Monthly Archives: March 2009

Surprise! I’m here to see your archives!

As I’ve said before, I used to do curatorial work at a Lincoln/Civil War museum.  The collection was large and had a lot of first-rate material, including a substantial amount of archival matter.  At the same time, though, it had a small staff, and if you work at a small museum you wear a lot of hats.  This combination of an extensive and significant collection with a small institution meant that I got some fantastic public history experience.  I tried a little of everything.

One of the things I got to try was archival work.  I’m not a professional archivist, not by any means.  For a short time, though, our museum was without a full-time archival manager.  During that interval, I got to fill in as a sort of substitute archivist, in addition to performing my other duties.

That period taught me a lot of things that came in handy when I went on to do research of my own in other collections.  It’s much easier to navigate a manuscript collection when you’ve seen firsthand how they’re organized and maintained. 

And I got to see how different types of researchers behave.  On the one hand, I got to work with some first-rate historians.  I got to help them assemble the material that went into their articles and books, and it was an absolute blast.

On the other hand, I got to deal with researchers who provided me with negative examples.  I could fill several posts with these experiences, and I might do so.  For the present, though, let me focus on the most irritating class of specimen I encountered.  I like to call this type the “Unannounced Guest.”

You can spot these folks from a mile away.  They show up at your institution unannounced, without calling, e-mailing, or writing before they drive miles and miles to access your collection.

When they arrive, they’re like wide-eyed kids in the wilderness.  They don’t know what they’re looking for.  They can’t articulate the scope of their research, and it becomes obvious that they aren’t familiar with your holdings.  They can’t explain what they want, and they don’t know whether or not you’ve got it.  You end up doing most of the legwork for them, trying to sort through vast amounts of material in search of…well, you’re never exactly sure what.

They’re almost guaranteed to be totally unfamiliar with the institution’s research and duplication policies.  All this is available online, of course, or could be obtained by contacting the place ahead of time.  But they walk in cold, completely bewildered, and utterly unprepared.

In short, they’re wasting both your time and their own.  They’re broadcasting the fact that they’re either not serious about what they’re doing, or that they’re not competent to do it.

Ladies and gents, take this advice from somebody who’s been on both sides of the vault door.  In this day and age, you can easily get online and access contact information, hours, policies, and a description of holdings for most repositories.  There is simply no reason for any researcher to walk into an institution unheralded, without any notion of what’s there or how to find it.

Collection custodians are professionals, and they’re usually overworked.  Nothing will infuriate them like showing up out of the blue and throwing their entire working day out of kilter.  (Even a simple phone call a few hours ahead of time can make a world of difference to a busy archivist.)  And nothing will convince them that you don’t have any business handling the materials in their charge like coming across as an inconsiderate doofus.

Your level of preparation isn’t just important to the archivist, though.  If you’re serious about research, it should be important to you, too.  There is so much to read, so much to digest, so much to consult, but your time in the collection is finite.  You’ve got to make the most of it.  You can’t afford to squander it on a wild goose chase through an entire institution’s holdings.

Your time as a researcher and the archivist’s time as a professional are very precious, limited commodities.  Use them both wisely.

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Hearing Lincoln

Here’s one of my historical pet peeves.  The next time you’re watching a movie or documentary about Lincoln, pay attention to the reconstruction of his speaking voice.  Filmmakers and producers rarely get this right. 

If you read accounts by people who knew Lincoln, you’ll find that the one word used more than any other to describe his voice is “shrill.”  Tell that to all the voice-over artists who’ve subjected us to Walter-Cronkite-doing-Lincoln over the years.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of dialect and pronunciation.  Diarist George Templeton Strong was present when Lincoln shared one of his humorous anecdotes during a conversation about slavery.  This is how he reconstructed it:

‘Wa-al,’ says Abe Lincoln, ‘that reminds me of a party of Methodist parsons that was travelling in Illinois when I was a boy thar and had a branch to cross that was pretty bad—ugly to cross, ye know, because the water was up.  And they got considerin’ and discussin’ how they should git across it, and they talked about for two hours, and one on ’em thought they had ought to cross one way when they got there, and another another way, and they got quarrellin’ about it, till at last an old brother put in, and he says, says he, “Brethren, this here talk ain’t no use.  I never cross a river until I come to it.”‘¹

I’ve never understood why so many film portrayals fumble this.  Maybe it’s just simple ignorance.   If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t expect the figure gazing down from the throne in the Lincoln Memorial to blurt out “git across it.”  Or maybe, when we read all those written words that have become our national scripture, we’re uncomfortable with the notion of their author being an unpolished backwoodsman.  (Nothing screams “ignoramus” to us modern-day Americans like a pronounced regional dialect, us being the shallow and vain creatures that we are.)

