Monthly Archives: July 2010

Reenacting on the set and onscreen Indians

I just stumbled across something that’s pretty interesting.  It’s from an old site, but as they used to say over at NBC, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”

It’s a website devoted to Last of the Mohicans, with an essay by living historian Mark A. Baker on his experiences as an advisor and extra on the set of the movie.  He’s the guy who instructed Daniel Day-Lewis in the fine art of reloading a muzzleloader while running.  I’m always seeing “historical consultants” listed in film credits, and I thought this was a neat little glimpse into what that entails.

The site also has an interview with AIM activist Russell Means, who made his acting debut in LOTM as Chingachgook.  In the interview, he states that there is no record of Indians having tortured or burned anybody, so I’m guessing he’s not particularly well read when it comes to Native American history (e.g., the execution by both torture and burning of Col. William Crawford in 1782, the execution by burning of Samuel Moore and attempted burning of Lydia Bean by the Cherokee in 1776, the Iroquois practice of torturing war captives, etc.).

Means also told the interviewer that the best Indian movie—and you might want to sit down for this one—is Pocahontas.

This flabbergasted me, since I regard Pocahontas as one of the least historically-accurate movies in recent memory.  Here, let’s watch a short clip and then break it down to see if we can find anything that doesn’t ring authentic:

I noticed a couple of issues right off the bat.

  1. The appearance of the characters indicated a very low regard for historical detail.  Pocahontas was depicted as, at the least, an older teenager, and perhaps as a young adult, as opposed to the child she would have been at the time of her initial contact with John Smith.  Furthermore, her clothing did not match contemporary descriptions and illustrations of early seventeenth-century indigeous persons from eastern Virginia.  Smith lacked any facial hair, in marked contrast to the most well-known portrait of him, and his apparel seems far too modern.
  2. A tree talked.
  3. And sang.

But of course these could be minor quibbles. 

Anyway, I really like LOTM.  It’s an evocative depiction of eighteenth-century frontier America, the battle sequences are awesome, and Wes Studi makes for one scary son of a gun.  If you’re a fan of the film or if you’re into the French and Indian War, then check out the site.


Leave a comment

Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

Two Civil War undertakings of note

I just received messages from some folks who are working on two different Civil War-related projects, both of which are worthy of your attention. 

First up is a symposium scheduled for this October at Pamplin Historical Park, an innovative and acclaimed public history institution in Petersburg, VA.  The focus will be the 1860 election and the coming of the war, and they’ve got a fantastic slate of presenters lined up: George Rable, William Freehling, Elizabeth Varon, Gary Ecelbarger, Russell McClintock, Joseph Dawson, and A. Wilson Greene.  Check out the site’s Special Events page for more info and a reservation form, or give them a call at (804)861-2408.

Next comes a fantastic and ambitious undertaking of which I was previously unaware, an effort to utilize technology in conjunction with historic landscapes more fully and creatively than ever before.  It’s called The Civil War Augmented Reality Project.  They’ve set up a blog, which you’ll now find added to my own blogroll and which I recommend other history bloggers add to theirs.  Here’s a YouTube video that will give you an idea of how it’ll work:

Here’s the information they sent along to me, with some additional details:

This message is from a group of history educators in Pennsylvania who have developed a Civil War project that is in the process of raising a modest amount of money to build prototypes for gathering additional partners.
Our project, the Civil War Augmented Reality Project, is intended to enhance the experiences of visitors to Civil War sites. It is also intended to increase attendance and revenue for historic sites by offering both “high” and “low” tech experiences to best reach the majority of the population.
We feel that our project is fulfilling a need that educators, park workers, technology enthusiasts, and Civil War enthusiasts have discussed in the past: How can historic sites both raise public interest in their institutions though technology, and not alienate the non-technical history fans?
We have worked hard on the answer, and are interested in promoting our creative solutions.
We would like to make clear that the project is not intended solely for Pennsylvania. It is our hope that the project will expand to other venues, as we feel that we have the ability to use our ideas to enhance the experiences of all Americans at historic sites.

