history at its best, head over to Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704.  This marvelous website allows you to immerse yourself in the story of a devastating Indian attack on a Massachusetts town in the early eighteenth century.  A series of painted scenes reconstruct the event.  Roll your cursor over a scene, and you’ll discover that individual people, buildings, and objects in these images are portals to additional information.  Hyperlinks in the narrative provide as much or as little background information as you need.  Artifacts from the time period are used to illustrate key points.  Timelines, maps, and music put the story in perspective.

It’s difficult to explain this inventive use of technology in words, so click on the link and explore it for yourself.  The research is top-notch, and it’s a near-perfect adaptation of medium to message.

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Filed under Colonial America, History on the Web

New exhibit examines Lincoln the icon

The folks at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, TN have unveiled their latest exhibit, an exploration of the ways advertisers, filmmakers, politicians, and practically everyone have invoked Lincoln in the decades since his death.  “Lincoln in Memory: The 16th President in Personal and Cultural Recollections” relies heavily on original material from the museum’s vast holdings to illustrate Lincoln’s role as a cultural icon.

I got the chance to see this exhibit when it was under construction, and it was a rather surprising experience.  I worked at the ALLM as a student intern and later as a staff member, so I’m pretty familiar with the collection, but this exhibit includes quite a few items that were new to me.  It’s an impressive assemblage of Lincolniana: movie posters, original pop art, ads, calendars, propaganda, etc.

A brief description of the exhibit is available here at the museum’s website.  I strongly recommend a visit.  The ALLM has one of the finest Lincoln/Civil War collections anywhere, and it’s just a stone’s throw from the beautiful Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

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

Confederate heritage controversy? Bring on the amateurs!

In 1959, a new school named for Nathan Bedford Forrest opened in Jacksonville, FL, and now you know where this story is going.  Since Forrest wasn’t exactly a poster boy for modern American cultural niceties, there’s a push to rename the school for somebody a little more warm and fuzzy.  A couple of days ago, the Duval County School Board decided to settle the matter once and for all on November 3.

Personally, I don’t care one way or the other whether the school keeps its name or not.  I understand why the name offends some people, but I can also sympathize with those who prefer to leave it alone for tradition’s sake.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think any historical figure will be either lesser or greater because of what we think of him.

I’m bringing this up simply because the article that brought it to my attention has convinced me that it’s downright hilarious.  Here’s my favorite part:

The school’s name has been a spark of contention for years. But it became an official issue in the fall of 2006 when Steven Stoll, a professor of sociology at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, presented his research on Forrest to the School Board. In April 2007, Forrest’s School Advisory Council voted 8-6 to rename it Firestone High, after the street where the school is located.  A 19th century slave trader and planter, Forrest rose through the Confederate army ranks from private to lieutenant general and later became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, that’s right.  Thanks to the diligent research of a sociology instructor at the local community college, we now know that Forrest was in fact a slave trader, a Confederate officer, and a leader of the KKK.

Professor Stoll and the board members do understand that this is pretty common knowledge, right?  I mean, I’m not sure I’d characterize this as “research.”  I’m imagining this guy pulling up the Wikipedia article on Forrest and exclaiming, “Holy crap–this guy was a CONFEDERATE GENERAL?!?!  I thought that school was named for an astronaut!  Quick, somebody get the superintendent on the phone!”

But wait, it gets even better.  The procession of experts continues, and Forrest fans have a first-rate rebuttal witness: “Bodie Catlin, owner of a truck accessories retailer who speaks publicly about Confederate history, has been an outspoken supporter of keeping the school’s name and said Forrest was a man of his time who was ‘nice’ to his slaves.”  Oh.  In that case, I guess it’s no big deal.

Is Civil War commemoration a hoot, or what?


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Lewis & Clark Coming to HBO

This morning I caught part of a CBS interview with actor Edward Norton.  I didn’t know about this before today, but he and Brad Pitt are developing a ten-part HBO miniseries based on Undaunted Courage, the bestselling account of the Lewis and Clark expedition by Stephen Ambrose.  Apparently it’s been in the works for some time.  Check out this release from last summer.

 I headed over to the Internet Movie Database to see if I could find anything on this project.  I didn’t, but I did run across one interesting bit of trivia.  It turns out Norton has a B.A. in history from Yale.

Some of the best historical productions of the past few years have been developed for TV, and the miniseries format is perfect for large-scale epics.  This ought to be well worth watching.