Enough with the newscaster Lincolns.  Show us the backwoods Kentuckian, the one with the first-grade education, whose sagacity and eloquence rivaled that of every White House occupant before or since.

(Lincoln photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

¹George Templeton Strong, Diary of the Civil War, 1860-1865, ed. Allan Nevins (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), 204-05.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

A look behind the banner

Ah, the banner—that nifty picture strip that runs along the top of so many sites and blogs with a dash of personalized flair.  Maybe you’ve been wondering where I got mine.  If you guessed that it’s from Lloyd Branson’s painting Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals, 1780, now in the fabulous Tennessee State Museum, then give yourself a pat on the back.

Branson was born in East Tennessee in 1854, studied at the National Academy of Design, and travelled in Europe before returning home to become one of his state’s most accomplished artists of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Like many of his contemporaries, Branson mostly did portraits, but occasionally he produced landscapes and historic scenes like this one.   

Here’s the best digital version of the painting that I could locate, from the website of another fine (but much more recent) Tennessee artist, Bill Puryear:

Sycamore Shoals, now a state park, is a shallow stretch of the Watauga River in present-day Elizabethton and the site of several significant events in early Tennessee history.  Probably the most famous of these events is the one depicted here, the muster of the militia from present-day Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia on September 25-26, 1780 that marked the beginning of the King’s Mountain expedition.  Pick up any book that deals with King’s Mountain or with the first Tennessee settlements, and you’re likely to find an evocative description of the muster—the overmountain men wearing their hunting shirts and leaning on their rifles, the women gathered to see them off, and Rev. Samuel Doak delivering his famous “Sword of the Lord and Gideon” sermon before the march.  (The other notable Sycamore Shoals moments were the formation of Tennessee’s first proto-government, the treaty conference at which the Cherokees sold much of present-day Kentucky and the lands on which the East Tennessee settlements stood, and an Indian attack on nearby Ft. Watauga.)  When I was shopping around for an image to embellish the top of the blog, this seemed like an abvious choice.  You’ve got your American Revolution, and you’ve got your East Tennessee setting. 

Lately I considered finding a new picture to spruce things up a little, but I finally decided not to, partly because this painting touches on a few of my main interests.  Furthermore, I think you can read into it some valuable lessons about the practice of history in general. 

For example, this is a military scene, but it’s situated far from the actual battlefield.  The fighting men are surrounded by their wives, children, and neighbors.  It’s a reminder that wars happen within the framework of the societies that wage them, and you’ve got to understand that context to understand the war. 

At the same time, however, the painting undeniably and unapologetically focuses on a military turning point.  This isn’t an everyday scene from life on the Tennessee frontier, it’s an occasion in which armed men intervened decisively in a particular historical episode.  Battles are important because they decide great issues.

Here’s another observation.  Important figures are visible in the painting; Isaac Shelby, an architect of the King’s Mountain expedition, is in the foreground.  At the same time, though, most of the people in the picture are anonymous.  Their faces are barely visible; we can see that they’re present, but so much about them is unknown.  They held no high rank in the battle, and they filled no major office after the war, unlike Shelby and fellow King’s Mountain officer John Sevier, both of whom went on to become governors.  History is made by the actions of a few great men as well as the aggregate actions of many anonymous ones.

In a lot of ways, it’s a very traditional image, depicting as it does an event that’s glorified in so many heroic nineteenth-century narratives.  But it’s also realisitc, not nearly as idealized and stylized as some of the very earliest depictions of Revolutionary War scenes.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what meanings Branson wanted to convey when he painted the muster at Sycamore Shoals.  But I like the fact that his painting includes so much of what makes up the sum total of history—war and peace, leaders and followers, the traditions that have become familiar and the surprisingly complex realities underneath.


Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Piedmont history on the battlefield’s doorstep

My string of Guilford Courthouse-related posts is finally coming to a close, with this last historic site review from my jaunt over to North Carolina.  The final site in this batch is Tannenbaum Historic Park in Greensboro, managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, which is just a stone’s throw away.

Two centuries ago, this park was part of the Joseph Hoskins farm.  Hoskins was a sort of Revolutionary War version of Wilmer McLean, the fellow who moved from the battlefield of First Bull Run only to end up hosting Lee’s surrender at his parlor in Appomattox.  In the 1770’s Hoskins lived near Valley Forge, while Washington’s army was keeping an eye on British-occupied Philadelphia.  He then migrated to the North Carolina backcountry, settling near the site of Guilford County’s small courthouse.  On March 15, 1781, Cornwallis used his farm as a staging area, forming his troops there before sending them forward against Greene’s lines, posted just across the fields.

I headed over to THP after touring the battlefield and grabbing some lunch.  My plan was to breeze through the place in half an hour or so and then rush over to hit Alamance Battleground before closing time.  Things didn’t work out that way.  I never made it to Alamance, because I didn’t know there was so much to see at Tannenbaum.  It’s nothing less than a trip through the entire early history of the Carolina Piedmont.

 The park encompasses about seven acres of the farmsite, with a few early nineteenth-century buildings typical of those found in the area.  It’s also home to the Colonial Heritage Center, a museum devoted to life in the early backcountry and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.  The Heritage Center is a fantastic little museum, brimming over with information on the region’s early history—its settlement, politics, religion, architecture, and trade.  It’s a great overview of the backcountry and the perfect way to contextualize your visit to the battlefield.  History buffs will admire the research backing up the exhibit narrative, while parents with kids will appreciate the models and interactive elements that illustrate different aspects of backcountry life.  It’s a much more detailed and insightful examination of the Carolinas’ hilly interior during the late eighteenth century than you’ll find in most museums.

In addition to the main gallery, there’s also a separate room devoted to the battle.  The centerpiece here is a wonderful diorama, accompanied by a very effective recorded narration and electronic presentation that clearly explains the deployments and the way the battle unfolded.  Along the walls are a series of gorgeous paintings of the battle by Dale Gallon, as well as other objects that illustrate various aspects of the war.  (Click here to see Gallon’s depiction of the Hoskins farm as it appeared when used as a launching pad for the British attack.)

Unfortunately, none of the buildings that were on the property during the battle remain today.  There is, however, an 1813 house used by the Hoskins family, a restored barn, and a couple of reconstructed free-standing buildings and gardens.  It’s a rare chance to see the types of structures that were once common in the backcountry but often disappeared or were altered beyond recognition.

A lot of what you’ll see at the park is due to the dedicated efforts of the Guilford Battleground Company, which spearheaded its creation and now supports the operations both there and at the national battlefield.  I highly recommend that you visit their website and have a look at what they’ve done and are continuing to do.  They deserve both your gratitude and your support.

I recommend, too, that you make an effort to visit Tannenbaum Historic Park.  My suggestion is to give yourself a good part of the day to see both Tannenbaum and Guilford Courthouse.  Go to THP first, and plan on spending about an hour and a half there to take in all the exhibits before touring the military park.  You’ll appreciate the battlefield more when you understand something of the surrounding region and its people, a people whose history neither began nor ended when their homes became the seat of war.


Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

A battlefield you shouldn’t miss

My apologies to those of you who are sick of hearing me talk about the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, but I’m afraid you’ll have to indulge me a little more. 

As I said in my last post, I’m going to start offering some informal reviews of historic sites and museums that I visit.  I made Guilford the centerpiece of my trip to North Carolina this week, having been forced to cancel my plans to attend the anniversary festivities.  I’d been a couple of times before, but hadn’t been been able to devote as much time to walking the ground as I did on this visit.

Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro, NC was the site of a genuinely pivotal battle of the American Revolution.  After splitting his army (part of which won an impressive victory at Cowpens in January 1781), Nathanael Greene successfully reunited his forces and evaded a determined pursuit by Lord Cornwallis across North Carolina, finally reaching safety across the Dan River in Virginia.  Greene then returned to North Carolina, his army substantially reinforced, and offered battle to Cornwallis at the small crossroads village of Guilford Courthouse on March 15.  Greene posted his men in three successive lines, militia composing the first two lines and regulars his third, with riflemen and cavalry on his flanks.  The British drove Greene from the field after prolonged and savage fighting, but at a staggering cost.  Cornwallis marched to Wilmington to refit his shattered army, and finally decided that he’d had enough of the Carolinas.  He took his bloodied force to Virginia, only to lose it at Yorktown in October.  Guilford was thus an essential step along the road to final American victory.

In many ways, Guilford isn’t your typical southern Rev War site.  King’s Mountain, Cowpens, and Ninety-Six are all in rural areas, but the city of Greensboro has GCH surrounded.  Furthermore, the woods on the preserved areas of the field are much more extensive than they were in 1781.  Throw in the fact that this was a particularly confused and sprawling battle, and you’ve got quite a challenge facing the National Park Service interpreters.  They’ve overcome these challenges admirably.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the park’s Visitor Center.  I’m not sure you can appreciate what the NPS has accomplished with its exhibit at Guilford unless you’ve actually faced the propsect of telling a complicated story using artifacts in a small space.  I’ve tried to do so, but I’ve never come close to succeeding to the degree that the designers of the Guilford exhibit have. 

The visitor center is a small building, and just a portion of it is devoted to the exhibit gallery.  Within that confined area, the NPS tells the story of the coming of the Revolution to the backcountry, the strategic situation that preceded the battle, eighteenth-century military life, the engagement itself, the aftermath, and the way the battle has been remembered.  And the exhibit conveys all this with perfect clarity, without sacrificng substance.  Managing all this within such severe space limitations is a remarkable accomplishment, and rarely have I seen it done so creatively.  For instance, when the exhibit turns to the fighting of the battle itself, you’ll step over to a large window wall above a row of panels on the militia who fought on the first line.  You’ll find that the designers have incorporated this window into the exhibit, describing the militia’s retreat across the very ground you’re seeing, with silhouettes of the fleeing soldiers positioned outside.  It’s an ingenious use of the building’s layout.  And there’s plenty of fascinating original material on display—officers’ personal belongings, common soldiers’ tools, musical instruments, and archaeological artifacts.

The visitor center also features a map program and film, both of which are extremely helpful in making sense of this complex engagement.  There’s a good selection of books in the gift shop, from overviews of the Revolution to more specialized military and regional studies.

One of the interesting things about Guilford is the fact that when efforts to preserve the field began, North Carolina intended to turn it into a kind of one-stop destination to commemorate the state’s role in the Revolution.  You’ll find monuments to Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence and markers commemorating other aspects of the state’s experience in the Revolution, in addition to the usual battlefield markers.  Interpretive signage placed by the NPS covers the issue of historical memory and myth pretty extensively, and it’s a story almost as interesting as that of the battle.

The driving tour essentially circles the periphery of the park, and many of the most interesting and important spots aren’t visible from the road.  (Check out the brochure map to see what I mean.)  It’s important to strike out on the foot paths that cross the field if you want to see everything the park has to offer.  If you want, you can leave your car at each tour stop and walk to whatever points of interest are nearby before returning to the driving tour, but I’d advise you to take advantage of the walking guide offered on the park’s website. 

Another alternative is to do the driving tour, return to the visitor center to park your car, and then walk along the New Garden Road path that extends down the length of the field.  This path follows the route of the eighteenth-century road that marked the axis of the British advance.  It’ll be easier to stay oriented to the flow of the action if you follow the general direction of the British attack along this path, strolling over to points of interest on each side as necessary.  Of course, the downside is that you’ll have to walk back to the visitor center when you’re done.  However you decide to tour the park, make sure you don’t miss the foot paths that criss-cross the heart of the battlefield.

Because I’m so fixated on the 1780-81 campaigns, I’m predisposed to love this site.  Even if I weren’t obsessed with the southern war, though, I’d still heartily recommend a visit to Guilford.  The battle itself was of critical importance, the park is beautiful, and the interpretation is exemplary.  This is one historic site you definitely shouldn’t miss.


Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

Pay a visit to Old Salem Museums & Gardens

One of my favorite things to do is visit museums and historic sites, and I might as well make good use of it.  So from now on, when I get back from one of my historical excursions, I’ll be posting an informal (but hopefully informed) analysis of the sites I visit, from the perspective of somebody who’s both an ex-public historian and an enthusiastic visitor.