If you have a chance, please check out our blog:

And our fun, Civil-War flavored funding campaign on Kickstarter:

If you think that our project has merit, we would be delighted if you could help spread the word, and mention it in your blog.

Here are a few other links of interest regarding our project:

A recent newspaper article:

Other recent blog posts:

Our Facebook page:

Our Twitter account page:

Thanks very much for considering us!

The Civil War Augmented Reality Project
Jeff Mummert- Hershey High School and York College of Pennsylvania
Art Titzel- Hershey Middle School
Jay Vasellas- Red Lion Area High School and York College of Pennsylvania

Needless to say, I think this is pretty darn cool.  Integrating technology into a public history setting is no easy task; you’ve got to balance the desire to reach people who are tech-savvy with the need to accommodate those who aren’t.  Furthermore, you’ve got to make sure that the technology in question is actually the most effective medium to convey the information, or it becomes nothing more than an expensive gimmick.  I think these guys are on exactly the right track.  They’ve figured out how to exploit the available technology to enhance the visitor’s experience in a way that would be impossible with any other medium, and to do so in a way that meets the needs of many potential audiences.  Head over to their blog and check it out.


Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

New Rev War books

Here are two new books of note from Westholme Publishing.  First up is a new study of the complex and controversial Battle of Monmouth.  Tip of the hat to J. L. Bell for this one.  (Where does he find all these nifty links?)

Next is Dark and Bloody Ground: The American Revolution Along the Southern Frontier, which sounds right up my alley.  Looks like I’m going to have to clear a priority spot on my reading list.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Check out this Civil War crater

…although it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of.   

This crater isn’t at Petersburg.  It’s tucked away on the side of a mountain at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, at the junction of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky.  I had to hike over and snap a photo of it for a slide presentation last week, and I thought you folks might be interested in seeing it and hearing the back story.  

Most of us associate Cumberland Gap with the frontier era, but the Gap was an important location in the Civil War, too.  It stood at the junction of two Confederate states and a border state, a potential avenue of advance either from Tennessee into Kentucky or vice-versa.  It also offered access to railroads that connected Virginia with the western part of the Confederacy.  

Confederates seized it early in the war to secure East Tennessee and a route northward into Kentucky, where Unionist refugees were assembling in camps, waiting for an opportunity to return through the Gap and drive the Confederates out of their homeland.  One of those Unionists was Samuel P. Carter, member of a prominent early Tennessee family and now commander of a Union brigade.   

In 1862 Carter’s brigade was placed under the command of George W. Morgan as part of the Army of the Ohio’s Seventh Division, and that summer these men marched southward for the long-awaited Union attack on the Gap.  Rather than assaulting the Confederates head-on from the north, Morgan divided his force in two and crossed the mountains at two gaps to the west, approaching Cumberland Gap from the south.  The Confederates evacuated before Morgan arrived, and his troops occupied the Gap on June 18 without the loss of a single man.  

They weren’t there for long.  When the Confederates advanced northward into Kentucky under Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith, Morgan found himself cut off.  With dwindling supplies and a Rebel force hovering outside his position, Morgan mined the mountain and then evacuated the Gap almost exactly three months after taking it, leading his men on a harrowing retreat north to the Ohio River through the only avenue of escape open to him.  (One of the Union officers present described the capture, occupation, and retreat from the Gap in this letter sent to the New York Times.) 

Morgan left a small group of men behind to set fire to the buildings and light fuses to the mines and powder stores.  They did so in the wee hours of the morning of September 18.  When the powder in the commissary near the base of Tri-State Peak went off, it shook the mountain and sent debris hurtling into the air, an event depicted in this wartime engraving of Morgan’s troops marching northward as explosions tear through the night sky behind them:  

From the New York Public Library (Image ID 812927)

The Confederates had to wait a full eighteen hours for the detonations to subside before they could occupy the Union positions.  The Rebels maintained control of the Gap for a year after Morgan’s retreat, until Union troops under Ambrose Burnside re-captured it in September 1863.  It remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war. 