Filed under History and Memory

The Patriot: Considering Creative License

My mom is a high school principal and English teacher, and from time to time she uses film clips in her classes to liven things up.  Her American Lit students are doing a unit on the Revolution, so the other day she asked to borrow my DVD copy of The Patriot, intending to show a scene or two just to set the mood.  To her surprise, the students really got into it, and they ended up watching quite a bit.

Very few of my fellow Rev War buffs seem to share my positive view of this film.  In fact, several years ago I attended a fine symposium on the Revolutionary War in the South, and one thing shared by practically every attendee with whom I spoke was a strong dislike for this movie.

It’s not hard to understand their dissatisfaction.  The Patriot plays pretty fast and loose with the historical record of the Revolution in the Carolinas.  Here are some examples:

The chronology is warped beyond all recognition.  The film begins sometime around the run-up to independence, then jumps forward to the fall of Charleston.  This places most of the action after May 1780, but a subsequent montage seems to show the much earlier encampment at Valley Forge.  Furthermore, the DVD menu identifies the climactic battle as Cowpens, which took place in January 1781, but a bit of dialogue places this sequence in October.

That last battle merits some additional attention.  Although it’s supposedly Cowpens (depicted here in a rather inaccurate painting), it bears a closer resemblance to the larger battle at Guilford Courthouse.  Cornwallis is in command during this sequence, but he was not present at Cowpens.  Nor was Nathanael Greene, who is depicted leading a council of American officers on the eve of the battle.  The film’s Greene also seems to have a southern accent, while the historical Greene was from Rhode Island.

An earlier sequence depicts the American defeat at Camden in August 1780.  In the film, this battle unfolds across a picturesque open field.  The actual engagement took place in a swampy, wooded area.  Furthermore, the movie’s Continentals flee this battle en masse; in actuality, the militia ran in the face of British bayonets, abandoning the Continentals under Johann de Kalb.  On a side note, de Kalb’s wounds in the battle cost him his life, and his remains lie in a Camden churchyard.  On my first trip there in 2001 I visited his grave, and was surprised to find a small movie theater just down the street where The Patriot was showing.  It’s a small world.

Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin character is a mish-mash of several backcountry commanders.  The most obvious parallel is Francis Marion, visible in the center of this painting.  An early draft of the script actually had Marion as its star.  Like Marion, Martin is a partisan commander who takes refuge in the South Carolina swamps.  Martin loses a son named Gabriel in battle; Marion lost a nephew by that name.  Yet Martin also bears a similarity to Thomas Sumter, who took up arms when British troops burned his home.  Martin commands the militia at Cowpens, a role performed in actuality by Andrew Pickens.  At the same time, he devises a defense in depth, with the militia firing two volleys before retiring to the rear.  Here Martin becomes a fictional Daniel Morgan, the rough-and-tumble commander whose skillful use of militia and regular troops at Cowpens ended with a tactical masterpiece.

For an eighteenth-century planter, Benjamin Martin is a pretty progressive guy when it comes to race.  He owns no slaves, relying on free blacks to work on his farm.  When a slaveowner signs over one of his laborers to serve in the militia, Martin insists that the slave sign up for himself.  In actuality, Thomas Sumter used the confiscated slaves of Tories to pay enlistment bounties.

Col. William Tavington, the film’s villain, is obviously based on Banastre Tarleton, the notoriously aggressive young commander of the British Legion depicted in the portrait at right.  Tarleton’s unsavory reputation in the Carolinas is the stuff of legend today, and made great fodder for American propaganda at the time.  Compared to his fictional counterpart, however, he was an absolute Boy Scout.  Tavington shoots a young boy in cold blood, burns civilians alive in a locked church, and (in a deleted scene available on the DVD)supervises the torture of captured American militiamen.  Tavington dies a particularly unpleasant death at Cowpens/Guilford.  Tarleton’s independent command at the real Cowpens was a disaster, but he survived, and in fact was one of the few British soldiers to escape the field.  He suffered a nasty hand wound at Guilford but served through Yorktown, returning to England to live to a ripe old age.  Although he never again saw active command, he was made a general in 1812.

In the film, Cornwallis and Tavington keep up a running feud.  In reality, Cornwallis relied heavily on Tarleton during the Carolina campaigns of 1780-81 and lavished him with praise on numerous occasions.

In other words, The Patriot takes place in a wartime South Carolina that’s similar to, but hardly identical with, the real thing.  To me, that’s no big deal.