Last night I got back from a trip to North Carolina, where I visited three fantastic places, two of them for the first time.  I’ll discuss them one at a time over the next few days.  The first stop on my itinerary was Old Salem Museums & Gardens in Winston-Salem.

Old Salem is a sort of Carolina Piedmont version of Colonial Williamsburg.  The site was first settled in the mid-1700’s by members of the Moravian Church.  The church maintained ownership of the land, leasing it to the inhabitants, and also organized the community’s standards to conform with its religious guidelines.  Single men and women, for example, lived in separate dormitory/workhouses; members of the community were divided into “choirs,” groups organized by age and gender.  Eventually the village became part of the town of Winston-Salem, but the Moravian Church is still very much a presence there.

Old Salem Museums & Gardens is actually a museum complex, composed of several different institutions.  Most prominent is the village itself, a street of restored and reconstructed buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Some are private residences, but a few are accessible to visitors and feature living history demonstrations inside.  My favorite was the Single Brothers’ House, where the unmarried men lived and worked; you can watch reenactors engaged in the same crafts here that kept the village and its trade with the surrounding area going.  Another notable stop is the local tavern, originally intended to keep unruly visitors isolated from the residents of the religious community.

Not all the buildings in the village area are run by Old Salem.  Some of the restored and re-built houses are private residences, and a few of them are operated as local restaurants.  Across the square from the restored street is Salem College, originally a Moravian girls’ school.  Next to that is the local Moravian church, a lovely architectural gem built in 1800.  Members of the congregation open the building and take questions from visitors on some afternoons, and it’s well worth taking the time to stop by.

Also nearby is God’s Acre, the Moravian burial ground.  The same division by age and gender that characterized worship also determined burial patterns, so that members of a particular choir would be buried together.  All the grave markers are the same, forming an unbroken pattern across the lawn, and the burials date from the 1700’s to the current day.  It’s an incredibly sobering sight.

I should point out that the buildings in the restored area vary greatly by date.  On some days the interpretive focus is the eighteenth century, on others the nineteenth.  Because Old Salem interprets such a long span of the community’s history, you won’t get the sense of visiting a particular time that you’ll get at a site like Williamsburg, which is more strictly focused on the late colonial and Revolutionary era.  I don’t mean this as a criticism, and in fact, I think that limiting the village’s scope to a particular period would have been doing its long history a tremendous disservice.

Along with the village, Old Salem Museums and Gardens contains the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and the Old Salem Toy Museum, both housed in a modern museum center near the entrance, along with a gift shop.  The toy museum’s collection ranges from ancient times to the twentieth century.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to see it before closing.  I did, however, tour MESDA, and I’m very glad I did.  It was the best collection of the South’s early material culture I’ve ever seen.  I’ll admit that I was a little hesitant about using my limited time for a tour.  When I hear “decorative arts museum,” I usually think of a museum that’s more about objects and materials than interpretation, but these galleries aren’t just for antique aficionados.  The museum covers the Chesapeake, lowcountry, and backcountry from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries.  The pieces are arranged in period rooms, many of which are furnished with original architectural elements from contemporary buildings.

What amazed me about many of these items wasn’t so much their craftsmanship, but the fact that they still exist at all.  Seventeenth-century furniture items from Carolina and the Chesapeake are scarce indeed, but you’ll see several fine examples in MESDA’s galleries.  There’s also an impressive amount of material from the frontiers and the mountains, so the exhibits aren’t limited to the rice and tobacco plantations.

Trained guides conduct all the visitors through the rooms on tours that last about forty-five minutes.  The pieces are arranged naturally, as they would have been in their original settings, instead of behind glass or velvet ropes.  The overall effect is remarkable.  The guides are well-informed and extremely professional.  If you’ve got any interest at all in the history of the South, you owe it to yourself to take a tour.  It’ll give you an insight into the circumtances of life across three centuries that you won’t get anywhere else.

If you want to tour OSM&G, you’ll have the option of purchasing tickets for a limited number of the buildings and museums or one all-purpose ticket that will give you access to the whole shebang.  I’d advise you to set aside the better part of a day and spring for the all-access pass.  Take your time, wander around the village, eat in one of the restaurants, and hit all the museums.  I didn’t come close to seeing everything, but I was there for three hours, and would’ve been happy to stay much longer.  In terms of both the content and the presentation, the interpretation at OSM&G has got to be equal to that of any museum complex or historic site in the country.

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Remembering the Revolution in Maryland

A lively discussion about Maryland’s state stong bounced around the historical blogosphere a few weeks ago.  I think Kevin Levin initiated the discussion, and then Richard G. Williams weighed in here and here

At the time, I only knew a few snippets of “Maryland, My Maryland,” although I was aware that it was originally a Confederate hymn of defiance.  So when I read the new book on Guilford Courthouse that I discussed in my last post, I was surprised to learn that the lyrics refer to the American Revolution.  Check out the third verse:

Thou wilt not cower in the dust,
Thy beaming sword shall never rust,
Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,
Remember Howard’s warlike thrust,-
And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland

As Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard note, “Howard’s warlike thrust” is a reference to John Eager Howard, an accomplished officer in one of Maryland’s Continental regiments.¹  Charles Carroll was, of course, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later U.S. Senator from Maryland.  The song offers a neat illustration of how secessionists invoked the legacy of the Revolution.

Babits and Howard also note another interesting example of commemoration: “Portions of [Howard’s] plantation became downtown Baltimore, where streets are named after his battles at Monmouth, Camden, Eutaw Springs, and Guilford Courthouse.”²  In fact, Howard donated some land for the city’s Washington Monument in what’s now the Mount Vernon neighborhood.  I suppose, then, that his estate (which he called “Belvidere”) was located in this area, so it’s fitting that his statue is there today:

It’s nice to see that Marylanders remembered their Revolutionary War “slumberers with the just,” both in song and in geography.

(Howard statue photo from Wikimedia Commons)

¹Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 203.


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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Making sense of Guilford Courthouse

I’ve mentioned before how thrilled I was to learn about a new book called Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, by Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard.  We’ve long needed a full-scale treatment of this battle, and I can’t think of anyone better suited to co-write it than Babits, whose earlier book on the Battle of Cowpens was a remarkable piece of research.

I eagerly awaited the arrival of my copy of Long, Obstinate, and Bloody, and when it finally came I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.  I absolutely devoured it, and it’s as fine a piece of military history as I expected it to be.  Guilford was a confused and messy affair, but Babits and Howard have done an outstanding job of making sense of it all.  There’s some intensive primary research collected in these pages, and it shows.

The battle’s anniversary is, of course, this weekend.  Check out the schedule of events.  Babits and Howard are speaking at Guilford Courthouse National Park tonight and signing books tomorrow; there’s also a reenactment at the adjacent Country Park and a number of other presentations at both the NP and nearby Tannenbaum Historic Park. 

My plans to attend fell through at the last minute, much to my disappointment.  I’ll have to postpone my pilgrimage until next week, so here’s your homework assignment.  If you’re within driving distance of Greensboro, head on over and then report back.  If not, then order yourself a copy of Long, Obstinate, and Bloody and enjoy.


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, Museums and Historic Sites

Facing historical figures

I think my favorite living historian is David Hackett Fischer.  His books are wide-ranging, exhaustively researched, intelligently argued, and beautifully written.  He’s a tremendous inspiration to me, and his work has provided me with many instructive lessons on the craft of history.

One of those lessons involves how to approach historical figures.  The temptation, of course, is to do so with either blind admiration or fashionable contempt. 

Fischer offers what I think is a sensible approach in his book on the events leading up to Lexington and Concord.  His two main actors are the American patriot Paul Revere and the British officer Thomas Gage.  One of his purposes, he writes, is “to study both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect.”¹

Neither worship nor condemnation, but “sympathy and respect,” a simple appreciation of their basic humanity and a willingness to put oneself in their shoes.  Not bad advice for scholars who find themselves passing judgment on men and women in extraordinary circumstances.

¹ David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), xviii.

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Let me recommend American History Now

I logged on tonight to find a very kind comment from Jim Cullen, a teacher and author who blogs at American History Now.  I wasn’t familiar with his site, but I’m going to follow it eagerly from now on.  It’s got that mix of scholarly insight and distinctive personality that makes historical blogging so interesting.

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