The commissary explosion left a gaping hole in the side of Tri-State Peak.  You can access it via a path that joins the Wilderness Road trail near the “Saddle of the Gap,” the point where the road actually passes through the opening in the mountain.  Here’s what it looks like:  


There’s a wayside marker at the site with a description of the Union evacuation.  Have a look the next time you’re in the park, but wear good walking shoes.  The trail is a little rough and steep in places.

Leave a comment

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

Tennessee’s history from A to A-and-a-half

One of The History Channel‘s few history-related shows is “The States.”  Actually, it’s not solely about history, but each segment does include some historical information, which is more than you can say about “Ice Road Truckers.”

Yesterday I caught the segment on my home state of Tennessee.  I have many pet peeves when it comes to popularized Tennessee history, and this program managed to hit several of them within the span of a few minutes.

For one thing, in her opening commentary, Memphis native Cybill Shepherd mispronounced “Appalachia.”  It’s “App-uh-LATCH-uh,” ladies and gents, not “App-uh-LAY-shuh.”  The indigenous pronunciation of a place is always the correct one, and no native to the region is going to lengthen the third “a” or soften the “ch.”  Doing so invariably reveals the speaker to be a flatlander.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a non-Appalachian—nobody’s perfect—but neither is it something one should be eager to advertise.

On the other hand, Cybill correctly pointed out that Tennessee is “very long.”  I don’t think anybody would argue with her on that one.

More seriously, the show’s view of Tennessee’s history was pretty myopic.  I know that you can’t offer a thorough overview of two centuries in just ten minutes, but the selections seemed a little odd to me.

There was, for instance, a biographical examination of Jack Daniel.  I think we can all admire Daniel’s entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m sure his product is exceptional.  (Being a teetotaler, I haven’t tried it myself.)  Still, for a state that’s produced three presidents and countless military commanders, this is setting the bar a bit low, isn’t it?

One of the on-air commentators stressed—I kid you not—that Jack Daniel was a real person, “not like Betty Crocker or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”  I immediately had this mental image of a Godzilla-sized nineteenth-century distillery operator rampaging through the streets of New York.

The inevitable main topic was the history of music, which I found annoying but completely unsurprising.  People seem incapable of thinking about any other aspect of Tennessee history; Elvis and the Grand Ole Opry are apparently the Alpha and Omega of the Volunteer State’s past.  They loom over it like (to use a ready analogy) the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

The next time a cashier gives you a Tennessee state quarter, take a look at the reverse side.  Illinois has Lincoln, Massachusetts has a Patriot militiaman, Missouri has Lewis and Clark, New Jersey has Washington crossing the Delaware, North Carolina has the Wright brothers.  What does our quarter have?

From Wikimedia Commons

A guitar, a fiddle, and a trumpet.  We’re the pep band of the American union.

The exclusive focus on Nashville during the music segment was also irritating.  If we’ve got to concentrate on country music history to the exclusion of all else, then let’s at least get something straight.  The birthplace of country music was the state’s mountainous east, not Nashville.  Bristol is where the Victor Talking Machine Company’s 1927 recording sessions launched the careers of America’s first country superstars.  Johnny Cash himself called it “the single most important event in the history of country music.”

On the bright side, the Tennessee segment did include Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett.  I couldn’t help but wonder why these guys didn’t make their way onto the state quarter.  You could name any number of other figures or events from Tennessee’s past that left their mark: Sevier, Robertson, King’s Mountain, New Orleans, Forrest, Shiloh, Sgt. York, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.  Tennessee history doesn’t start at the Ryman and end at Graceland.

1 Comment

Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History