Dramatic works operate by their own logic.  We judge them based on whether they’re credible, not whether they’re factual.  It’s only when their creators present them as “the truth” that they become legitimate targets for this type of criticism.  Screenwriter Robert Rodat slapped the “based on a true story” label on the script draft mentioned above, but the finished movie makes no such claim.  In fact, by changing the namesof characters and the details of certain events, the filmmakers assert their intention to present us with a fictional story rather than a reconstruction of history.

Most of the movie’s discrepancies are the result of conscious choices, not errors, and in the context of drama they make pretty good sense.  The movie’s approach to slavery, for example, garnered some especially harsh criticism.  But I don’t think an American audience could have sympathized with a slaveowning hero, no matter how common the practice in the film’s actual setting.  It was a sensible choice to serve the goal of telling a story.

Whether or not that story works is a matter of taste, and of the principles of plot and character, action and setting, and all the other factors by which movies either succeed or fail.  The world of The Patriot isn’t exactly the same as the world I’ve found in the historical record, but for a few hours, at least, it’s a pretty compelling place to be.

(I obtained the images here from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain Biography Released

I was in a bookstore earlier today and found, to my surprise and delight, that David Hackett Fischer’s Champlain’s Dream is now available.  In my opinion, Dr. Fischer is simply the finest American historian working today, simply because he does so many different types of history incredibly well. 

His range is considerable; he’s written about everything from early American folkways to economic trends.  His research is always exhaustive, his conclusions are unfailingly provocative and insightful, and as a writer he has few equals.  I particularly recommend Fischer’s two accounts of pivotal events during the Revolution: Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing.  If you’re skeptical of the scholarly possibilities of narrative history, these two books will change your mind. 

Check out Simon & Schuster’s website for Champlain’s Dream to read an excerpt.

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Filed under Colonial America, Historiography

A few suggestions for the Walt Disney Co.

My last post dealt with the unlikely subject of history at Disney theme parks.  I didn’t know this before I started looking into it online, but Disney’s America was apparently Michael Eisner’s pet project, and it died pretty hard.  When the Prince William County site fell through, there was some discussion about building the park near D.C., or at the site of Knott’s Berry Farm, a defunct amusement park in California.

Given the popular interest in history, there’s always the chance that the Mouse may take another stab at heritage tourism.  The Florida property is twice the size of Manhattan, so there’s plenty of room for another park.  With that in mind, and with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, I suggest the following attraction ideas:

  • JEB Stuart’s Merry-Go-Round.  Little Billy and Susie can enjoy a carefree ride around the Army of the Potomac while Mom and Dad take in some shopping.
  • Great Depression Land.  The centerpiece would be the Crash of ’29 thrill ride, in which guests are strapped into chairs at the base of a metal tower, propelled up to the top, and then plummeted back down to the bottom.  Next door would be the Soup Kitchen Cafe, completely authentic–except for the exorbitant theme park prices. 
  • The Rootin’ Tootin’ Transcontinental Railroad.
  • The Hunley Undersea Adventure.  Think 20,000 Leagues without the legroom, and then add a bang at the end.
  • The House of Burger-sses.  Give me a side of fries or give me death.
  • The Haunted Executive Mansion.  A tour of the White House turns into a nightmare when the specter of Honest Abe returns to seek his revenge. 

I talked this theme park idea over with a friend of mine, and he came up with a few other ideas:

  • General Burnside’s Wild Side Burn Ride.
  • The Johnstown Flood Log Flume.
  • The Irish-Need-Not-Apply Job Fair and Country Bear Jamboree.

Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Hap-Hap-Happiest Preservation Victory of All

The story of Disney’s America is probably familiar to most of you.  Back in the early nineties, Disney planned to build an American history-themed amusement park in Prince William County, VA.  The notion of a plastic interpretation of our nation’s heritage in an area rich with actual history and undeveloped landscapes sparked quite an uproar, and ultimately the preservationists sent Mickey scurrying back to corporate headquarters with his skinny black tail between his legs. 

Although the proposed park went the way of the Wicked Queen and her poisoned apple, some of the publicity and planning materials made their way onto the World Wide Web.  I won’t actually post them here, since we’re talking about the same company that once sued a day care center for painting Mickey and friends on their walls.  Instead, I’ll offer a few links where you can see them for yourself.

Wikipedia offers a map and a description of some of the proposed attractions, including a family farm with hands-on learning experiences, a recreation of the Monitor-Virginia battle, and an Ellis Island area with “a great live show presentation.”  I’m not sure what constitutes a live show presentation at Ellis Island, but I’m envisioning lines of Eastern Europeans in drab clothing who suddenly break out into song and dance–sort of like the immigration scene from the Broadway musical Ragtime, only more upbeat.  As for the others, a petting zoo seems kind of low-key for a Disney park, and as much as I’d like to see some ironclads in action, I don’t know if I could stand in the sun that long.

Here’s a website with conceptual artwork by Disney planners.  The Industrial Revolution seems like an unlikely basis for a roller coaster, but the image here looks pretty impressive.  Who says the Progressive Era can’t be fun?

Like most history buffs, I look back on the defeat of Disney’s America with tremendous relief.  Northern Virginia isn’t the place for a theme park.  Furthermore, Disney’s post-Walt efforts at historical interpretation leave quite a bit to be desired.  I want to stress that I’m not opposed to theme parks on principle.  Quite the opposite; Orlando was an annual pilgrimage destination for my family, and I used to devour the guidebooks to learn about the new rides every year.  I still head down to Disney World and Universal when I’m able, and it’s an experience I enjoy.  You may not appreciate the unceasing bombardment of zip-a-dee-doo-dah optimism, but the degree to which the park designers immerse their visitors in a three-dimensional world of enormous scope and intricate detail is an impressive achievement.

My problem with Disney history is based on the content of their presentations.  Take the American Adventure at Epcot, seen here in a photo from Wikimedia Commons (and therefore most assuredly in the public domain, thank you very much).  It’s a theater presentation that combines animatronic figures, moving sets, and film to tell a slapdash version of American history from the Pilgrims to the present day.  It combines the cliches of cherished myths with the banalities of politically-correct inclusiveness.  It comes across as superficial and rather thoughtless. 

We get the troops huddled around the campfire at Valley Forge and the can-do attitude of Rosie the Riveter, juxtaposed with the pessimistic lamentations of Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, and Susan B. Anthony.  The show is neither hot nor cold; the generally rosy approach trivializes the somber moments, while these somber moments in turn dampen the inspirational qualities of the positive scenes.  Our triumphs and our failures are all mixed up together, and there’s no effort to make sense of it. 

I’m certainly not trying to say that any presentation of American history must choose between the positive and the negative.  I do think, however, that a production of this scale should give us something more than a pageant of America’s Greatest Hits with occasional tragic interludes.  The American Adventure gives me the impression that the planners really wanted to wave the flag, but felt obligated to deal with our national sins, and so they threw in all the pieces without trying to fit them together.

I’ll continue to visit both historic sites and theme parks, but for different reasons and in proper proportion.  A little junk food in moderation won’t kill you, as long as you can distinguish real food from empty calories.  Disney’s America struck me as an attempt to give us a huge slice of birthday cake while telling us it was a good, square meal.  Its downfall wasn’t just a victory of preserving one historic region’s physical integrity.  It was a victory over the entertainment industry’s attempts to redefine and package truth and authenticity.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory

Lincoln’s Alive and Well in Galesburg

Knox College in Galesburg, IL was the site of the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate and conferred an honorary degree to Lincoln in 1860.  Now it’s home to the Lincoln Studies Center, directed by two fine scholars, Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson.  Knox is therefore the ideal place for a whole slew of events  to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the debates this year and the Lincoln bicentennial in ’09.

This weekend Knox is hosting the Lincoln Colloquium, with presentations by James McPherson, Allen Guelzo, and Garry Wills, among others.  The local paper has a story about it here.  Steven Wilson (A Novel Idea of History ) is headed up for the festivities and generously offered me the chance to tag along. 

I was hoping to head up to Galesburg, listen to the presentations, hobnob a little, and then return with a stack of signed books under one arm and an account for your edification and amusement under the other.  Then circumstances got in the way, so it looks like I’ll be spending the weekend closer to home.  Hopefully Steven will fill us in on the details when he gets back.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War

Happy Battle of King’s Mountain Anniversary

I don’t know why the Revolutionary War in the Carolina backcountry fascinates me, but fascinate me it does, like no other place or period in history.  I’m particularly mesmerized by the small but significant partisan battle that raged on King’s Mountain on this date in 1780. 

Sadly, I won’t be celebrating at the battle site this year, but at least I can extend to you all my virtual best wishes and a hearty recommendation to visit King’s Mountain National Military Park for yourself.  It’s a very distinctive battlefield on a small wooded ridge, in a lovely, rural area near the North Carolina-South Carolina line.  The visitor center exhibit is fantastic, and Cowpens is a mere thirty-five miles away.

(The image of the Centennial Monument is from a website maintained by the NPS.)


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory